Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s painting Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1337-1339) covers three walls of the Sala dei Nove in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. The depiction of good government shows a dignified ruler sitting among the virtues of Courage, Justice, Magnanimity, Peace, Prudence and Temperance. The image of the city is one of stability, prosperity and happiness.

This marvellous depiction reminds us that citizens have been discussing the importance of good government for as long as there have been governments for them to discuss. In every historical era from our own back to ancient Greece, citizens have clearly perceived that the difference between good and bad government decisively affects their quality of life.

While good government is in some ways a timeless issue, however, it is also being transformed by the digital revolution. Cheap and speedy communication makes it easier for citizens to compare the performance of their government with that of others. All things being equal, if the citizens of country “X” know that the citizens of country “Y” enjoy, for example, better living standards, it exacerbates their dissatisfaction with the government of country “Y”.

Technology can give voice to a plethora of networked groups, and make it easier to participate in decision-making processes. It can allow for a greater transparency of government actions and service delivery – undermining, for example, the ability of corrupt officials to withhold from citizens information about their rights and to demand discretionary payments. It can flatten hierarchical structures, making it easier for citizens to hold governments accountable.

Yet while technology can strengthen good government, the digital era also brings challenges. Keeping pace with changing tools and technologies can be complex and expensive. Security and protection of data becomes a critical risk to be managed. The more essential government services are delivered electronically, the greater the risk that citizens who do not have access to technology, or are not comfortable with it, will be left behind.

The Future of Government Smart Toolkit report, published today, asks how governance could look in 2050. By identifying the trends that will change the future of government, leaders can envision the future that they want for their countries and map out how to get there in a context of uncertainty. For example, governments may decide they need to invest in improving the digital literacy of the population, or in infrastructure such as e-service kiosks in rural locations.

In charting a route towards better government through technology, two themes are paramount. The first is restoring trust in the political process, which is worryingly low. In 1964, three-quarters of Americans said they trusted their government; now, only a quarter feel that way. In the European Union, according to the Eurobarometer, trust has almost halved from 53% in 2001 to 27% in 2012. It is no coincidence that the decline in trust has coincided with widening inequality and a weakening sense of social cohesion.

While open data and e-participation have the potential to reduce alienation, technologically enabled government surveillance and control can increase it. Delayed or ineffective e-government platforms can also undermine citizens’ trust in the competence of their leaders.

The second underlying factor is leadership: the information revolution is redefining structures of power by reducing the traditional sense of distance between those in leadership positions and their constituents. Future disruptive technologies are likely to further change the nature of leadership, and the ways in which this happens will shape the evolution of the social contract between governments and citizenry.

If Lorenzetti were to be given another three walls to cover in 2050, it’s hard to predict exactly what his painting might depict; technology is rapidly evolving, and potentially destabilizing as well as often empowering. Only if leaders develop a long-term strategic vision will they be able to identify the right tools and approach to shape the future of good government in their societies.

See also:

2050: How can we avoid an electronic 1984? By Rod Beckstrom

2050: How can we avoid a gated world? By Joseph Nye

2050: What if cities ruled the world? By Razeen Sally

Author: Joseph S. Nye Jr is University Distinguished Service Professor, Harvard University, USA

Image: Members of Italy’s parliament look at their computers during the second day of the presidential election in the lower house of the parliament in Rome April 19, 2013. REUTERS/Max Rossi