Governing in a crisis situation sometimes requires exceptional resources. Able to speak the language of governments, consulting firms have carved out a privileged place for themselves at the table where decisions are made. But like many other industries, digital threatens to dislodge them.
“The great reflex of public administrations has been to entrust the management of their vaccination campaigns to the private sector. Why do they systematically do business with McKinsey and Accenture, at such a price? It’s because they are not really aware of what the public good is in modern digital societies”, says Hugues Bersini, professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and director of his research laboratory in artificial intelligence (IRIDIA).
Specialist in digital issues in the public sphere, Hugues Bersini has a simple message to communicate: for lack of being able to adapt to digital, governments are beginning to crack. We have seen it in Canada and elsewhere in the world in recent months: elected officials place great trust in what they are told by multinational consulting services to manage pressing issues. In Quebec, there was criticism earlier this fall of the central role and until then remained secret of the firm McKinsey in the management of the pandemic. The same thing happened in France.
The federal government’s online application ArriveCAN also illustrates this situation. According to Globe and Mail,this application would have cost between 29 and 54 million dollars. A handful of independent programmers proved in mid-October that it was possible to create the same app with at most a budget of a few tens of thousands of dollars. In France, a young coder created a website in a few days alone in his room that accelerated the national vaccination campaign.
Hugues Bersini, who was invited as a speaker last week in Montreal during the MTL Connecte digital event, sees in these two cases a promising solution. This is what he calls “social coding”.
Governments pay millions of dollars to private advisers, he says. Often, they could achieve “the same result for a fraction of the amount invested”, if only they dared to trust the digital experts of their communities.
The algorithms are there
The Belgian professor sees digital affecting more than the day-to-day management of public affairs. According to him, the algorithms, basic elements of the digital economy, “already vote in our place. »
The problem with algorithms is not that you have to invent a world in which they can exist. The problem is that the algorithms are already there and will not go away. “We tend not to want to think about the role of algorithms, because it’s complex,” he continues. “But you don’t need to be a programming expert to understand them. »
Taking algorithms into account in the legal and social framework is urgent, continues the European researcher. It is a form of catching up that the authorities must do to be in tune with the population. Many people already use automated tools to manage some of their finances, energy consumption, travel, etc.
In fact, says Hugues Bersini, the algorithms used by digital giants are all pretty much the same as those used by intimate dating apps, like Tinder. It’s all about finding the right one match between the user and what he wants in his couple, in his purchases or in his political choices, he explains.
In any case, no need to know how to program to wonder how Google or Tinder decide which life choices are best for us. The question must be asked: “Freedom, okay, but at what price?” »
If nothing is done, these algorithms could end up replacing the law, warns Hugues Bersini. “We don’t have time to wait. Why did you drink too much water? Why did you use too much energy? To correct our current problems, climate change, road accidents, we will have to move quickly. The current legal model cannot do this. And who decides for us? The GAFA they already do — in public health, mobility, education and culture, they already have control over the algorithms. »
Caught between GAFA and private consulting firms, governments are invited by the researcher to find a third way, one that places greater trust in the digital intelligence of their population. “It is essential to regain control over the algorithms before they take control over us. »
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Better understand the algorithms to get rid of McKinsey
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