UW News

August 13, 2018

Information School’s Hans Scholl on promises, cautions of ‘digital government’

UW News

The internet has made government more efficient and public records more accessible — but as digital technology evolves it could also bring challenges to long-held constitutional safeguards, says Hans Jochen Scholl, a professor in the University of Washington Information School.

Hans Jochen Scholl

Hans Jochen Scholl

Scholl has been named to a list of the World’s 100 Most Influential People in Digital Government by Apolitical, a website and global network for public servants. The list, released Aug. 8, aims to highlight what’s working in digital government and suggest paths for future digital policy.

Digital government, Scholl said, is the use of information and technology to support and improve public policies, engage citizens and provide timely and comprehensive government services.

Scholl came to the UW in 2003 and studies disaster information management, electronic government, technology evolution and information management in professional sports. He founded and chairs the digital government track at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, the longest-standing conference on information systems and technology. Scholl also oversees maintenance and publication of the E-Government Reference Library, which now has 10,299 references, mostly in English, to peer-reviewed work in the study of digital governance and digital democracy.

In light of this designation as a top influencer in digital government circles, Scholl answered a few questions for UW News.

What is the future of digital government in the United States?

Scholl said the current phase of digital government employs smart infrastructures such as power grids and traffic control systems that use the Internet of Things. Government is increasingly using artificial intelligence-based systems, he added, to monitor and control smart public infrastructures and even administrative functions.

“With Distributed Ledger Technology we are entering a new era of transaction and record management which will have tremendous impacts on how governments do their business,” Scholl said. This is the underlying technology behind blockchain and bitcoin.

“Distributed Ledger Technology-based records will be irreversible and hence unfalsifiable, and the cost for such transactions will dramatically decrease,” he said. “For example, land and property title registries are premier candidates for using this technology. Contracts with governments will increasingly become smart contracts that automatically execute if certain conditions are met. Much of the law will be put into computer code, so computer code represents the law and enforces it at the same time.”

How can digital government help — or perhaps hinder — democracy?

“Like in its first phase, 1995-2015, the second phase of digital government will also present certain challenges to our system of democracy,” Scholl said. “It will be important to understand how our use of modern information and communication technologies may have the potential to inadvertently offset, at least in part, some constitutional safeguards such as the division of powers and the system of checks and balances.

“If data from virtually any jurisdiction can technically be joined, easily analyzed, and the results put to uses and purposes not anticipated, there might be some legal and constitutional issues which we do not understand yet.”

Scholl said, “If computer code both becomes the law and enforces it, then we might encounter some rigidities, which the law as we know it purposefully doesn’t have.” Computer code, he explained, is rigid, but the law is not. “It is not as precise as computer code. And that is a good thing. We need judges to interpret and apply the law to any given situation. That makes the law flexible, and the judicial system practical.”

He added that we need to consider how we can keep this “interpretive flexibility” while also benefiting from “the exactness and rigidity of computer code representing the law: “Once we better understand these problems, we will be able to take technical and legal measures to maintain the safeguards and the flexibility and interpretability of the law.”

And yet, Scholl said, distributed ledger technology also can increase the transparency of government transactions and enforcement of rules and regulations in unprecedented ways.

“Total transparency and enforced compliance might be the most important contributions of the second phase of digital government to democracy in the 21st century.”


For more information about Scholl and his work, contact him at 206-616-2543 or jscholl@uw.edu.