The scale of the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the need for policymakers facing similar, and globally entwined, challenges to be able to learn quickly from peers what has worked – or not – elsewhere. Yet little is understood about how lessons are learned and ideas shared in relation to government technology uptake, use and governance.
New research from the Bennett Institute's Digital State Project addresses this gap. It argues for the critical function of small, agile, digitally enabled and focused networks of leaders to foster strong international cooperation on digital governance issues.
This type of cooperative working, described as ‘digital minilateralism’, has a role to play in shaping how individual governments learn, adopt and govern the use of new and emerging technologies, and how they create common or aligned policies. It is also important as cross-border digital infrastructure and services become increasingly common.
The policy paper, co-authored by Dr. Tanya Filer, who leads the Digital State project, and Dr. Antonio Weiss, affiliated researcher, draws on the example of the Digital Nations, a network of 10 'leading digital' countries, to advance understanding of how digital leaders and policymakers can best develop and use minilateral networks, and of the particular affordances that this approach offers.
The work draws on interviews with senior policymakers and other stakeholders currently or previously involved with Digital Nations including from Denmark, Israel, and the Republic of Korea.
“National governments should recognise and reinforce the strategic value of digital minilaterals without stamping out, through over-bureaucratisation, the qualities of trust, open conversation, and ad-hocness in which their value lies,” says Filer.
“These qualities distinguish minilaterals substantially from more formal multilateral institutions. Yet to be fully effective and influential, the DN—and digital ‘minilaterals’ more broadly—must feed into formal multilateral conversations and arrangements. Multilaterals, in turn, should welcome the connection, as it allows them to tap into cutting-edge approaches to emergent digital governance issues.”
This approach brings its benefits and challenges; there is no magic number for the best number of countries forming a 'minilateral', and the skills required by policymakers working on digital governance issues continues to evolve.
In the UK context, the research has implications for the “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, which the Cabinet Office is currently undertaking to reimagine the role of the UK in a post-Brexit world. It suggests that UK Government must consider the strength of accountable, expert-driven, trust-based mini-networks in an age that has often prioritised economies of scale.