Q1. Having spent a fair amount of your extensive career at the United Nations level, firstly in Macau and later in Portugal, could you highlight some of the projects you enjoyed the most during those times and the people you worked with?
I spent 20 years at UNU, 18 at the International Institute for Software Technology (UNU-IIST) in Macao and 2 at UNU-EGOV in Guimarães. We ran many projects in this period, but three of them stand out – e-Macao, ICEGOV, and UNU-EGOV itself. E-Macao was initiated in 2004 and conceived as a collaboration platform for over 40 government agencies and six academic institutions to advance digital government in Macao. The partners jointly carried out research, assessment, training, and prototyping, building digital government and human capacity in government and academia. It started the digital government program in UNU, leading to the long-term program funding, international engagement through ICEGOV and various international projects and, eventually, the establishment of UNU-IIST-EGOV and UNU-EGOV.
So, the origins of the UNU’s digital government program can be traced back to the e-Macao project and the unique environment it created for learning how governments respond to the digital transition and how academia can assist them in this response. The project produced a lot of analysis, insight, and knowledge, some published in the academic outlets, some remaining in government reports, and the rest kept as tacit knowledge by the civil servants who attended our training. The process allowed UNU to develop a unique platform for building human capacity, for connecting research and policy across digital government and sustainable development domains. Over the years, the UNU team comprised 60 members from 21 countries. Two key persons in the original team are Elsa Estevez and Adegboyega Ojo, accomplished researchers and professors in their universities.
Q2. You are currently the Head of the Department of Informatics in Management at the Gdańsk University of Technology, Poland. How do you feel about returning to a professorship position so many years later?
My return to Poland after 25 years – I left in 1991 when Poland had just started the democratic transition – was smooth. The Gdańsk University of Technology is one of the top research universities in Poland – in 2019, only second to the University of Warsaw – and attracts excellent students; it is the most popular university in Poland. The Department of Informatics in Management, the largest at the Faculty of Management and Economics, hosts 24 professors and assistants representing various disciplines and industrial careers. The team is international, and many students come from abroad.
Digital government has emerged as a key research area for the department. I also keep international connections, including a visiting professorship at Danube University Krems, Austria, co-editor-in-chief of Government Information Quarterly, and an expert for the European Commission and other international organizations. One main difference between the UNU and a university career is teaching in the regular study programs.
Q3. During your time at the United Nations University in Macau, you founded the ICEGOV conference, one of the most prominent in the area. Fast-forward 15 years later, how do you look back to the very first edition and the subsequent impact the conference had?
When ICEGOV was established in 2007, three leading digital government conferences – Digital Government Track at Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, International Conference on Digital Government Research, and IFIP Electronic Government conference – were already well-established. Rather than competing with them by facilitating discussions among researchers on the frontiers of digital government in general, ICEGOV was conceived to pursue a different vision. The vision was to bring the voices of public managers, policymakers, researchers, etc., to discuss digital government in different development contexts and how theory can inform context-specific solutions and responses. The vision also entailed the researchers from developing countries taking part in such discussion. Since 2015, this approach has been captured under the Sustainable Development Goals, with digital government serving as “the means of implementation”.
The first edition of ICEGOV, which took place in Macao in 2007, provided the proof of concept for this vision, immediately putting ICEGOV on the global digital government map. The response from established researchers, researchers from developing countries, and digital government practitioners was remarkable, enabling a rich exchange of ideas, creating unlikely connections, and setting a high standard and expectations for subsequent editions. Establishing the impact of the conference beyond the citation impact of the published papers would mean attributing changes in government policies, programs, and decisions to ICEGOV research.
Q4. You also founded UNU-EGOV in Portugal (2014) and the institution has just reached its 8th anniversary. What were the biggest challenges in establishing an Operating Unit of the UNU in Europe after so many years working in Asia?
When UNU decided that the digital government program should leave Macao, the first challenge moving forward was finding a new host for the program. Three concrete options were developed in North America, South America, and Europe, and the Portuguese option was chosen.
The second challenge was defining a new thematic focus to continue the program’s successful development in Portugal and align it with the latest programmatic direction for the United Nations moving beyond the Millennium Development Goals and starting the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. The latter features policy focus, stronger institutions, contextualized response, and means of implementation. Thus, the new thematic focus was for digital government to serve as the SDG’s means of implementation. According to the Digital Government Evolution research (T. Janowski, Digital government evolution: From transformation to contextualization, Government Information Quarterly, 2015), digital government evolves through four stages: Digitization (Technology in Government), Transformation (Electronic Government), Engagement (Electronic Governance) and Contextualization (Policy-Driven Electronic Governance); and it can only serve as the SDG’s means of implementation, i.e., enable fulfilling 87% of the SDG targets, when it is present at the Contextualization stage (T. Janowski, Implementing Sustainable Development Goals with Digital Government – Aspiration-capacity gap, Government Information Quarterly, 2016). Thus, the chosen name of UNU-EGOV – UNU Operating Unit on Policy-Driven Electronic Governance.
The third challenge was establishing the right conditions for UNU-EGOV to fulfil its potential, similar to those enjoyed by UNU-IIST-EGOV in Macao but accounting for different circumstances in Portugal and different stages of development following 11 years of the Macao operation.
Q5. What do you think will be the major trends in Digital Governance in the upcoming years at a global level?
Predicting long-term trends in digital government is a risky endeavor: technology advances through combinatorial innovation, past performance is not indicative of the future performance, government amplifies technological impact across society, and this impact can invite regulatory action, which can be politicized and unpredictable. Nevertheless, I will risk making six predictions.
First, the digitalization of government will advance to the point where digital becomes the norm, and the government will subsume digital government. Second, increasing automation will not eliminate human work but transform it into human-machine collaboration. Third, technology will scale up policy implementation from whole-of-government to whole-of-society. Fourth, hidden and ubiquitous algorithmic influence will make it harder for society to govern itself, calling for regulatory action on algorithmic transparency. Fifth, autocracies will continue pursuing the digital government to legitimize themselves. Sixth, the digital government will facilitate twinning the digital-green, digital-innovative, digital-resilient, and other transitions.
*The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the UNU.