Big Data-Driven Public Service in the Twenty-First Century: The Politics of Big Data

  • Max Everest-PhillipsEmail author


This chapter considers the politics of Big Data, as politics is the process of action and ideas to shape, gain, and contend power, and the politics of Big Data is concerned with the power relations over data, its collection, analysis, and use. Hence, the state, citizens, civil society, and businesses all have interests and incentives to control or influence Big Data, as data that can form the basis for framing problems and suggesting solutions is potentially political, for good or ill; since changing the information on which policy choices are framed and resolved, it will affect, and be affected by, politics. Furthermore, by offering unprecedented opportunities and challenges to the ways citizens and governments interact, it will alter the nature of the state and the nature of government. Big Data politics will, therefore, have the potential to reconfigure the power dynamics of elites and shift the social contract between the citizen and the state. In other words, Big Data, in the public sector, will dramatically transform public services into better targeted, needs-based delivery, a process which will increase the accessibility, reach, and effectiveness of public services. Furthermore, by delivering to citizens the precise services that they need, Big Data can significantly improve public trust in political leadership and as a result boost the legitimacy of the state. However, another issue of political contestation will be the extent to which the past (data) can condemn the present and the future. The balance between privacy and the common interest will become more complex. The rights and liberties of the individual will be more constrained, while the limitations, errors, and biases in data gathering and its interpretation will pose new problems. Moreover, Big Data, along with rapid and pervasive technological progress, will have many disruptive effects, on labour markets, the economy, and society, as well as in government. Managing these “disruptions” will require political skill. Conversely, in the private sector, big business ownership of Big Data will strengthen the capacity of major international corporations to view, understand, and potentially manipulate society for private gain. Public concerns in this area will create the biggest fault line in the politics around Big Data. In this regard, the extent to which the state should regulate in the interests of the subjects of the data, the data generators, or the data owners will become a further topic of political contention. In sum, the long view of history suggests that the biggest political challenge will be to ensure Big Data works for all and is perceived as doing so. Overt political oversight will be needed if governments are to demonstrate ethical collection, analysis, and use of Big Data to maintain citizens’ trust and bolster the legitimacy of the state. Political unrest will result, if Big Data appears to be exacerbating discrimination, exclusion, or extreme inequalities. Understanding and engaging with the politics of Big Data will prove to be an essential skill for public officials everywhere, including in seeking to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the United Nations Member States.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.United Nations Development ProgrammeSingaporeSingapore

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