An Interview with Frits Bussemaker, Chairman, The Institute for Accountability in the Digital Age (I4ADA)


“Digitalisation and accountability must evolve hand in hand. Lack of or poorly developed prerequisites for accountability will erode democratic principles.”

FST Government: You currently serve as Chair of The Institute for Accountability in the Digital Age (I4ADA), a Netherlands-based NGO which promotes global digital accessibility, transparency, and accountability in the online world. Take us through some of the top-line initiatives of the I4ADA and why its mission has become so critical in today’s increasingly polarised online world.

Bussemaker: In this era of ‘Global Digital Revolution’, digital technologies provide the world with a wealth of positive accomplishments. Societies and individuals can benefit in all manner of ways through access to knowledge, people, and organisations on a local and global level. More than that, digital has become a must-have: for people, society, and the economy. Indeed, digital technology fosters innovation. Online platforms, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, data analytics, robotics and the internet of things (IoT) are further expediting this process by hyper-connecting individuals, organisations, communities, societies and data with tens of billions of objects and entities.

Unfortunately, the Internet, like any innovation, is not immune to evil. Breaches of norms and values are also occurring in the online and cyber worlds, ranging from fraud, identity theft, bullying, and other forms of personal harassment or exploitation through to malign social engineering, phishing, and hacking attacks, which can threaten key networks and even entire nations. A number of prerequisites have to be met to maintain democratic principles i.e. fairness, privacy, security, transparency, safety, wellbeing, and accountability.

Keep in mind, accountability is not the end goal; it is one of the important prerequisites for goals like digital peace, universal access to information, and democracy. The need for accountability is often mentioned, but getting there is not fully explored.

FST Government: What practical initiatives has the I4ADA delivered to support its accountability mission?

Bussemaker: About two years ago, I was asked by the late Dr Indrajit Banerjee, Director of UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division, if I could help with a growing concern amongst member states: digital technology outstripping the legal and regulatory framework, i.e. digital technology is developing so fast, it’s tearing holes in the legal fabric. We need to organise a global and multi-stakeholder discussion to find solutions and realise that The Hague, as one of only two UN cities and the legal capital of the world, would be an ideal location to host this.

We set up the Institute for Accountability in the Digital Age (I4ADA) at the end of 2017. Last May, in the Hague Peace Palace, we organised the inaugural Summit for Accountability and Internet Democracy. More than 270 executive-level delegates from all continents signed up. Organisations represented included the ITU, UNESCO, the World Economic Forum, Broadband Commission, the Council of Europe, the Internet Governance Forum, the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace, ICANN, GSMA, Google, Facebook, the Consumer Technology Association, the European Commission and Dow Jones (WSJ).

The impact of the Summit is the global realisation that we need to develop instruments for Accountability in the Digital Age. Instruments can be traditional, such as new international legislation or international government-led institutes. Additionally, 21st Century instruments should also be developed, like the creation of an ‘accountability index’ or other digital instruments to measure, track, and/or manage accountability variables.

Since the Summit, I4ADA has been invited for interviews and to present and create awareness on ‘Accountability in the Digital Age’ around the globe. We initiated the ‘Digital Peace’ event at the Peace Palace with Brad Smith, Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer. Most importantly, though, a number of global organisations, like the World Economic Forum, the Council of Europe, and UNICRI have indicated their interest in partnering for the next Summit in November this year. This buy-in is essential to get the ball rolling and to start developing the required instruments.

FST Government: You’re one of the principal architects of The Hague Charter for Accountability in the Digital Age. In the face of mounting challenges to net neutrality and the rise of authoritarian governments taking control of online spaces, what practical steps can responsible governments take to support the Hague Charter initiatives?

Bussemaker: In recent years, a number of attempts have been made to establish frameworks and principles of internet governance, including the R.O.A.M. principles for Internet Universality, endorsed by UNESCO’s 195 Member States. These principles call for a human rights-based, open, and accessible internet that is governed by multi-stakeholder participation.

When we developed the Charter in collaboration with UNESCO, we kept thee principles in mind:

Firstly, citizens need to be able to trust that their personal integrity and democratic values and rights are safeguarded and protected through a free, open, and transparent digital domain.

Digitalisation and accountability must evolve hand-in-hand. Lack of or poorly developed prerequisites for accountability will erode democratic principles. The most practical step any organisation can take is to adopt the Charter. It is basically a guideline for the discussion on and development of instruments for Accountability in the Digital Age. And, it nudges the discussion towards a basis of democratic principles.

Furthermore, be open to ‘21st Century instruments’. Don’t get stuck in last century’s solutions. Time does not allow it.

FST Government: You’ve been a fierce advocate for the Community Model as a means to inspire innovation within the public sector and in business. What defines a successful community today and how can these discrete units serve to boost the innovation potential of public sector agencies?

Bussemaker: My own community model is based on getting people together, which have a non-hierarchical relationship where the focus is ‘What do you have in common?’ My approach is to formulate a ‘unique and relevant question’ i.e. can you identify a common goal creating a mutualistic (win-win!) benefit for all involved? This does often require people to reset their definition of success. We are so used to thinking about having ‘Unique Value Propositions’ or ‘being king of your empire’ that it takes some effort to define what you have in common or how individuals can complement each other for success. With enterprises, you can nudge people by appointing Collaborative KPIs. Once people make that switch in thinking, you can hardly go back, and I repeatedly see people intrinsically motivated to collaborate.

I was asked to coach the Dutch Government’s Innovation Community (RIC). The objective of the RIC is to increase innovation as a whole by linking the different innovation practices from different government agencies to share best practices, innovation methodologies, and to initiate collaboration where it would be beneficial. The challenge was to separate the need for innovation from the community, as they often come together. Innovators are not always the best community members. We worked on changing that mindset, setting up a facilitating management team open for input from outside and starting a ‘drumbeat’ of regular events to get people together.

FST Government: Governments across the globe have increasingly positioned themselves at the vanguard of digital innovation. How important is it for government to remain a catalyst for digital innovation rather than merely a conduit for private sector innovators?

Bussemaker: Governments have always played and will continue to play a key role in innovation. With digital innovation, governments and public institutions are much more than just catalysts, for example, the mainframe (ENIAC/US Army Ordnance to compute World War II ballistic firing tables) and the internet (Darpa, US) are public innovations. And, today, public institutes lead research in artificial intelligence and quantum computing. And yes, often the research is in collaboration with the private sector (triple helix model) who thrive for commercial benefits from these innovations; but that’s okay, as that means research is being operationalised (WIPO: between 2010 and 2016 ratio of scientific papers to inventions has decreased from 8:1 to 3:1).

Next to the digital innovations themselves, (local) governments still lead the development of ecosystems where a lot of innovations are born. Just look at the wide range of start-up communities and smart city initiatives sponsored by governments. Governments can benefit from the innovations themselves from the economic traffic it generates.

FST Government: How do you foresee Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies (for example, the internet of things, blockchain, AI, machine learning, robotics etc.) impacting the way governments transact and interact with their citizens? Is it ultimately a force for good or something we need to be wary about?

Bussemaker: First of all, I believe we are just at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Digital Technology is shifting society from a ‘Command-and-Control’ to a ‘Connect-and-Collaborate’ system. Citizens will expect the same interaction with their governments as with enterprises – 24/7, personalised, and with full dialogue.

Most governments are still not used to this and may need to adapt to an agile way of working. This may lead to complete organisational change in the government back offices. I expect the hard boundaries between different parts of the government will blur. Lagging behind could potentially reduce public trust.

Personally, I see it as a positive development. I do believe these technologies will greatly improve our lives. We do have to keep in mind the prerequisites of technology (FAT – Fair Accountable and Transparent) and that any implementation should always allow for a roll-back to the previous system. You do not want to get caught off guard by unexpected negative consequences.

FST Government: How can Australia serve as a beacon for positive change in its digital transformation journey?

Bussemaker: I got married to my Dutch wife in Sydney and have close friends in and from Melbourne, so I am positively biased to Australia as a whole.

The first thing which comes to mind is Melbourne, which co-initiated the discussion for ethical cities, where most cities were still talking about being a ‘smart city’. The latter feels like a technology push and approaching it from the ethical side focuses on the liveability of a city.  No wonder Melbourne was voted ‘best city to live in’ seven years in a row.

So, let this great example be a beacon for change: always focus on the people and keep it local.

FST Government: What do you feel is the greatest digital threat facing governments today, and what steps can be taken to adequately address this threat?

Bussemaker: Lack of knowledge and underestimating the impact of digitisation on society.

Policymakers and governments should educate themselves and understand how IT works. They don’t need to be able to program or define the architecture, but they should understand the impact on the organisation, changes in business processes, the power digital technology has, and the change in norms and values it’s causing. Also, it is crucial to understand the business model of the supply side. Having this knowledge will make governments resilient and will allow them to adapt to – and help drive – the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

A good example is Singapore: once a third world country, it is now a global example of a thriving nation. This due to a large part of the National Computer Board set up in 1981 which automated civil services and invested in computer education and training. According to former Singapore CIO, Choy Peng Wu, “IT skills are just assumed in Singapore”.

Also, be proactive in adopting digital technology. Lead the change and don’t be afraid of using it. See Estonia with their e-Estonia initiative, named ‘the most advanced digital society in the world’ by Wired.

Finally, aim for diversity. Create mixed teams; hire more women! Research shows that diverse teams focus more on the content and that’s what’s key here. IT has for too long been a male-dominated environment.

FST Government: As an IT industry veteran and leader of several digital advocacy groups with global influence, you’ve cultivated your skills as a successful consensus builder. What are your secrets to building consensus and driving governments to implement important legislative changes that benefit citizens in the digital age?

Bussemaker: I initially try to build consensus on a personal level, first, by communicating with people as individuals, as individuals with private lives, then, by seeking a common goal; and, finally, by proactively connecting people to each other when they might have something in common.

Regarding legislation, I would like to refer to the following comment from Admiral Michael Rogers, Director NSA & Commander CYBERCOM: “We are in a position today, in this Digital Age, where technology has outstripped our legal and standards framework”. My take on this is that to allow citizens to benefit from the digital age, the traditional legislative route may not be your best option. We should also be looking at developing ‘21st Century instruments’ that can keep up with digital technology. This is the objective of the Summit for Accountability in the Digital Age – seeking solutions which fit today’s digital world. ⬤


Frits Bussemaker will be a featured keynote speaker at the FST Local Government New Zealand event on 29 August, 2019. Register now to secure your place!