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Computing tech offers new paradigm for municipal social governance

QUE TIANSHU and YAN SHANSHAN | 2021-12-30 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Students visit the smart city operational center at Chaoyang District, Beijing, on Sept. 8. Photo: CFP

The popularization and development of the internet have resulted in a data boom for society. The increasingly deep coupling of massive data and machine algorithms announces the arrival of a digital era in universal computing. The convergence of information space and physical space drives the digitalization and value of data, transmuting paradigms of modern social governance. 

Municipal society plays a pivotal role in bridging state and community-level governance, and gradually becomes the main arena for mutual construction of intelligent technology and social governance. Based on the path of “permeation-conduction-generation,” intelligent technology—represented by big data, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing—has promoted the formation of a new paradigm for municipal social governance. 
From the existing practice, computational governance realizes the coordination of the main players in municipal social governance, an interface of governance methods, and the adoption of smart governance processes through data sharing and digital driving. However, it also brings challenges to the design of municipal social governance systems and policy implementation. This requires policymakers to take a problem-oriented approach and comprehensively promote computational governance at the municipal level.
Smart technology 
Nowadays, the increasing demand of social governance promotes the convergence of social sciences and emerging technology. Therefore, intelligent technology, as a new factor of production and governance resource, is gradually incorporated into municipal social governance. As Irish economist William Brian Arthur said, unlike the inevitable diminishing marginal benefit when factors of production such as labor, land, and capital reach a certain level, digital technology and data will not be worn out by repeated use; rather, it will achieve increasing returns through a positive feedback mechanism. 
The emergence and deepening of municipal social computational governance continuously strengthens digital connection between multiple entities, and promotes the city’s evolution towards functioning as a living organism with a faster metabolism, stronger self-development function, and higher stress response and adjustment abilities.
First, in order to improve municipal social governance, it is necessary to give full play to the leading role of party committees at all levels. With the technical support of the “Smart Party Building” and the “Pan-Micro Party Building Management Platform,” the management of party committees has become more systematic and standardized, and party committees at all levels have improved their ability to effectively mobilize and coordinate forces from all sectors of society in the city. 
At the same time, the development of digital technology helps solve the problem of poor communication between government departments and drives integration of governance resources across departments and levels. For example, municipal digital platforms can form a data ledger of urban resources, and superimpose it with intelligent analysis, risk warning, and other functions, so as to facilitate all departments to quickly access data and make decisions. In particular, it’s crucial for information collection and quick targeted rescue of disaster victims in large-scale crises such as floods and earthquakes.
Second, municipal social governance needs to rely on the cooperation of multiple subjects such as party committees, government, social organizations, and residents. Social participation on such a massive scale leverages the role of social forces in autonomous governance, collaborative management, and demonstration. 
Online platforms such as “Palm Community” and “Smart Life” provide multiple channels for the public to access government information, supervise government services, and send feedback at any time and anywhere. Such a two-way communication mechanism is conducive to forming a grid governance model where party committees, social organizations, property companies, and residents all participate in governance, so that a city’s internal system is constantly optimized, and its autonomy and ability to self-regulate are continuously enhanced.
Third, digital public services can reduce administrative costs and improve citizens’ quality of life by increasing their access to government information and services. Intelligent technology has optimized management modes, reformed decision-making processes, reengineered business processes, and improved service supply efficiency, to accurately and effectively match service and demand, and meet the needs of urban residents for a better life.
Governance dilemmas
Intelligent technology empowerment has brought about revolutionary changes in improving municipal social governance and inter-body relations, but technological intervention in governance also causes new risks and governance dilemmas.
First, the institutional tension between computational governance and pressure systems cannot be overlooked. For example, most digital platforms for municipal social governance serve different departments with scattered functions. There are large quantities of redundant apps with overlapping content. Assessment standards are inconsistent and management is fragmented. Various departments’ digital platforms cannot be effectively integrated, which aggravates the fragmentation and independent governance problem. The information island effect and computational governance’s excessive formalism have become increasingly evident.
Second, there is a contradiction between the planation of algorithmic context and the diversity of realistic context. Computational governance based on machine algorithms tends to decompose data and behaviors into simple steps and fragments for mathematical interpretation, to classify scattered social networks and summarize individuals into data sets of specific groups. However, the planation of algorithmic context blurs the inner fabric of society and individuals’ characteristics outside the algorithm, which easily leads to the “stereotype” of social groups and erodes the vitality of the private domain. 
It is also worth noting that computational governance relies on powerful data processing and computing capabilities to analyze human behavior and predict its potential behavior to better meet the needs of all people. However, if this tendency is used to judge and punish potential illegal and criminal behaviors, it is easy to damage social justice and individual rights and interests.
Third, there is an imbalance between the development of intelligent technology and the construction of legal norms. A highly interconnected society, based on information technology, disrupts the original territorial governance arrangement. Integration of online and offline worlds makes individuals interact more frequently across the real world and in the virtual world, resulting in the emergence of network-based social groups that overcome geographical restrictions. These existing laws lack restrictions and supervision in this new organizational form. 
In addition, under the computational governance paradigm, high-level informatization of municipal society aggravates internal privacy disclosures, and imperfect institutional norms such as data protection, liability identification, and punishment, further magnify such governance risks. Apart from the Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China, which has strengthened the protection against infringements on personal biological information, a specialized law covering personal privacy protection in China has yet to be drafted.
Going forward
While emphasizing technology-empowered municipal social governance, we should not only build institutional guarantees conducive to the construction of digital society, but also regulate technology itself, and improve relevant legal norms to provide a comprehensive legal basis for technology-enabled governance.
First, the fact that the pressure system cannot be reshaped in the short term determines that the only way to change urban social governance fragmentation in China is to conduct overall planning and rectify the work layout at the municipal level. For one, it is necessary to establish a holistic governance process with section linkage. Municipal governments can realize the effective integration of functions and departments’ governance resources and gather the resultant force of governance by building comprehensive platforms, optimizing administrative processes, and streamlining redundant departments. 
For another, it is necessary to establish a diversified evaluation system, including superior evaluation, peer evaluation, public evaluation, and expert evaluation. There should be a shift from result-oriented governance to governance which emphasizes both process and results. Also, a shift from a single assessment standard to a diversified assessment standard is needed, in which departments with different functions, work content, and different tasks in different periods, will have different standards for evaluation.
Second, in order to avoid the alienation, quantification, and de-vitalization of human beings caused by technological development, which might destroy the basis of urban self-development, we need to break through the “antithesis” between technology and municipal social governance, and effectively combine technological intelligence with human initiative. Municipal society should intensify the in-depth development of information systems and build a community of intelligent governance with humanistic values and justice at its core. 
For example, we can build a consensus credit mechanism through blockchain smart contracts, so that personal terminals can access universal computing platforms at any time, and users can be rewarded when they participate by contributing computing power. In this way, platforms can also provide data closer to individual choice and promote personalized innovation of the platform. 
With sufficient personalization, the system can accurately map out the specific behavior of individual users, and then access the rationality of individual behavior by combining social consensus, to send reminders or give warnings. Thus, information system development, user satisfaction, and viscosity enhancement constitute a virtuous cycle.
Finally, a law-based and ethics-assisted insurance mechanism should be established. Municipal society should make good use of the flexibility, operability, and targeted advantages of local legislation to improve legal systems and restrict the government and its cooperative private sectors as they develop new technologies and collect users’ personal information. 
To strengthen the binding ability of laws and regulations, the municipal government may authorize the establishment of specialized data or technology supervision institutions to supervise the implementation of relevant laws and regulations, supervise and examine the misuse and abuse of data, and carry out cross-district coordination and cooperation in data security risk governance. 
Meanwhile, municipal society should set basic ethical norms for computational governance, including respect, no excessive data mining, no disclosure of private information, and no discrimination. In particular, there should be data ethics training for government and enterprise staff to strengthen their sense of responsibility.
In an intelligent era, data has become a key production factor and the core resource for the modernization of municipal social governance. Data standardization and visualization by artificial intelligence, blockchain, and other technologies make the “intelligent application” of data possible. How to use the advantages of municipal social computational governance and avoid governance’s technology absorption is an urgent problem to be addressed for many years to come.
Que Tianshu (professor) and Yan Shanshan are from the School of Political Science and Public Administration at East China University of Political Science and Law. 
Edited by YANG XUE