To: The Government of the People's Republic of China
From: Tianyu Su, Harvard University
Subject: Challenges and risks regarding the adoption of the “ask once” policy
Date: September 12, 2020
Despite huge potential benefits, the "ask once" policy can introduce severe challenges and risks if the government designs and implements it without careful considerations. These challenges and risks mainly come from two aspects: inside the government and between the government and the public.
Inside the government
First, it can be challenging to convey the idea of the "ask once" policy to officials of the governmental departments, especially the departments that are currently less "digital" than others. Introducing the concept of the policy, stating the importance and necessity of the policy, and eventually persuading the departments to agree to support the policy can be a time-consuming and difficult process.
Then, even most departments decide to participate; it is considerably hard to persuade them to agree on the same standards for constructing digital infrastructures and sharing data. As these departments provide various services and have their own databases, they have distinct preferences and interests. Besides, integrating the existing digital systems (e.g., departmental databases, websites, portals) into the "ask once" database is another huge challenge.
Lastly and more fundamentally, the "ask once" policy requires reconsidering the IT department's role inside the governmental structure. The IT department (or other agencies taking similar responsibilities) has the potential capacities to transform the government into a digital platform, but they need the central role. However, putting the IT department in the central position does not guarantee the "ask once" policy's success. Moreover, it can also introduce some other risks. For example, since the IT department controls the foundation of the digital government (i.e., the servers and the databases), it may exceed its power over other departments.
Between the government and the public
The "ask once" policy can also introduce several challenges and risks towards the relationship between the government and the public.
Sharing personal data across different agencies can fundamentally break the social contracts between the government and the public about personal data collection. To be specific, when a civilian provides his/her personal information to a particular department or government agency, such as the tax department, he/she does not assume the data will be shared with other departments. Thus, sharing civilians' data without their permission can violate data collection's purpose restriction and lead to civilians' distrust towards the government.
Compared to successful cases of the "ask once" policy (e.g., Estonia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom), China has a much larger territory. As a result, the geographical difference across China's large territory means a distinct level of technology penetration and digital infrastructure in different regions. The lack of adequate digital infrastructure obstructs the implementation of the policy in the government, while the lack of technology penetration influences the user experience of the civilians.
Despite these challenges and risks, the "ask once" policy is still a good and necessary direction for the government. It is not only an effort to improve the service of the government but also an opportunity to reorganize the government. However, with these challenges and risks in mind, the government needs to implement the policy with complete carefulness. Here follow a few recommendations:
Design the data-sharing system with considerations of existing digital infrastructures and do not build everything from scratch.
Start from a few departments willing to participate and let them act as the "believers" to convince other departments.
Give the public an option to choose from the "ask once" service and current services provided.