e-Government is government

A long time ago, I used to give a lot of presentations about something called e-government, and particularly e-government strategy. After doing that for a while, I became increasing convinced that that the language of e-government left a lot to be desired, mainly because it had too many connotation of separateness. e-Government was something done by e-people to produce e-strategies which eventually, if you were lucky, might deliver e-services.  In the meantime, government-without-an-e carried on doing what it does, and the two seemed destined to have little to do with each other.

That’s a caricature, of course, but it’s close enough to home that by the end of 2000, those presentations had a little box which faded in (powerpoint animation was still a cool trick back then) proclaiming that ‘e-government is government’.  By the end of 2001, the box had grown, the text had gone from 24pt to 60pt and it took up an entire slide on its own.

That perception, that e-government is not a helpful concept, that the future is a single and integrated one, was an important one, with important consequences.  It was one of the first routes for bringing the concept of the customer into central government thinking, it was the vehicle for the first serious work on what we would later call customer insight, reflecting the fact that the real power of online services was their relationship with other channels, and the revolutionary consequences of providing choice in access to public services.

With that history – or baggage – I have rather mixed feelings about an invitation to get involved with an effort to crowdsource ‘An Open Declaration on Public Services 2.0’. My hesitation is not so much because I have anything against that, as because it is targeted at an EU Ministerial Declaration on e-Government due to be agreed at an EU ministerial conference on e-government, in Malmo in November.  That strikes me as unfortunate, not just because I have a hang up about the phrase, but because it seems unavoidably to be perpetuating a narrow, technocratic approach which has long outlived its usefulness.

Curiously, the e-government ministers themselves seem to recognise that.  In the last such conference, in Lisbon in 2007, their declaration said:

eGovernment is becoming mainstream as most policies at EU or national level require an ICT solution in their implementation.

Well, yes.  But if egovernment means government stuff for which ICT is important, and if ICT is important for most government stuff, then egovernment doesn’t really mean anything distinctive at all. 

But of course, none of that is the fault of the group now trying to influence the next declaration.  They are trying to do a good thing and are keen to get more people involved with the challenge they have set themselves:

Every two years, EU Ministers gather to agree on a Ministerial Declaration on e-government, which is the main European strategic document. This is usually accompanied by an Industry declaration.

We feel the urge to add an open declaration, collaboratively built and endorsed by EU citizens who share the view that the web is transforming our society and our governments. We feel e-government policies in Europe could learn from the open, meritocratic, transparent and user-driven culture of the web. We also feel that current web citizens should engage more positively with government to help designing a strategy which is genuinely difficult to adopt in the traditional culture of public administration.

So far, so good. The declaration itself is being drafted on something called MixedInk, a profoundly bizarre tool which seems to have been designed with the express purpose of making it impossible to link to anything, which is particularly odd for something which is supposed to be about collaborative creation.  Be that as it may, clicking on the ‘top version’ tab takes you to the current draft.

The core of that draft consists of five principles:

1) Transparency: all public sector organisations should be required to make a commitment to transparency and should provide the public with regularly updated information on all aspects of their operations and decision-making processes. This should include a robust mechanism for citizens to highlight areas where they would like to see further transparency.

2) Government data: All information created by public institutions, must be public and easily accessible by citizenship. all information released by public sector organisations should be released in machine searchable ways to ensure maximum public value is gained from it.

3) Government legislation: all legislation and all planned legislation should be released electronically in web-accessible formats that make it easy for citizens to refer to, comment on and link to particular paragraphs within the proposals.

4) Publically-held data sets: except where there are genuine and insurmountable privacy issues, governments should look to share publically-held data sets wherever possible and there should be a robust mechanism for citizens to request that additional data sets be made available.

5) Citizen Input – all public sector organisations should have well-published feedback mechanisms, so citizens can submit feedback and suggestions and can see (and comment on) the feedback and suggestions of others.

All of those are good ideas, but they look a bit lopsided.  Government is a big and messy concept, embracing many roles, levels and activities.  Keeping the whole thing in your head at the same time is probably beyond anyone.  So there is a natural – perhaps inevitable – human tendency to project onto ‘government’ the bits you think are important, and to play down or ignore the rest.  I claim no exemption from that:  it’s pretty clear to anybody reading this blog over time that my primary interest is in government-as-service-provider.  From that perspective, the most striking thing about this manifesto, is that it pretty much ignores government-as-service-provider altogether.

It is of course entirely possible to argue that the implementation of these five principles would result in second order effects which included governments becoming better service providers (or possibly, stopping being direct service providers at all).  As far as I can see, though, that is not an argument that is being made, perhaps because there has been a redefinition of the problem in midflight.  The initial question was ‘How should governments use the web to improve public services and deliver greater public value for citizens?’  The heading of the current draft, though, is ‘European Manifesto for Open and Transparency Government’.  Those are both good things, but they are not the same.

Coincidentally I have just spotted a pointer from Ellen Miller to an exchange between Tim O’Reilly and a Texas congressman which captures the dichotomy:

[The fault line] boils down to this: Is this new movement, such as it is, fundamentally an aggressive bid to reform a political system that has devolved into a mess of corruption and exclusion? Or is it instead an apolitical course correction aimed at simply making government more efficient? The answer, if there is one, will like shape what the future of government 2.0 looks like, and whether we’ll ever be able to ultimately judge whether it’s been a success.

I am not convinced that that is a choice we have to make, but I am pretty sure that focusing solely on issues of transparency and engagement is not sufficient.

So what’s missing?  Entirely unsystematically and off the top of my head, some possibilities might include:

  • a commitment to excellence in service delivery – using the power of modern technology not just to streamline initial interactions, but to make delivery effective (having the front end of Boo is no good without the back end of Amazon)
  • using the power of technology to support people without access to technology – in some ways that’s another way of saying the same thing, that technology is about far more than just an online interface
  • a recognition of the importance of privacy and identity in relationships with government, as citizen as well as service user (and I really hope I am wrong in reading point 4 of the manifesto as implying that personal data should not be protected unless there are ‘genuine’ and ‘insurmountable’ obstacles to releasing it)
  • a recognition of the role of government in addressing broader issues of social and (particularly in this context) digital exclusion, including where this has no direct relationship with government services or activities
  • the transformational power of technology in areas such as education and health where governments typically play a very substantial role.

There is no such thing as e-government.  But there is such a thing as government and there is much that government can do. 

Comments

  1. Very good. Couldn’t have put it better myself. I will own up to the fact that I never liked the term, but in fairness couldn’t come up with anything more appropriate.
    That term ‘citizen input’ doesn’t do it for me either. We don’t generally input, but we do contribute, or share, or give feedback, or participate.
    My problem with the term egovernment is that it frequently boils things done to widget, platform, computer, system, portal level.
    How about Me-government?

  2. Good post. I’ve always (generally unsuccessfully ;) tried to avoid using the “2.0” term, as I think a lot of this comes down to linguistics at the expense of anything else. Agree totally that “e-government” doesn’t exist, but I’d also apply the same to anything “2.0” – these are both, IMHO, rhetoric to imply that things should be changed drastically – revolutionised, if you like – *and* from a technical perspective, to top it all off.

    But change doesn’t work that way – there needs to be a need and a want for change – in other words, change is an *output*, rather than a driver. What’s driving change in government now is technology that’s been developed for *other* purposes. New forms of communication and, therefore, new forms of politics.

    Trying to shoehorn technology for one purpose into a government that has different purposes is kind of weird, like drinking tea you don’t like, because you like the shape of the kettle. We need to take a step back, and work out what it is we want, before we know what technology we want. It’s not surprising that the 5 principles are all about “engagement” as pushing things outwards *from* government.

    There is a “government”, but there’s also “governance”, which is a very different thing right now.

  3. A great post with which I have much sympathy (likewise the comments above). My defence of the draft declaration I wrote (and I suppose of the initiative more generally) is that the aim is to have an impact on the Commission and on ministers, so we need to focus on something clear and distinctive. It is absolutely true that we need “excellence in service delivery”, but won’t ministers just agree that that is what they are in the process of delivering? What sort of things could one say here that would push in the right direction and help speed up change? If you had the opportunity to make three or four simple points to ministers that really captured what they should do differently to improve government as a service provider what would they be?

  4. This is a nice one, but then, what we need most in our country is transparency in the public sectors organisations. we need people who are commited and people of integrity.people who are ready to take responsibilties for what they do.it is a nice write up but then i want everyone of us to see ourselves as people the world is waiting for to manifest our potentials.As for me, i will bring out the best in my country.Therefore see yourself as the genius of the world.

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