e-government doesn

e-Government is all about interacting with government in a way that people want, any time and anywhere. Right? Well, yes, but there’s an oxymoron of sorts here, because people really don’t want to interact with government any time and anywhere. They don’t want to interact with government at all, if they can help it.

This solution is simple: Let the private sector provide online public services. I don’t know why people are upset by this notion, as if it were selling off the digital Crown Jewels or something. In the offline world, it has long been standard practice to grant concessions to companies to perform all sorts of public works. There is equally no good reason why government should be a monopoly supplier of its online services.

If somebody wants a fishing license, they’re more likely to buy it from a tackle shop or a gas station than they are from a government wildlife office. So why can’t an outdoorsy netizen buy a fishing license from an e-commerce site selling fishing gear or through their favorite commercial portal such as Yahoo or AOL? People pay their utility bills and parking fines over the counter at banks. So why can’t somebody who banks over the Internet pay their bills through their online financial institution?

A commercial web site can reach as many citizens in one day as a government web site can in one month or even one year. And a private company provides added value to government services by packaging them with its own products and services, making them more market-focused and attractive to individual consumers.

Plugged into venture capital, a dot-com could approach government with a specific idea and turn it into a fully fledged business. One can almost picture a computer geek and a garage mechanic getting together, setting up my-vehicle.com as a one-stop online shop for motorists, offering vehicle registration, licence renewal, car insurance, roadside assistance, safety tests, tune-ups and numerous other car-related services which currently involve separate transactions with different private and public sector organizations.

Life would be beautiful.

A lot of technical integration would be required to facilitate all the to and fro. A commercial web site providing a service at the front end must link with a (public or private) service provider in the middle that acts as a distribution channel for a public service. This service provider must in turn link at the back end to the systems of the responsible government agencies. To minimize technical incompatibilities, each player must rely on open technical requirements and standards such as XML for data integration and presentation. And government must publish and provide schemas, definitions and the business rules for delivering a public service.

The 2000 U.S. presidential election (yes, the one with Florida and those punch cards) provides a shining example of how a system of online concessions can work in practice. This election saw a huge increase in the number of people registering to vote, especially young people, because they were able to log on and submit their registrations through the MTV web site Rock the Vote, AOL, MSN and many others. These sites and portals interfaced with technology service providers such as election.com, which linked to the back-end system of the electoral commission responsible for voter registration. The voting public did not have to see or deal with these behind-the-scenes transactions; they simply went to their usual home pages and registered.

On a larger scale, Britain is developing a middleware technology called the Government Gateway to ensure that front ends and back ends work together in a coherent way. This transaction engine acts as an intelligent hub, providing a common access point to enable the government portal, other government web sites and any number of third party sites to link into different parts of government to conduct secure transactions.

The British government is one of the few to talk openly about the need for intermediaries who are not part of government to connect into the government back office. Its e-government strategy proposes that any number of private companies and voluntary organizations be given licences to provide online public services.

Just as a government agency would not give a particular chain of sports stores the sole right to sell fishing licenses offline, the various public and private players within an online government service network shouldn’t strike exclusive deals. There should be terms and conditions guaranteeing a certain quality of service, such as ensuring that the service was up and running 24 hours a day, or compliance with privacy and data protection regulations. But the bottom line is that any service provider and commercial web site that wants to provide a public service should be allowed to do so.

CRM becomes important once an online service network is in place where government, service provider and commercial sites are all working together to deliver high-quality value-added public services. The relationship with the customer must be managed end-to-end. Government tax officials will still want to ask questions of citizens who file their tax declarations through a commercial web site. But because these citizens are not direct customers of the tax office, the government has to be prepared to use the same relationship with the private service provider and commercial web site to send queries to taxpayers. The service providers and commercial web sites must ensure that, for example, when an e-mail is sent it is actually delivered and can be answered.

Once these kind of information flows have been achieved, e-government is no longer an oxymoron. Public services are truly provided in a way that people want to receive them. The people are in charge. They can conduct online government transactions without having to deal with government. Now that’s what I call quite citizen-centric.

John Holmes is an author and CIO Governments’ Review’s European correspondent, residing in Paris, France.