E-Government for the People

E-government is touted by many as the next great American revolution. Beyond the hype, however, is a growing movement worldwide to experiment with government-by-Internet. More than 220 countries and territories have Web sites with links to more than 15,000 government institutions.

However, the current e-government mantra – focused on digital divides, killer applications and budget savings – misses the more compelling questions: Will e-government transform how government interacts with the populace or serve as a convenience for busy citizens and civil servants? Are we on the threshold of a digital democracy or merely heading toward constant policy-by-polling and 24/7 surveillance by law enforcement agencies?

High-priced technologies generally add unnecessary costs to otherwise poorly managed organizations. In other words, before you can get e-government right, you need to get e-governance right. Poor governance cannot be cured by e-elixirs. Computers and Internet access will not undo corrupt, bloated bureaucracies or ineffective public institutions. Indeed, e-government threatens the political status quo. Political elites and entrenched bureaucrats – particularly in places where government jobs have high profit margins – may resist.

Disturbing scenarios arise when we consider how nondemocratic governments will adopt, or co-opt, information technologies. Such regimes treat control of information as a political bedrock. Access to information is constrained or rationed by those in power. Ultimately, information access is less an issue of too few telephones and computers. Rather, education and a “culture of information” are the foundations for enriching the information-poor and building e-governments.

Consider China. While President Jiang Zemin lauds the power and promise of IT, new regulations on Internet companies prohibit any content that subverts state power or “harms the reputation” of China. Beijing has long blocked direct access to foreign news and politically-oriented Web sites. Its powerful Ministry of State Security closed Web sites for posting what it termed “counter-revolutionary content.” At least 20 Chinese cities and provinces are creating special police units to monitor Internet activity. Chinese leaders are girding themselves for the mother of all battles – the control of information. In some respects, they are not far from the truth.

As the situation in China demonstrates, absent a willingness to use information in a fundamentally different way, e-government may merely reflect the existing tendencies of institutions, or even facilitate more invasive, centralized control. However, in seeking to construct a Great Firewall to defend against foreign incursions, the Chinese may ultimately be building their own Maginot Line, as ineffective against an electronic blitzkrieg as the legendary French fortifications were against fast-moving German soldiers.

Governments of all political persuasions will feel pressure to adapt.

Investors will increasingly factor in the e-government environment – meaning less red tape, more transparent regulations, easier payment of fees – into business decision making. A country’s or city’s future competitiveness will rest on how it positions itself in the race for investment. Governments, especially in smaller countries and localities that are not prepared to reform, will watch businesses migrate elsewhere, or never invest at all. But online services for businesses will not neatly translate into more participatory governance for citizens. Take Peru, home to Latin America’s first online land registry, and its recent election woes. Cutting-edge e-government initiatives did nothing to prevent President Alberto Fujimori’s use of dirty tricks to remain in power.

E-government also offers new avenues for participation in public policy-making.

There are plenty of caveats to implementing e-government. Digital divides exist within societies. Unraveling the complexities of online government requires sustained political commitment and a measure of technoliteracy among leaders. Privacy and security concerns must be addressed. Yet, the operative issue for e-government is the readiness of governments to democratize access to information. Are they ready to replace command-and-control with click-and-connect?

Jeffrey A. Kaplan is an International Affairs Fellow specializing in e-government at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.