eGovernment: an idea comes of age?

Getting governments to make good use of technology can be a real challenge. They are faced with huge obstacles, not the least of which is they typically pay their IT people less than the private sector. Yet there are well meaning people in government who want to see technology used in creative ways.

Recently, Janet Caldow, the director of IBM Corp.’s Institute for Electronic Government (, spoke to a Conference Board meeting in Edmonton, and to key government officials. She painted a rosy future where citizens all have cheap, high-speed Internet access and deal with their governments on-line. She praised a little town called Naestved in Denmark for having “an impressive series of integrated e-community initiatives.” You can get ferry schedules, fill out government forms, even take on-line education from any PC. And Naestved has created special centres to serve the physically impaired, senior citizens and the unemployed. While there was certainly enthusiasm for Caldow’s vision of the future, there was also a healthy dose of skepticism.

Most people, if they’ve thought about eGovernment at all, assume it means delivering existing government services using technology. So maybe you can renew your dog license on-line from your home computer. In fact you can do just that right now right in the City of Calgary. But this tiny example illustrates one of eGovernment’s biggest problems: how do you find that dog licence service in the first place?

Let’s try a little experiment. Most people use search engines, so let’s do a Google search on the terms “dog licence” and “Calgary.” Also please note that spelling counts, “licence” is the way the City of Calgary spells the word. Hooray, the very first link that comes up is an official City of Calgary site:

Sadly, it leads you into the Cyberwasteland of “URL not found on this server.” That’s not good. Now, if you look real hard, you might find the correct link buried in there. But Joe Public is liable to have given up by now and either bought the dog licence in person or decided to take the risk of letting Rover be a scofflaw.

So lesson one of eGovernment is they have to make it very, very easy for consumers to find and use the sites. In fairness, if you do what the City of Calgary would like you to do and go to its spiffy homepage,, you’ll get to the dog licensing page in a few clicks. But, and here’s another experiment, take $50 and go out and give $5 to each of the first 10 people you meet if they can recite that Web address correctly. Even if you stand in front of Calgary’s City Hall I guarantee you’ll still have enough money left for a decent lunch.

Lesson two is that a certain percentage of the populace is never going to visit an eGovernment site, no matter how nice and pretty it is. So, to be any kind of self-respecting government, you’re still going to need telephone and walk-in service. This is where the politicians start to get heartburn. “You mean we have to spend all this money on new technology and still keep all the old stuff going?”

Yes and no. Eventually, if everybody has convenient access to the correct Web sites, most will start renewing dog licenses on-line, just as many of us would rather pay a utility bill from the Web than trudge out in a snowstorm. This is especially true if you give them an incentive, such as the Government of Canada’s tactic of sending your tax refund faster if you file electronically. The banks understand this trend and are pushing out more ATMs and Web banking, with fewer branches and human tellers. But the few banks that have tried to be “Internet only” have had to back peddle. ING Direct, for example, now has ATMs in Canadian Tire stores. When it’s 8:00 at night and you really need that $100 you want your bank to be there for you. So for a long time, governments will be supporting electronic services as well as more traditional ones.

Caldow did have some hopeful news for us. “Don’t think PCs,” she said. “In a couple of years more than half of all transactions will be done on non-PC devices.” She’s thinking of PalmPilots, two-way pagers, Web-enabled phones, and gizmos not yet invented. She says this is already a reality in Japan. She also predicts that bandwidth, the ability to send data over wires, will be going up by a factor of 150 in the next five years. If this happens, you might be able to have a videophone conversation with a government representative from the comfort of your home. And, of course, many of the ideas that are being pioneered in the private sector, like buttons on Web sites that connect you to a person, are also applicable to the public sector.

Calgary is actually in the vanguard of eGovernment, with some very advanced systems already in place. For example, if you want to know how much your neighbour’s house is worth, just type the address into You can also get the time of the next bus that’s coming by your stop at Calgary Transit’s site. And there are lots more in the works.

The Government of Canada has been pushing its site ( in TV commercials as, for example, the place to go to learn how to renew your passport. But if you go to the site’s search engine and type in “renew passport” the first hit that comes up will take you to a site that’s specific to renewing your Canadian passport in Hong Kong. The site you really want ( is best found by hitting the “eServices and Forms” buttons.

The Gartner group estimates that worldwide sales of eGovernment services will reach US$60 billion by the year 2005. Someday, interested citizens will automatically be notified if the government is thinking of changing a law or policy that concerns them. Their ideas will be gathered electronically and used as thoughtful input. Government will be open and transparent, and much more efficient. We will have the technology for eGovernment. The big question is, will our politicians be up to the challenge?

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.