From transition to transformation

The advent of electronic government a decade ago brought with it unfettered rhetoric and anticipation. Born in an era of dot-com valuations and an infatuation with most anything beginning with the prefix “e,” it generated much hope – and much has been delivered.

But despite progress, there remains an equally prevalent sense of underachievement. The revolutionary changes to administration and democracy have not materialized (as yet), and many champions of technology in government and industry alike are convinced that we have only begun to scratch the surface of digital innovation. In short, e-government’s first decade has arguably been much more transitional than transformational.

This article seeks to shed light on both where we have been and where we might be headed. Four dimensions of change are put forth as a framework for better understanding public sector adaptation in this still rather adolescent digital age. The mix of strategy, resources and leadership across these four dimensions as governments pursue them will by and large determine the second decade of e-government.

Service and security

Delivering information and services online represented the natural starting point in forging e-government. While the massive cost savings from less expensive channels proved more elusive and complicated than first thought, the array of government services made available via the Internet continues to grow.

Security underpins this functionality, of course – much as it does in the realm of electronic commerce. The Finnish government is now introducing mobile wireless technologies in order to embed identity authentication in cell phones, creating seamless functionality across private and public service providers alike. In Canada, reliable encryption tools are about to underpin the first ever online census.

Aside from the deployment of new technological channels, this nexus of service and security also revealed the need for organizational change – to adapt to the logic of life events and integrated portals. Unless an integrated portal was to be supported by a singly consolidated government entity for all services and programs (a monstrous vision that nonetheless points to the centralizing tendencies of service integration), new mechanisms would be required to transcend old divisions.

The resulting drive for interoperability and a suitably federated architecture remains a work in progress at all levels of government – notably at the national echelon, where size and complexity matter greatly. Just last month in Lisbon, Bill Gates commented in a keynote address on the correlation between small size, flexibility and adaptability around the world. Tensions remain between the value of bottom-up change and decentralized solutions on the one hand, and the pull of centralization – or at the very least new forms of co-ordinated action – required for enterprise-wide change on the other hand.

Since 2001, security has also become a wider political lens for public safety and anti-terrorism. In terms of deploying new digital technologies, security can mean surveillance as well as service. It may entail extracting and sharing information not only in response to requests by citizens, but also preventively. The trade-offs between privacy, freedom and convenience have therefore become more politicized in a post 9/11 world.

Transparency and trust

These first two challenges shape the way in which governments organize internally to address opportunities and threats in the external environment. Transparency and trust speak to changes rooted less in the internal structures of government and more in the evolving democratic environment within which governments operate. Simply put, the Internet offers new channels of political mobilization and interaction between citizens and their governments.

Yet there remains a clash of cultures between the expectations of an increasingly open and online society and the traditions of secrecy that permeate government. And make no mistake – transparency does not come naturally. The “culture of secrecy’” has been generalized but well documented by John Reid, Canada’s Information Commissioner. Alasdair Roberts, a U.S. scholar specializing in research on access to information, has demonstrated how new technologies are often embraced by governments as a means to thwart rather than encourage the release of information to those requesting it.

Many of these tendencies have only been reinforced by the post 9/11 security fixation, a point acknowledged even by Anne McLellan, the former Deputy Prime Minister who was also responsible for public safety and security. The mantra of online service has been that the public cares only about convenience and outcomes – not process. Is the same true in the realm of security-driven interoperability? Maher Arar has his answer, and the debates south of the border on the President-authorized wiretapping program underline the critical stakes.

The implications for the fourth dimension of change – trust – are complex and multi-faceted. Does better service increase, for example, trust? There is a fair bit of data to support the claims often made that Canadians are not displeased with service received from public authorities. It stands to reason that such performance is a form of trust – in terms of overall reputation, satisfaction and respect. Yet, the problem remains that a wealth of studies point to declining levels of respect for – and confidence in – political leaders and their stewardship of public resources.

No fewer than three recent public inquiries illustrate democracy’s crisis of legitimacy. Toronto’s computer leasing scandal exposed the most basic dangers of corruption and mismanagement when transparency is absent. The inquiry into Mr. Arar’s saga is ongoing, but the results for information management could prove more consequential than the Gomery inquiry that took down a government, neutered the Liberal Party in Quebec and unleashed a new wave of measures for bureaucratic oversight. In sum, all is not well.

Engagement and renewal

Perhaps the greatest threat to the digital adaptation of Canada’s public sector is an excessive degree of centralization, both organizationally and politically. With respect to organization, initiatives such as Service Canada require a new governance regime to effectively facilitate co-ordination in a networked manner. Otherwise, the reflexive response to seek further centralized authority will only minimize concerted progress and maximize friction and resistance.

Similarly, today’s digital politics continue to be shaped more by television than by the Internet, reinforcing conflict and clarity at the expense of deliberation and complexity. Where television is passive, the Internet is interactive. In an increasingly online environment, the notion of trust stems less from deference to credentials and symbols; it is cultivated instead through more direct forms of learning, participation and engagement.

The great challenge for 21st century democracy is to revamp our formal political institutions – moving away from representational and hierarchical structures toward interactive and consultative networks.

South Korea provides a good example of the sort of movement that must be reconciled with political democracy. More than one-quarter of the country’s population now subscribes to Cyworld, an online platform replicating traditional social and economic ties while facilitating new ones. Cyworld is an extreme but by no means unique example of Howard Rheingold’s term “smartmobs,” a dynamic of widening networks of engagement facilitated by digital connectivity and interdependence.

A commonality, then, across the four e-government dimensions is the challenge of unleashing and sustaining collaboration. The way forward entails a collaborative ethos and a more participatory model of co-governing between public servants, elected officials and the citizenry that, in turn, will shape the nature of government’s relationships with other sectors – notably industry.

More collaborative relationships between industry and government are not about nurturing cozy ties in a technocratic organizational environment. Procurement and partnership processes face heightening demands for both relational flexibility and political openness, as companies will be pressed to publicly defend their unique mixing of public and private interests.

While Stephen Harper and his Conservative party spoke little of e-government during the recent federal election campaign, their governing philosophy carries promise in at least two important respects. First, augmenting transparency and openness in the federal government – and making senior public servants more directly and publicly accountable for results – are sensible and necessary reforms. With such responsibility, however, public servants must also be empowered to act both creatively and collaboratively. Otherwise, the prospects for initiatives such as Service Canada and shared services are bleak.

The second important aspect of the Conservative agenda is the notion that strengthening national governance is not synonymous with federal spending and control. If e-government is to usher in both democratic and administrative renewal, it will entail a truly federated strategy of localized experimentation coupled with a much greater willingness to make use of digital technologies as collaborative and discursive platforms enjoining all governments and their stakeholders.

In sum, we must look beyond service and security measures and embrace more holistic and participatory governance reforms in line with the realms of transparency and trust. Such is the truly transformative challenge for e-government’s second decade. 068234

Jeffrey Roy ( is associate professor at the University of Ottawa and a regular contributor to CIO Government Review. This article draws on findings in his newly released book, E-Government in Canada: Transformation for a Digital Age.

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