Portals to Where? The Future of e-government

The comparative review of initiatives in this issue of CIO Governments’ Review demonstrates both the growing scope of e-government and its importance. As Internet usage widens, so too does the number of opportunities for delivering services in digital formats, the ways these services are created and packaged and the need for new services and policies.

The profiles from North America, Europe and Japan appear to converge on three critical themes: First, e-government is accelerating as a key priority for governments around the world, and as a key driver for public service reform; second, governments remain at an early stage of online evolution; and third, the future prospects of e-government are tied to a variety of structural and cultural factors that go well beyond getting on the ‘Net.

Prospective benefits

The tremendous expansion of e-government activities around the world suggests that it is in the public interest to be delivering services online. Why is this so? There are three more specific benefit stream, which implicitly guide e-government evolution – and which carry important implications for the usage and future developments of public sector portals.

The first is better client satisfaction and service integration. Aside from simply remaining relevant, an online government is one that can provide better and more efficient access to information and transactions for millions of potential customers of public sector departments and agencies. The Government of Canada has linked its own efforts to move online with an expanded emphasis on service delivery, taking into account the preferences of Canadians.

Yet, the potentially more significant sources of savings and satisfaction improvements lie in the ability to integrate service delivery capacities across government. In other words, e-government is ultimately about a single portal as a gateway into a range of services available across government and reconfigured packages of such services in ways that make the most sense to the client.

Next is broader connectivity across industry and to the citizenry. The second stream of potential benefits resides less within government itself and more across a particular jurisdiction. The rationale is that as a model user of new technologies, governments can encourage both citizens and businesses to move online – improving their prospects in an increasingly digital world.

Rather than informing individuals that by visiting the site they are more likely to succeed in a digital world, the challenge here is to deliver virtual experiences that will give reason for individuals to feel satisfied and provide incentives for them to return. Conversely, the danger is that a faulty link, misinformation or misdirection may fuel cynicism in government’s abilities and discourage online usage.

Finally there’s the process of international branding and benchmarking. Much like companies seek to brand their products and services in a positive light, e-government may well be an important source of branding for a particular jurisdiction. In an era of globalization, how national governments present themselves on the Internet is not only crucial to their domestic face, it also acts as a signal to the world. Such competitive forces will only intensify.

Governance quandaries

The realization of such benefits is not assured. Given the growing sophistication of technology and the challenges associated with its design, implementation and adaptation, many factors can shape e-government’s evolution in either a positive or negative fashion. There are likely to be three main sets of issues that will determine its ability to make the transition successfully:

1. Technical – An important variable in the degree to which people are prepared to engage in transactional activities online – particularly those involving financial payment or confidential information – is security. Governments face, and will continue to face, intense pressure to upgrade their technological infrastructure to both promote broader usage and protect existing users.

Casual hacking and other sophisticated forms of cybercrime drive the latter challenge, and it is probably the case that the margin for error is smaller in the public sphere than it is in private markets. The key challenge of the technical requirements for security is the dynamic nature of technology itself, and the fact that the solutions, as well as the providers of these solutions are likely to constantly change.

More so than any previous forms of electronic systems, governments will need to constantly adapt in order to safeguard itself and enhance performance. An equally daunting, yet less apparent technical aspect to the transition toward e-government, is the fact that even presuming a technically sound infrastructure for online service delivery, the portal is likely to remain only one of a suite of options offered to users of public services.

In the years-ahead most departments will not only be re-organizing themselves online but also managing other channels and mechanisms such as telephone call centres and other more traditional forums of personal interaction.

2. Relational – E-government will be partnership-driven. However, a major challenge for government will be to simultaneously manage partnerships both internally across government(s) and externally across sectors.

Strategically, one of the most critical choices facing government is what portion of the new organizational architecture should remain internal (i.e. the core competencies); what portion can be external (i.e. outsourced); and how can this mix be defined? The need for dialogue between industry and government here is acute – as is the recognition that such dialogue is neither temporary nor peripheral to e-government, but rather is a central feature of an enabled government seeking to learn and adapt.

In responding to this fluidity, a major dimension of e-government is human ingenuity and a workforce capable of not only understanding technology but also the new governance patterns. If external portals are to signal an internally connected and adaptive set of institutions within the traditionally separate silos of public administration, the people working in those institutions must be re-oriented to effectively navigate such an environment.

3. Political – The final sets of issues that will shape the future evolution of e-government are the political dimensions to coordinating strategic planning and leadership across the different branches and institutions of government. Political issues arise in both an organizational and democratic context.

Organizationally, questions of leadership and resources will be paramount. A significant variable is the role of CIO and his or her capacity to orchestrate change across government. A recent poll of U.S. state CIOs revealed that much more than the technical issues associated with moving online, managing the organizational politics across government is the number one priority for these executives.

Democratically, the emergence of e-government may well unveil a minefield of even more explosive issues around leadership and power across different facets of the executive machinery of government and the legislative branch. The challenges facing democratic engagement and a connected citizenry present all stakeholders with fundamental questions about the patterns of democratic decision-making and accountability in the 21st century.

The U.K. government has been one of the most aggressive pursuers of e-democracy through its establishment of two high-profile positions, an elected E-Minister and an appointed E-Envoy. Partly due to the efforts of this office, a significant development in that country’s online apparatus is an integrative U.K. Online Citizen’s Portal, which provides access to all current initiatives in public consultation across government. Perhaps for the first time, the government possesses a complete and public picture of its entire set of public consultation

initiatives is an important step forward.

No turning back

E-government is an umbrella term for a wide range of initiatives – driven by both emerging technology and social ingenuity – that carry the potential to fundamentally alter relationships within government, between governments and across all sectors and the broader public. In fact, there is now growing recognition that e-government is less about electronic government and more about renewing public sector institutions for a new era.

As governments formulate their own integrative strategies for moving online, coordination challenges both within and across governments are likely to grow, as will the potential for healthy competition. The challenge

is defining the requisite mix of competitive and collaborative forces needed to realize the full potential of an exciting new world – one that is both digital and democratic.

(This article is based upon findings of a forthcoming report on e-government in Canada sponsored by PwC Consulting’s Endowment for The Business of Government.)

Barbara Ann Allen is a doctoral research associate and lecturer at the Centre on Governance who specializes in IT procurement and partnership management. She may be reached at allen@admin.uottawa.ca. Jeffrey Roy is director of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa (www.governance.uottawa.ca). He may be contacted at roy@admin.uottawa.ca.