The elusive form of e-government

Terminology is crucial insofar as it shapes how we set priorities and select a path. Yet,there is often some confusion with the terminology of e-government: What precisely does it mean? Does it describe an electronic state, or one that is both enabled and empowered for the information age? And what about terms such as digital government, e-democracy and broadband connectivity? The citizen, to say nothing of the cynic, may be forgiven for more than a little


The inaugural issue of CIO Governments’ Review demonstrated (profiling several e-government initiatives from around the world) both the growing and globalizing interest in e-government. The issue also underscored the range of challenges now addressed in its name. As we face turbulent times, reflecting on the spectacular volatility of the so-called dot-com economy, reeling from the horrors of Sept. 11 and adjusting to its new polity, and struggling to redefine the collective ties that underpin our society, the form of e-government appears elusive to many.

And e-government enthusiasts can be a rather diverse bunch. Some promote tangible technologies (such as digital levers of one sort or another) as key drivers of change, while others underline more cognitive shifts apparent in an online world. The first camp focuses primarily on the business of online service delivery and – particularly since Sept. 11 – related issues addressing privacy and security. The latter group often begins from the premise of power shifts, discussing new forms of public participation and citizen engagement, and the resulting need for democratic renewal and alternative models for organizing ourselves and taking decisions.

For most governments, much like companies and often following their lead, the Chief Information Officer is embattled in advancing the more technically oriented e-government agenda. Given the awareness of the broader, more cognitive issues at stake, however, it is not surprising that CIOs are increasingly viewed as less technical and operational – and more strategic – in their orientation. An interesting challenge for governments, however, lies in the fact that it is less obvious and more contentious as to when and how to lead cognitive change.

Such tensions affect terminology. For those defining e-government as primarily electronic, the challenge lies in incrementally adapting public sector processes to a digital world through the deployment of technology: IM/IT systems, portals and PKI are but a few examples. For those seeking a broader transformation of government legitimacy and purpose, the starting point is often not the present but rather the future: e-government is a smarter, more strategic state that is probably unrecognizable to most of us today.

The most encouraging aspect of the evolution of e-government is the growing recognition that such a dichotomy must be viewed through an integrative prism where both sides are not only interlinked, but interdependent as well. Governments that lead will be those prepared to undertake bold and ambitious efforts to move on all fronts simultaneously – to embrace interdependence and holistic change.

To capture this interdependence, it may well be useful to view the more holistic challenges confronting us as less about e-government and more about e-governance.

There are four crucial and equally important aspects of reform that will truly reshape public sector governance. The first is about democracy – the need to revitalize our public spaces by finding a new balance between representation and participation in a more inter-connected world.

The second aspect is procurement – or more appropriately, distinguishing between traditional procurement on the one hand and, on the other, the immensely more complicated and strategic partnerships between governments and industry in upgrading and redesigning the infrastructure required to function effectively in a digital world.

The third aspect is human capital and the need to ensure government’s ability to contin-uously train, retrain and retain a work force capable of navigating our uncharted waters. Demographics also plays an important role here.

Finally, the fourth aspect addresses the interrelated challenges of privacy and security -front and centre in recent months. Technology can be a hugely important asset in re-volutionizing our surveillance capacities and intelligence capabilities. Of course, equally important discussions are required to sensitize such progress with a proper balance of freedom and transparency.

While difficult, these four aspects of reform must be viewed as integrated pieces on a necessary path – as the future of e-governance. Clearly, each area requires some degree of separate attention. Still, there is an acute need for efforts to make sense of how they all fit together and where their integration is likely to take us.

In the months ahead, this column will explore the governance challenges of each of these four dimensions, always with an eye on their interdependence. Any feedback and insight you may care to offer is most welcome – as the only certainty is perhaps not change itself, but rather the necessity and utility of dialogue.

Jeffrey Roy is Director of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. He may be reached at You may visit the Centre at