UN rankings offer worrisome results

The United Nations recently published its 2008 Global E-Government Review, an exhaustive comparator of countries and trends from all regions of the world. Relative to the last such undertaking in 2005, Canada’s performance is stagnant, up one place from seventh to eighth. Noteworthy as well is that the U.S. fell from first to fourth, displaced by Sweden, Denmark and Norway, underscoring the widening gap between Europe and North America.

How concerned should we be? Much depends on perspective. If one believes that e-government is primarily about delivering services online, Canada is clearly slipping and the implications are real enough, though perhaps not severe. After all, Canada remained number two in Accenture’s 2007 survey and in terms of the UN, a top 10 placement is not such a bad result. As the Government of Canada’s own Citizen’s First surveys have shown, the citizenry in this country is hardly despondent in their roles as consumers of public services.

Emerging gap

Yet on the other hand, even Accenture’s study pointed to an emerging expectations gap between how the Government of Canada perceives its own performance and the public’s judgement. The governance of Service Canada remains in legal limbo and the internal efforts to forge a next-generation vision of service delivery have largely been met with indifference by political leaders in Ottawa.

Elsewhere, the UN report demonstrates that progress continues unabated. Northern Europe is without question the most digitally advanced group of countries at present: interoperability and open source experimentation, virtual payment systems and electronic health records are all more established realities in Scandinavia than anywhere else.

An equally strong focus on the e-society means a narrowing and almost negligible digital divide, with any lingering effects effectively addressed by a set of robust multi-channel strategies.

Indeed, from a broader interpretation of e-government as a more digitally inclusive and participative polity (co-existing alongside networked industries and communities), the UN findings are a good deal more worrisome. In terms of e-participation rankings, for instance, Canada’s place falls to eleventh from fourth in 2005.

In the realm of e-consultation, New Zealand and the U.S. are the highest ranked countries, largely due to the range of efforts to seek input not only on service quality but on a variety of policy matters as well. Korea, Denmark and France emerge as leaders in e-decision-making, each one providing a formal linkage between public input received online and policy decisions. Still, only 11 per cent of countries worldwide provide this sort of formal commitment to making use of e-participation, a reflection of the largely untapped potential of online engagement.

As is often the case with international reviews, the primary focus of the UN report is on national governments. The growing importance of inter-jurisdictional coordination is nonetheless highlighted as an important aspect of overall public sector performance, one with both service and democratic implications. As Canada struggles with a basic framework for identity management, many other countries are designing federated architectures inclusive of all levels of government.

Europe’s advantage is evident here as Scandinavian countries are not only national leaders but partners within the broader digital governance frameworks of the European Union. In the case of e-health, for example, there is at the very least a basis for continental dialogue – and cross-learning technologically and politically. Vastly different governance systems in Canada and the U.S., by contrast, leave little room for strategic collaboration except for the largely subversive networks pertaining to border security and public safety.

Scarce resources

Another sobering lesson from the UN effort is the continual infrastructure and performance gap between the developed and developing worlds. In many parts of the world, e-government must still compete with roads, reliable water and basic medical supplies. While the potential for digital transformation is real enough, resources and skills are all too scarce.

With e-government indifference at the political level, Canada is hardly well positioned to improve prospects globally. Yet the fact remains that the world must begin to do more to address digital governance less as a competitive advantage for individual (and the wealthiest) nations than as a collective basis for an interdependent world. A more prosperous and progressive world means that government cannot remain the only sector so firmly shackled by national boundaries.

Although readers in this country may be forgiven for believing at times that e-government’s day has come and gone, the UN report demonstrates how it permeates most everything the public sector does. For politicians to get this message, the public must take notice as well.

Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University. Although a contributor to the 2008 UN Global Survey, he played no role in the assessment process. The UN Survey is freely available online at http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un/unpan028607.pdf.

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