Most countries today have a defined vision of e-government and have established a lead agency, departmental champions and specific targets to improve service and efficiency. All governments are deploying portals to provide a single point of entry, and new public services are put online everyday. Increasingly, citizens can go to the Web to register vehicles, renew drivers’ licenses and passports, apply for planning permission, file tax returns, pay parking tickets and so on.
Except that they don’t. They still choose to stand in line and fill out paper forms. Despite the noblest of efforts, the numbers of citizens and businesses accessing public services over the Internet has, for the most part, been lower than expected.
Low take-up isn’t really a digital divide issue. There are plenty of well connected citizens who won’t go anywhere near a government Web site. Like, most of them. This raises the question about the relevancy and quality of the services provided. Are governments giving citizens what they want? Research by Gartner found that Europeans wanted to be able to make medical appointments online. They weren’t so interested in filing their income tax returns electronically. Yet European government priorities are totally the other way around — they get the taxes online first while e-health care remains a long-term vision.
In the private sector, any successful company will attempt to determine its customers’ preferences before trying to get them to buy their goods and services. Once they’re confident a product is something that a critical mass of consumers might buy, they produce and market the thing. Then they market it some more. And then they keep on marketing it. The number one education Web site in the U.K. isn’t a government site. It’s a commercial portal called Schoolsnet.com that provides interactive lessons, project ideas, study tips on how to study, even school sports reports. The government offers a similar service but Schoolsnet is more popular because it markets itself better. To raise awareness of the site’s vast resources, the company sent out 30,000 coffee mugs, 55,000 posters and 600,000 branded exercise books directly to 5,000 secondary schools.
Governments don’t print t-shirts. They don’t bang drums, beat chests, shout from rooftops. Marketing isn’t their thing. In fact, they’re terrible at it. (Name one memorable government marketing campaign.) But it’s a skill they need to learn, and quickly, if they ever hope to interact electronically with most of the population. Departments need to sell the benefits of e-government — for citizens, not for the government. I offer some slogans: “No More Waiting,” “Always Open,” “Get Your Personalized Service Here.”
Organizations can get around their marketing incompetence by taking advantage of private sector intermediaries — banks and retailers and others who transact with people on a daily basis and whose lives depend on knowing how to market themselves. Almost all Italians file their tax returns through professional tax preparers, banks or the post office. So Rome passed a law obliging these organizations to conduct all transactions with the tax office electronically. That left the banks and tax preparers to carry the bag and market the changes to their clients. They weren’t that happy about it but, hey, presto! Italy has abolished all paper tax forms and 100 per cent of all returns are now filed electronically.
Financial incentives also help. Some governments give cash rebates to those who e-file their taxes. To enter a draw for a moose-hunting license, the New Brunswick government set a fee of $6 if applied electronically compared to $10 if applied in person. But these cases are the exceptions. While agencies know incentives are important to encourage take-up, few identify or introduce any. They’re more likely to charge a “convenience fee” for using online services. If one of the primary goals of e-govern-ment is to reduce the costs of bureaucracy, then government ought to share the benefits of going digital with its customer.
Departments are generally unsure how best to encourage people to use their online services. Direction from the centre, together with some private sector know-how, is needed to provide advice and develop networks to disseminate good marketing practice. Britain’s National Audit Office has recommended setting targets for the take-up of online services to run in parallel with the target of having all services online by 2005. It says the e-Envoy, who reports directly to the prime minister, should advise departments on appropriate take-up strategies. That would be a good start. Something needs to be done. If acceptance of online services remains slow and uncertain, the benefits of e-government will be increasingly difficult to estimate and the payback could be many years away.
Canadian native Douglas Holmes is a Paris-based specialist on IT issues in the public sector. The author of e.gov: e-Business Strategies for Government, he may be reached at email@example.com.