The fluid business case for Governance online

The previous column in this series highlighted important fiscal quandaries shaping the evolution of e-government in Canada. The shakiness of the business case for e-government lies primarily in two unknowns – costs and benefits – and how each can and should be defined.

Even as governments around the world become more functional online, it is not clear that most citizens are necessarily responsive. Although more and more Canadians are going online, in many countries where governments are relatively efficient and free of corruption – including Canada – doing so may not be a clear and compelling choice. For many seniors or isolated individuals, for example, interaction through public services provides comfort of a sort not found in cyberspace.

The more interesting choices for governments are yet to come; they revolve around the extent to which citizens should be “encouraged” to go online. The benefit stream is two-fold:

1. Realizing the efficiency gains of a larger client base using a less expensive apparatus (presuming one that is technically sound and secure); and

2. The less tangible but real value created from a citizenry that becomes more informed and engaged in a world where using the Internet may eventually become a precondition to realizing one’s full potential.

Here is where the business case becomes much more political. It’s an understatement to say that the rate of return on cost savings from efficiency is murky: Aside from the slow uptake and significant technical investments required upfront, governments for some time will need to manage several service delivery channels. While the banking sector affords glimpses of a model, governments will remain constrained by the realities of a full and diverse citizen base.

But why shouldn’t government insist that you must renew your auto ownership licence over the Internet (except in extenuating circumstances)? Are there not other benefits for the person who, once online, begins to navigate for bigger and better pursuits? Such issues will be increasingly debated, as the social rate of return for an online citizenry becomes an important principle of public sector governance.

In terms of possible hints of what’s ahead, some managers look to health care and the promise of online information and service integration. But the real fertile ground lies in education – and the changing behaviour of young people and how their choices will reshape government and governance.

The oldest and most educated segment of the student population is in post-secondary institutions, where many of them are aggressively phasing out person-to-person registration systems in favour of online transactions. Behind this cadre are the high school and grade school children who constitute the first truly online generations.

For these up-and-coming digital generations, online banking – and online government – will be the norm.

Still, governments face two extremely important challenges that will shape resource allocations and rates of return. The first is the uneven growth of the Internet and the potential for quality of access to be an important barrier to education and development. The issue goes beyond access per se: Simply having public libraries does not ensure that all children read. The challenge is experiential, as online opportunity must be immersed in a broader strategic investment into education and inclusion.

The second challenge lies in the danger that an increasingly online and efficient citizenry may be less tolerant of the deliberation and compromise that is required in public life. There is an obvious clash between the necessity of conversation for collective understanding and the potential of instantaneous opinions and choice.

Governments must do more to engage young people in thinking about democracy and how it is likely to evolve. There may be a requirement for new responsibilities online, to strengthen citizenship through forms of engagement rooted less in efficiency and more in democracy and civics.

Jeffrey Roy ([email protected]) is a Senior Research Fellow of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa and a Visiting Scholar at San Diego State University.

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