February 2007

E-GOVERNMENT DANGEROUS ENTHUSIASMS?

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Dangerous Enthusiasms:E-government, Computer Failure and Information System Development Gauld, Robin and Shaun Goldfinch with Tony Dale 160 pp, $39.95 DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND, OTAGO UNIVERSITY PRESSWWW.OTAGO.AC.NZ/PRESS /BOOKSAUTHORS/ 2006/DANGEROUS_ENTHUSIASMS.HTML

IS e-Government a dangerous enthusiasm? Yes, according to the conclusion reached by Gauld, Goldfi nch and Dale after a number of e-Government case studies in New Zealand and a survey of wider literature. And it is an interesting judgment in case of New Zealand, a country with 4 million population, but well advanced in e-Government. By mid-1990s most New Zealand government departments had established a web presence. New Zealand also has clearly set e-Government goals. For example, by 2007 the ICTs will be integral to the delivery of government services, by 2010 the operation of government will be transformed, and by 2020 people’s engagement with the government will have been transformed. Its site http://www.e.govt.nz/, primarily meant for government servants, is rich in resources. It has one-stop portal, http://www.govt.nz/, for the citizens. The Government ICT spending is estimated at US$3 billion annually.

But nothing of this impresses the three joint authors of this book –Robin Gauld, a senior lecturer in health policy, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago, Shaun Goldfi nch, senior lecturer, Department of Political Studies at the same university and Tony Dale, a senior programmer in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Canterbury. Written for a general audience, the book “takes a critical look at policies, problems and prospects of e-Government in a series of case studies. Why have ICT failures in the public sector occurred and what lessons do they provide for the future?”

The book has 7 chapters, notes, references and index. In Chapter 1, e-Government and information system development, the authors provide a good review of literature and propose a model containing four ‘pathological’ enthusiasms: (1.) Idolisation (public servants ‘idolise’ IT and see it as leading to great benefits), (2.) Technophilia (More and better technology prevents or fi xes problems), (3.) Lomanism (Feigned or genuine belief of IT suppliers and sale staff in their company’s products), and (4.) Managerial faddism (new management or structures bring benefi ts and prevent or fi x problems) (p-19).

In Chapter 2, What is ‘e-Government’, authors defi ne e-Government, describe e-Government expectations (managerial, government coordination and transformation, and participation) and developmental phases of e-Government (online information, two-way interaction, vertical integration, and horizontal integration) and discuss e-Government developments in Australia, Britain, United States and New Zealand.

In Chapter 3, ICT in New Zealand’s health sector: A story of lost opportunity, the authors say that “the story is one of lost opportunity, political negligence, shifting ideas about health policy and the shape of the health system, and the development of the Byzantine ICT topography.” (p-45). “. ” …progress was variable despite a succession of high-level information management strategies, and problems that were identified at the start of the decade remained unresolved at its end (ibid., p-48). A new strategy
was successively applied in 1991, 1996 and 1999 with the patient information system occupying the centre stage of the problem. Two key lessons emerge from the New Zealand experience. First, central governance is required if interoperability, including architecture and standards, is desired. Secondly, collaboration, and not competition, is required in the health sector.

Enthusiasm is necessary in e-Government, as indeed in any walk of life,if we wish to achieve anything worthwhile. All that is required is caution

In Chapter 4, a major health care information system project failure reports failure of Health Waikato (US$17 million) and Capital Coast Health (US$26 million) projects, both of which were abandoned. It shows the realities of implementation of ICT projects including inability to fi x responsibility for failure. Similarly, in Chapter 5, the INCIS fi asco in the New Zealand police force shows how US$100 million Integrated National Crime Investigation System (INCIS) project, out of US$800 million Police budget and 10 years of work, was abandoned starving Police for funds. In Chapter 6, Landoline: Qualifi ed success or partial failure, shows mixed results.

In concluding Chapter 7, lessons from computer development in the New Zealand public sector, the authors dispel the belief that “project failure could be avoided largely setting in place the right monitoring regime, the right contract design, and using the required risk analysis mechanisms.” (p-121). Similarly, they fi nd accountability at political/bureaucratic level largely intractable. The authors draw the single most important lesson that large projects almost always fail (p-133) (emphasis original). Despite this conclusion, the authors are aware that large scale, ambitious IT projects will continue to be launched. They therefore advise that pessimism should be the guiding principle (p-135), pessimism being the expectation of failure.

However, e-Government is not a dangerous enthusiasm, as the alarming title of the book makes it out to be. Enthusiasm is necessary in e-Government, as indeed in any walk of life, if we wish to achieve anything worthwhile. All that is required is caution, which should not be thrown away in planning and implementing e-Government projects. Problems are solved only when they are posed and faced and not when they are brushed aside under the carpet, which is often the political/bureaucratic norm in IT project administration. Gauld, Goldfi nch and Dale deserve to be complimented for writing this valuable book whose strength lies in presentation of well-documented case studies of New Zealand public sector though at times the reader feels that the case of project failure is often overstated. This book should not be missed by any one interested in e-Government. Otago University Press too has done a good job in attractively producing it.

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