January 2008

The Future of e-Government

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Introduction
It is heartening to know that 'eGov' magazine has completed three years of successful publication. In this period I had the opportunity to closely analyse the global developments and trends of e-Government worldwide, and all the various denominations given to this phenomenon, as well as experimenting, in several cases, the application of the concept in reality, through practical researches and concrete projects in the field.

I have done this with the passion of the practitioner on the one side, and the critical perspective of the researcher on the other side. In general, what I have seen on this 'learning journey' around the issues of e-Governance is often a combination of failures and rhetoric; this is why I believe that new approaches are still desperately needed. Another element that is not clear in the picture towards development is the miscasting idea that ICTs are always positive and that in the 'Information Age' it is sufficient to provide access to everybody to instantaneously make development happen. This is false and dangerous, especially for developing countries.

What I want to stress here is that, instead, a new knowledge-oriented approach is required, which cannot be a linear or straightforward task, but which often appears, on the contrary, as a complex process quite demanding of new skills and new forms of local development-focused policies. I am now exploring, together with friends, colleagues and academic institutions, new ways of analysing and implementing knowledge-sharing and transfer mechanisms that may support the emergence of practices and projects producing effective results in developing and emerging countries.

e-Government Development Trends
The integration of ICTs into governmental operations gave rise globally to the e-Government phenomenon which has emerged since the nineties and has been seen by many as the 'silver bullet' that would change the way government operates and transform the relationship with businesses and citizens. It has often been considered as a panacea to public sector reform and automatically linked to improvement (or even creation of) good governance.

Up to now, this assumption is more a wishful thinking than proven and documented reality. So far, in fact, the main effort in e-Government has been dedicated to the digitisation of existing information and procedures, addressing in a hopefully more efficient way a variety of administrative functions and service delivery options. Beside inherent costs and shortcomings often typical of easy win operations, and which have to be evaluated intrinsically, the deficit of cross-functions, seamless operations in which non-State-stakeholders can truly play a proactive role seems to be only superficially reduced. However, many policy makers, practitioners and researchers made a claim that a paradigmatic shift of e-Government solutions, as a driver of transformation of the State, was underway: in this perspective, G2G, G2B and G2C were considered as the components of the magic equation that would eventually lead companies and governments to success, but not without investing enormously in ICTs, and in many cases without even having the possibility of monitoring the return on investment or the socio-economic impact of ICTs and e-Government in the “real world”.

Attempts to bring the citizens closer to the decision-making process are increasing and examples of collaborative platforms and interesting innovative experiences exist in several countries. These type of initiatives are rapidly growing and it is most likely only a beginning. This ongoing process is also likely to benefit from upcoming technological convergences, such as the one concerning seamless interoperability between the wireless domain and the mobile telephony one (the 'next generation' leitmotiv, also known as Mobile Internet)

This wishful thinking approach can be particularly dangerous when it comes to developing countries, where formulas such as e-Government for Development (eG4D), ICT for Development (ICT4D), and more recently Knowledge for Development (K4D), have been applied as if it was a 'plug-and-play' easy solution, exported from the North to the South and too often without considering the need of customisation to the local context and environment, and therefore often resulting in waste of money and limited results.

As a matter of fact, behind the high-tech glamour of most complex ICTs projects and e-Government initiatives lies a dirty reality: the majority of these projects are failures, and the so-called 'leapfrogging' effects to be realised by introducing ICTs, predicted for emerging and developing countries, is not actually taking place. These failures come at a high price for the world's poorer countries, and a key problem among e-Government practitioners and policy-makers is a lack of awareness regarding these costs. Of course, due to the political implications of such failures, there are very little data about rates of success and even more so of actual failure of e-Government projects.

Still, e-Government is often an effective starting point to initiate transformative process, bearing in mind that the result is not automatically achieved by the mere digitisation of existing administration procedures. We have to recognise the value of this ongoing achievement. At the same time, the underpinning assumptions, methods and philosophical biases that have been used to support that type of change (that we call change I or change of the first order) bear some cost and to some extent, prevent an easy move towards more ambitious transformations, such as suggested by the higher stages of the Gartner maturity model in particular and in any case by an effective local development involving grass-root motivations and projects. One of the reasons behind this paradoxical barrier is the success and productivity of the process-minded approach.

Once recognised the high cost and the complexity of e-Government and ICT-related activities in the public sector in general, governments worldwide have realised the need to look for ways to reduce risks and understand the external and internal barriers to e-Government, in order to overcome failures and successfully implement changes. New catchwords and immediate solutions came out, with Business Proces Reengineering (BPR), strategic business and IT alignment, as imperative modus operandi for 'transforming government', giving particular importance to change management techniques and focusing on organisational culture and human resources empowerment.

Invoking a sort of 'return to the future', many scholars started exploring the possibility of e-Governance to realise the paradigmatic shift that e-Government did not realise. But just changing terminology, even when introducing new concepts and multi-disciplinary perspectives, based on solid theoretical frameworks, does not necessarily produce practical solutions.

New 'value drivers' have been given significance, not limiting ICTs and e-Government to reach efficiency gains but focusing more on effectiveness and 'openness', as well as looking at the socio-economic implications of interventions, and the involvement of all stakeholders as a key for success. In this context, and linking to the more recent explosion of Web 2.0 technologies and innovative researches and experiments about the potential of online community of users, several governments around the world, Canada in primis, and Germany in particular leading the EU towards that direction, introduced the concept of Next Generation e-Government, or e-Government 2.0.

However, beyond the rhetoric of e-Gov 2.0, borrowing on the fashion of Web2.0 as if it were a sufficient generic attribute, we can find in the current trend some interesting elements and perspectives. Social networking can both exert its dynamic effect at the local level, supporting the activity of specific communities and projects, as well as more cross-boundary or even global communication and constructions, creating the conditions for a variety of options, with a knowledge tuned in tight relationship with bottom-up social initiatives. It looks like the ideal communication channel for socialising at regional level or at a broader scale when needed, for a variety of specialised socio-economic activities, projects and goals.

Attempts to bring the citizens closer to the decision-making process are increasing and examples of collaborative platforms and interesting innovative experiences exist in several countries. These type of initiatives are rapidly growing and it is most likely only a beginning. This ongoing process is also likely to benefit from upcoming technological convergences, such as the one concerning seamless interoperability between the wireless domain and the mobile telephony one, (the 'next generation' leitmotiv, also known as Mobile Internet). However, many questions still remain open; in particular it is not clear yet what the role of government will be, and how it will it be capable (or not) to take advantage of this potential.

Differently from e-Government, e-Governance can be seen as the expression of a 'dynamic tension' between institutional frameworks and ICTs. The fact is that among these solutions, that have at all costs to be found and managed, there are quite a few ones which have to deal with the ICTs themselves and not only the productivity but also the stakes and controversies they convey

Another trend that is rapidly growing is 'Mobile Government' (or 'm-Government'). This relatively new phenomenon, whose potential is largely unknown and unexplored, is however already considered to be the most important subset of future e-Government services, and identified as one key component of a larger 'm-Society' way of life. Indeed, mobile services and technologies have rapidly, and in some cases astonishingly, evolved. Mobile technologies belong to the emerging trend and tend to accelerate and reinforce this process (more users and more places for more types of applications), involving in addition a strong proximity-based set of options, propitious to local development projects and forms of knowledge, what I like to call “Knowledge 2.0”.

In this context, I should emphasise the need and possibility to support a true 'multicasting' construction of relevant skills, key partnerships and meaningful choices for a suitable and sustainable society. Mobile Internet-based services, in principle, can push this claim even further, for quantity of users, as well as the diverse territorial and sectoral anchoring of their activities. Mobile Internet services, which can pass through portable devices of various kinds, but mostly mobile telephony, are undoubtedly closer to the user, including their relevant environment and reactivity potential on a day-to-day basis, especially in emerging countries. Several experiments have been initiated worldwide to make best use of mobile and wireless technologies towards better service delivery, including eventual co-production of solutions.

This emergent behaviour enabled by the convergence of personal communications and publishing technology with massive private and government data sources could indeed empower individuals in their relations with governments. This provides a potential opportunity for government agencies to explore the ways to enhance the outreach of e-Government services with the use of mobile and wireless technologies. However, despite all its promises, it is wise to keep our minds open and at the same time fully explore this new option but also keep some rhetoric reserve, in particular asking ourselves whether m-Government will be an 'e-Gov 3.0' type of paradigmatic shift or just another fancy catchword likely to quickly fade away? As a matter of fact, this remains to be verified by actual observations and facts.

All these aspects suggest that there is room for a different type of steering that the e-Government promotes; a wide form of governance and knowledge management in connection with ICT development.

Uncovering Issues Around the Governance of ICTs
In an attempt to advocate a 'muddling through approach' or even better an innovative strand rather than an idealistic one, and in this, supported by fieldwork evidence, the analysis of e-Government developments and trends can be summarised by saying that not all e-Government developments matter the same, and that priority should be given to:

  • Those services or interfaces which serve the most intensive clients of the administration (impact-oriented);
  • Those services or groups for which the learning curve can have a spill-over impact on other domains or activities (triggering a collective mastering progression or learning);
  • Those services which innovate, thanks to a niche feature or a new technology, and deliver or facilitate problem-solving of a new kind (pilot activity), conveying some strategic or even cultural potential.

In addition, these recommendations mean that for each technological implementation, for each e-Service delivered, beyond their obvious instrumental level, there is an organisational and institutional dimension, more governance-oriented, to be taken care of, in which ICT-deployment must be defined within the framework of a policy-compliant and inter-stakeholder knowledge management-effective perspective. This is what would suggest an institutional and even paradigmatic slide from e-Government to e-Governance.

Differently from e-Government, e-Governance can be seen as the expression of a 'dynamic tension' between institutional frameworks and ICTs. The fact is that among these solutions, that have at all costs to be found and managed, there are quite a few ones which have to deal with the ICTs themselves and not only the productivity but also the stakes and controversies they convey. At this level, it is important to stress that there is a basic asymmetry between the two side of the coin that define, according to me, e-Governance as governance with and of ICTs: where 'with' means basically 'bureautic', web-based and connective type of technologies and applications or better said mediation-supportive technologies and applications; meanwhile governance 'of' ICTs rather means dealing, in terms of innovation and regulation with all the technologies of the Information Society. While the Governance with ICTs can basically be linked to the e-Government type of applications, Governance of ICTs, can also be considered as a knowledge creation and management practice, and therefore, a learning type of dynamics, involving internal forces of organisations, as well as outside or across the board of socio-economic actors, in a meso-societal type of change process, with a diversified array of necessary knowledge to be triggered and enhanced.

As a matter of fact, this e-Governance scheme fits a larger evolution pattern of ICTs and the Information Society as a whole, and in particular all aspects dealing with the growing user-driven influence on the forms, ethics, business models and technological choices at stake in the development of the Internet and all the applications linked to it, including such dynamics as Web 2.0 and the various types of e-Mobile services. We pass here from change I to change II or change of the second-order (emphasising 'how' more than 'what', with the underpinning learning that goes with it) or even change III (open-ended, hyper-complex) when conditioned by or aligned with the agenda of the Knowledge Society as a whole.

Understanding How to Move Forward Programmes that Align Efficiency and Values
Beyond all easy Information Society rhetoric, one of the main problems we are confronted with nowadays, is that we are not sure that we are indeed, thanks to ICTs, changing our life for the better. Are not we unwillingly, at the same time becoming a society of addicts to (or slaves of) ICTs in the Internet era, or generating new problems (digital divides, environmental impacts, health issues, political paradoxes) at least as great as the problems we are resolving and the productivity increase we are triggering?

This is why the two sides of the coin are equally important (governance with, but also of ICTs), with then not only change I types of operations, but also cultural, institutional and political adjustments of the same strength, investment level and determination. While a minority of the world population is following the last device-fashionable trend, at the same time, the majority of the world's population has no access to the Internet and ICTs and is struggling for surviving.

Knowledge2.0 makes use of the same driving forces as Web2.0, such as social networking, virtual community-anchored knowledge sharing and reputation-based evaluation systems.Altogether, it is important to stress that just as in Web2.0, what matters is not the circulation of information, but the predominantly user-centered construction of specifically relevant and possibly operational knowledge. In this sense, Knowledge2.0 addresses more the kind of issues that will shape the Knowledge Society of tomorrow than being a pure product of the Information Society, as it is recognised today


Perception of social benefit and organisational efficiency is therefore relative, as well as is the urgency of replying to email or buying the last PlayStation for our kids. Ideally, the above mentioned change III level of knowledge should also be able to integrate and cope with that level of issues, in particular not idealising the fact of providing Internet access to more people, but on the contrary emphasising the risks associated with the opportunities of introducing ICTs in different contexts and different ends. The development of e-Government and e-Governance in fact takes place in a very specific environment and contextual pressure which we must understand and learn in order to unfold it at best.

One of the pivotal points for this to happen, is the 'unbundling' of the information/knowledge blurring, both concepts being often understood as being more or less equivalent. In reality, information is not knowledge, neither competence. Information access and sharing, as well as expert data handling, necessitate a lot of knowledge. Information is not the first stage towards knowledge, neither the pre-condition of it. Often it is quite the opposite.

Similarly, the increase of participation in the usage of ICTs is no automatic and linear step towards effective, sustainable or democratic evidence. On the contrary, one has to stress that in order to carry out a collective learning of some significance through ICTs, more horizontal processes, empowerment and trial and error linked with experience sharing must somehow take place, 'upstream' or at least be considered quite early in an ICT-based project, so as to constitute a democratic enhancement chance.

In this context, I introduce here a new concept, Knowledge2.0, a concept based, by analogy on the forces that are shaping today the Web.2.0. It is by no means an exact copy or a part of it, but a converging trend belonging to the same cultural evolution and concerning the specific area of knowledge constructions and interactions, to a great extent user-defined. Finally, although encompassing a specific set of dynamics, Knowledge2.0 is partially supported by Web2.0 processes insofar as ICTs are helping communication, processing and storage of knowledge.

Knowledge2.0 makes use of the same driving forces as Web2.0, such as social networking, virtual community-anchored knowledge sharing and reputation-based evaluation systems. Altogether, it is important to stress that just as in Web2.0, what matters is not the circulation of information, but the predominantly user-centered construction of specifically relevant and possibly operational knowledge. In this sense, Knowledge2.0 addresses more the kind of issues that will shape the Knowledge Society of tomorrow than
being a pure product of the Information Society, as it is recognised today.

Reinventing Local Governments and Societies
In this perspective, the future of e-Government is therefore not so much linked to how we will make the administration more electronic, which seems to be a trend of its own and well underway, but how more sharable and adaptable knowledge options and creative interactions become possible between government agencies and their various representatives on the one hand, and the citizens, users of the administrations of various kinds (individuals, enterprises and civil society organisations) on the other hand, so as to really innovate and solve incoming problems.

Web2.0 types of knowledge processes involved in e-Government as it nowadays develops, to enhance the administrative sphere of activities, are not meant to be a substitute of existing procedures, but on the contrary, enriching and complementary to, sometimes corrective of such procedures. In the case of Citizen to Government communication, however, it can be quite innovative, adding potential to the existing channels and modalities.

In general terms, and although we must still learn to make the best out of it, by expressing and consolidating reputation in a user-centered manner, such as for example through the evaluation and social-network- or community-based opinion-building forms of citizen to government relationships, we are getting increasingly closer to a knowledge2.0 leveraging capability of e-Government developments.

At the same time, one can observe, in a quite similar manner as with Web2.0, that new business models are also emerging, with both disintermediation and re-intermediation trends, corresponding to direct and indirect forms of marketing, both capable of triggering expectations and economically meaningful behaviours.

What is at stake, basically, is the emergence of a new cultural paradigm, more open (a variety of innovation patterns are underpinned by this essential philosophy), reactive and defined to a great extent by the users -intermediate as well as end-users- in a multiplicity of ways.

This whole new field of opportunities is quite complex and generates all sorts of knowledge engineering patterns and options, and to cope with that, we need to create, enable or support the conditions for new forms of intermediaries to emerge, the knowledge broker and the knowledge entrepreneur.

Cross-cutting and systemic stakes will be dominant in the future, therefore exchanges of ideas should contribute to the identification, sharing upon and development of: 1) experiments and learning processes that can further trigger new motivations and innovative collaborations in a variety of local contexts, on issues ranging from the remediation of most acute current societal problems to various forms and levels of economic entrepreneurship; 2) relevant cases typically documenting robust, sustainable problem-solving capacity of local actors, that can be shared and form the source of new learning and skills acquisitions.

e-Government of the future, in this sense, must not be just a logistics arm or legal supervisor for public service delivery or complex but uncertain societal interactions, but also a facilitator of initiatives as well as more routinely yet effective activities taking place in those diverse domains.

Within this context, global and local actors preoccupied by development have an unprecedented opportunity to harness networked communication and knowledge sharing to improve outcomes. I postulate that mobile information and knowledge sharing have the potential to 1) render traditionally closed institutional boundaries and walls more permeable, 2) facilitate greater collaboration on development policies, products, and services, 3) position development practitioners closer to the action where more accurate observations and measurements can be made,4) transform dysfunctional bureaucracies into service-oriented platforms, and, therefore, with some reasonable expectations, dramatically reduce operating and transaction costs for organisations and individuals alike.

Prospective partners must identify zones of mutual interest in terms of project goals and outcomes, and the tangible and intangible benefits the partnership offers each participant. Trust among partners is earned and maintained by delivering on expectations. Third party affirmation of beneficial outcomes achieved will also strengthen trust among partners, and should be a primary component of ongoing monitoring and evaluation.

While in broad terms most elements for success are known by now, their interpretation and application must be re-invented locally. However, it is generally recognised that if a public administration, especially at the local level, does cross the 'digital divide', it opens formidable opportunities that are practically inaccessible by any other means. This is true for all public administrations in the world, regardless of the level of economic development, human capacities, and social and cultural context prevailing in the community or country concerned .

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