Kalashnikov Theory of e-Government
Back from a visit to the middle-east where I’ve been sharing my unorthodox ‘Kalashnikov theory’ of eGovernment at the invitation of the British Council in a speech in Amman. I’ve never really written it down beyond the looser concept appearing in my PowerPoint deck but as we try to come to grips with the new challenge of Transactional Government, here in the UK, we might remember there’s a wider world out there, struggling with the internet as a new medium for public sector reform.
“Bureaucracy”, said Karl Marx in one of his wittier moments, “Is the ultimate purpose of the state” and eGovernment works best in societies with a relatively thin and efficient public sector. We know this, intuitively at least, from our own experience in the UK and can observe that where government is at its fattest and most Byzantine, e-delivery projects are most likely to fail because being large and being ‘joined-up’ are mutually incompatible concepts in an environment which demands agility, initiative and shared services.
I’m now in danger of oversimplifying a complex argument but let me return to the example of the Middle-east where many people, seeking reform, might like to see the arrival of some degree of eGovernment, even Syria, as their Ambassador tells me but not everyone is entirely sure what it really offers in practice. What people often tell me in the Arab world is that if you are a small and oil-rich state, then eGovernment looks good on your CV, impresses the Americans and that there’s no shortage of willing software companies and consultants willing to plug your population into a new world of online services. There’s no real legacy infrastructure to worry about and rather like a visit to PC World or Toys r Us, a handful of very large technology incumbents are more than happy to sell you something resembling eGovernment in a box, often still not quite as advanced using a Sky satellite remote but improving slowly over time. At this point, if you’re a small nation, then you will appear on the eGovernment ‘readiness’ index and for some, that’s where progress slows, for a number of reasons, frequently related to competitive suspicion and a deep-seated cultural reluctance to share information and authority between politicians and their personal fiefdoms in the shape of government ministries.
This problem becomes more acute in countries with much larger populations, relatively low internet and teledensity and very little hard currency to spend. Led by a handful of innovative and reform-minded thinkers they want to achieve a result they can point at as a sign of progress and a source of national pride. Once again the big software and hardware companies are only too happy to sell the boxes with “Works best with eGovernment” written boldly in English on the side but the arrival of a national technology strategy invariably opens a political can of worms, which reveals among other things, that in societies where the oral tradition is prevalent and personal authority counts, nobody has taken the time to write down and describe the business processes that underpin the people and paper-intensive operations of government departments since the Ottoman empire collapsed in 1918.
So while we are trying to help Iraq towards true democracy with the help of liberal amounts of money and explosive I would argue that we are missing the opportunity to help some of its neighbours who lack the wealth and the infrastructure to use a technology in a way that reaches the lives of the many and not the few. This is where my Kalashnikov theory comes in and it’s very simple. What I’ve been telling government leaders in my own middle-eastern travels is that not every country can look towards Dubai or even Singapore in planning their national technology strategy. Instead, most countries with larger populations should remember the rugged examples of the Kalashnikov rifle and the T34 tank and build their own nascent services in the same way; resistant to sand, and a great deal of harsh treatment and still capable of delivering what it says on the box in what are often the most hostile bureaucratic and technology-limiting conditions imaginable.
My personal message to the companies and countries that really wish to encourage good governance, progress and public-sector reform in developing countries, is that simply selling fibre, boxes and licenses to a large country is little different to doing the same to my small, technology-challenged and struggling local council. If we in Europe are going to promote eGovernment as a tool for progressive change across the Middle East then it has to be in a sound local context and with the financial and technical support that will take modest projects to the point of being able to deliver simple, useful shared, services for the many or to quote Winston Churchill: “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”