Comment: Making ICT more effective

28 Sep 2005

Throughout the past two decades, governments internationally have responded to fundamental changes in the world economy and their respective environments by initiating programmes of public service reform. Experience suggests that while much has been achieved, one of the more formidable challenges is shaping and delivering systemic change programmes that have a whole-of-government impact.

This focus on systemic change becomes all the more critical when one considers the powerful role of modern ICT systems in public service systems. The effective deployment of ICT has long been a hallmark of excellent public service modernisation programmes.

Effectiveness here is concerned with developing a distinct ability to harness the systemic effects of ICT as reflected in ICT’s ability to not only transform public service delivery systems but also the complex organisational systems in which they are embedded. Effectiveness has equally been dependent upon shaping a systemic approach to change where both ICT and organisational change are seamlessly integrated within and across organisations over time.

The focus within e-government today, which emphasises building institutional capacity for change, is nothing more than an appropriate recognition that ICT deployment will be ineffective in the absence of a highly systemic approach to change that integrates its technological and organisational dimensions.

Today, the EU increasingly recognises that there is a need to develop a more holistic approach to public service modernisation. Experience reveals that many modernisation programmes are weak in terms of integrating their diverse strands. There is a growing awareness of the need to integrate e-government into the broader stream of public service modernisation if investments in this area are to deliver effective change for all stakeholders involved. Unfortunately, e-government has often been viewed as a peripheral theme of primary interest to ICT specialists and has failed to command the sustained attention of senior government executives.

The holistic approach favours integrating e-government into the mainstream modernisation agenda and calls for focused commitments in three key areas:
1) a need to foster a commitment to developing, resourcing and promoting an approach to public service modernisation that seamlessly integrates its diverse strands into a systemic programme of reform across the whole of government
2) a need to foster a commitment to developing, resourcing and promoting a comprehensive approach to the effective deployment of ICT across the whole of government
3) a need to foster a commitment to developing, resourcing and promoting an integrated change framework across the whole of government. Such a framework will be of immense value to public service managers intent on pursuing a highly integrated approach to the management of ICT and organisational change. Well developed, it will provide depth and guidance in an area that has been clearly identified as a core weakness in public service reform.

Focused action in the above areas will pave the way for realising the promise of ICT-enabled change, which has been a central feature of the e-government agenda. Failure to take action in these areas will ensure both ICT and e-government activities will remain fragmented and that governments will miss key opportunities to maximise value from investments in ICT.

Evidence of missed opportunities abound. In recent years I have observed the tendency for government ministries to look after their own patch and ignore the bigger picture. Often, enormous energy and financial resources are being poured into creating a bigger picture that no one seems to own. Often resources are invested heavily in the pursuit of change that is based on a technological dream. It can be realised, but the key to it being realised is not more technology. It is a recognition that the effective deployment of ICT is intimately bound up with changing relationships between people and their work, which is all about changing organisations.

Reflecting on current endeavours to reform the UN’s system and in particular the United Nation’s Development Programme’s (UNDP) interest in shaping a programme that advances the e-government agenda throughout central and eastern Europe (CEE) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), it may benefit significantly by taking note of the areas in which focused action is now being pursued with a view to integrating e-government with the more mainstream public service modernisation agenda.

Recognising that governments are increasingly committed to embracing a systemic approach to public service modernisation and the role of ICT therein, the UNDP may be well positioned to ensure CEE and the CIS benefit from holistic advice by framing any new programme with the following in mind:
• strategically position the initiative within CEE and the CIS so as to maximise commitment at the highest level. This involves engaging the offices of presidents and prime ministers along with the heads of different ministries and public administration schools
• address e-government in the broader context of public service modernisation and reform and in so doing advance exciting UN work in the public service modernisation and e-government space (eg World Bank, United Nations Institute for Training and Research)
• engage international civil service institutions (OECD, European Commission) and international aid organisations as they will either have much to offer or are likely to learn significantly from the initiative.

By Dr Joe McDonagh
Senior lecturer in business studies, Trinity College Dublin