Comment: What happens after access?

27 Apr 2005

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One of the fundamental reasons for putting government services online is to make it easier for people to get access, whether it’s for compliance or for pursuing entitlements. This means governments are using technology to make it easier for people to help themselves by getting at information and initiating transactions without having the hassle of presenting themselves at some hatch or office.

This is a win-win situation for the service agency and the user because they don’t have to meet on a human level. The agency no longer has the burden of cost associated with having people to meet the people and the user doesn’t have to go cap in hand to anyone. In fact, you could say the ultimate aim is to reduce interaction at a human level to zero because dealing with people is costly.

But there are a number of complicating factors, some of which arise directly from the modernisation process of which e-government is a part. Firstly, the thrust of what has been going on over the past decade or so has been to put the citizen at the centre — to focus on meeting people’s needs or expectations. Wisely, some organisations such as the tax authorities have seized the opportunity and have made it a lot easier for people to comply. And they seem to have managed to pull the ‘customer’ stunt on people who really used to consider themselves as victims. Fair play to them. The trick in relation to tax compliance is to make it easy for ‘customers’ to determine what they should do — what their entitlements or exemptions are and how they should calculate their obligations.

When it comes to other services or entitlements, the framework of rules and conditions around these can make them very complex. Complexity based on rules leads to anomalies and exceptions, and this is where the thrust for self-service comes up against obstacles. In the two-dimensional world of the internet, there are limitations on the capacity of technology to cope with complexity in a user-friendly way. Of course you could say that the limitation has a lot to do with the capacity or incapacity of the computer programmer to make the system sufficiently intelligent and of course in the scope for greyness and vagueness that some schemes have built in.

Using the online channel (and I would include SMS-type technologies in this category as well) demands more focus is placed on dealing with these complexities. For instance, in the case of the Motor Tax online facility, we no longer have to produce an insurance certificate — we simply say who the insurer is and so on. Clearly, someone with a clear eye on usability and rationality took the complexity bull by the horns and opted for simplicity and pragmatism. Technology in this case was the catalyst for reasonableness and good sense.

One of the main reasons we have so many points of human interaction across the public service is, I would imagine, because there are so many ways in which people can fall between the decking when it comes to compliance and entitlement processing. E-government is seen by many as a mechanism to reduce the volume of exception handling on a continuous basis with the ultimate goal — or perhaps, dream — to eliminate it entirely.

Most people see this as unattainable simply because of the clumsiness of rules and the disinterconnectedness that exists across and even within agencies, notwithstanding the much-touted dream of joined-up government. But that doesn’t say it should be abandoned as a goal, if only because of the potential of intelligent systems to cope with all the greyness provided it can be properly put together. I have to admit, though, that in this it seems there is a long way yet to go.

Another aspect of this — and one where technology can act as a catalyst for transformation — is in the area of connecting the bureaucratic dots. In this area we would see greater sharing of demand and supply information and continuous honing of policies and schemes to make them more effective. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that technology can play a large role in this process but the main area of attention is, yet again, is on the human and organisational side.

Turf and the wars that revolve around it are enormous obstacles. People who feel threatened will dig in and resist, and no amount of technology (except, perhaps, a cattle prod or something like that) will seriously change that situation. So, progressing e-government to that new plane will require a lot of work on the turf issues before we get real transformation. While a lot of what we’ve seen is great, it is really just at the beginning — and the gloss will wear off eventually.

But one of the positive aspects of this emerging post-hype era is the realisation and general acceptance that technology is not in fact the be all and end all. The days when the technology vendors were accepted as the gurus of change are diminishing as more people see the vested interests for what they are. The challenge now is for people in the business of government and commerce to look at how they can use the very tools at their disposal to really make progress — by innovation and transformation in everything thing they do where it makes sense.

That may well mean people working across boundaries in a joined-up policy way, at least initially. And it may also mean new ways of delivery or — in the world of technology — interaction with the client. Finding out these possibilities requires people with insight into your business, whatever that might be. Relying on computer vendors for those insights can be dangerous. In terms of government and public administration, you should be talking to experts in government and public administration — people who understand what public administration is about and who can see that the MBA concept of return on investment doesn’t fit government. The difference lies in the definition of the term return. And that is a fundamentally different concept in government.

By Syl O’Connor