E-government goes global

3 Dec 2002

Over 80pc of citizen-government transactions take place at the local government level and the move towards e-enabling these services around the globe has been the focus of a recent UK report entitled Local E-Government Now: A Worldwide View.

Put together by the Improvement Development Agency and the Society of IT Management, it examines initiatives in 16 countries, including Australia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the UK and the US.

The conclusion was that e-government initiatives can be distilled into three main categories: e-services — securing and providing services by electronic means; e-governance — linking up stakeholders to participate in the governance of communities by electronic means; and e-knowledge — developing the skills and ICT infrastructure to exploit the knowledge for competitive advantage.

The different flavours reflect the different approaches in each country influenced by culture, traditions and constitutional and governmental arrangements. For example, Brazil has experienced significant transformation from military rule to neo-liberal democracy, so a priority is to nurture a sense of citizenship and developing infrastructure that supports participative democracy.

Ireland is cited as having economic and social regeneration as the driving forces behind its Ennis Information Age Town project.

In contrast, countries such as the US are concerned with driving down costs of government with methods gleaned from the private sector, such as business process re-engineering.

The depth of change experienced globally, as a result of implementing local e-government, ranges from the simple automation of existing processes through to more complex joining up of organisations to more innovative interaction with citizens.

When it comes to implementing e-government, there is the centrally driven method where countries such as the UK and Germany are trying to create knowledge societies as a prerequisite for change to local government. Alternatively, initiatives are being driven from the local community level with a focus on changing the capabilities of individuals and communities in countries such as the Netherlands.

What is made clear by the report is that if the local governments do not exploit the opportunities that e-government can offer to transform its services then other organisations will step in and offer alternative service options.

One of the most radical changes initiated by local e-government is the ‘death of distance’ that has fostered the emergence of communities of interest without geographical boundaries and of customers acting as power driving forces in their own right.

According to the report, while there are many success stories of the implementation of e-government at a local level, the initiatives are still subject to the “rhythms and beats of local communities and politicians”. So changes will often come down to spotting and pursuing opportunities as they arise.

Evidence suggests that a particular technological focus was not as important as involvement in the application of information communications technology to deliver services that feed the vision of what is wanted and opens up opportunities for further development.

The report also highlighted Ireland’s Ennis Information Age Town project, concluding that it had developed a vision for the information age community by “establishing an online community that provides a sense of ownership and encourages the community to use the internet dynamically”.

Michael Byrne, who headed up the Ennis Information Age Town project, says that people were motivated to use the services once they perceived a tangible benefit, such as being able to find a product online that was unavailable offline, or better still, cheaper than offline.

Byrne is also keen to point out the lessons learned from the project. “Because of online offerings such as Amazon, which has a very good customer service policy, people have a certain set of expectations when they go online,” he said. “So if, for example, local governments provide an email address there has to be the resources to ensure that emails are responded to in a timely manner.”

Although areas such as healthcare did not benefit as much as they could have, which Byrne felt was due to focus on Y2K projects, the initiative had a profound affect on the landscape of education. As children are typically more technically savvy than adults, the project has forced to teachers to skill up. And the rigid teacher-pupil relationship has changed as teachers found kids knew more than they did. Byrne says that teachers are no longer “the sage on the stage but the guide on the side”.

One of the assumptions in the beginning of the project was that if you built it, they would come. “We underestimated the amount of explanation and implementation of good practice that was required,” commented Byrne. “We knew at a theoretical level what could be done but we needed to look at what influenced adoption of technology.”

At the end of the day, the successful aspects of Ennis were mirrored by projects around the world. They all come down to basic goals being attained because technology has been successfully implemented to provide a valued service to customers.

Pictured: Michael Byrne, former head of Ennis Information Age Town

By Gillian Cope