Evaluating e-government

14 Feb 2006

One of the current trends of e-government is the increasing expectation that governments should move to the more serious terrain of value measurement. This is an emerging situation throughout the world where countries have progressed from websites to putting transactional services online to automating back-office processes.

Although you will notice that the first services online involved the collection of money, such as Revenue On-Line and Motor Tax Online or even paying your local charges using a mobile telephone.
But in the nature of things, life never remains as it is and in the world of technology things have a tendency to keep changing at a rapid and constant pace. One of the consequences of this is that it is very possible to find that you have moved from being top of the form to languishing close to the bottom of your class as others leapfrog you with even newer technology that can leave you with some pretty obsolete machinery. So you have the dilemma that everyone faces when confronted with a decision to buy technology – deciding to make the jump in the knowledge that next week you might be getting something that can quickly end up as a piece of industrial archaeology.

The irritating thing about these kinds of decisions is that there is no shortage of critics who are prepared to jump all over you for having moved too quickly – even if they are using the omniscience that comes with hindsight. What complicates this for people working in government is that they can easily find themselves being used as a stick to beat up their political masters in the cut and thrust of the political milieu that all too often (and, admittedly, understandably) capitalises on what conventional wisdom categorises as disasters as though the perpetrators set out to screw things up deliberately, but forgetting that people have a human right to make mistakes.

E-government “especially in the early years” was in many ways about taking risks and trying out new channels of interaction between public service organisations and the citizens and within public service organisations themselves. We know now as we look back that things were not always as they should be ” mistakes were made and there were many successes. But online government is not about short-term payback or about achieving immediate returns in terms of efficiency. Quite apart for the Schumpter effect” where increases in productivity only arise after a time lag” there are also issues around effectiveness and social value. Measuring the value of investments or benefits under these headings presents difficulties in defining the values that you want to measure.

We know from the example of the OECD that in large-scale projects the investments made in technology represent approximately 25pc of the total investment required. We also know that online government, especially in these early years, is about additional (and sometimes very costly) channels of interaction between the players involved. We know too that you cannot talk about closing down the traditional routes until you have achieved a critical mass of online users and that people are not excluded because they have difficulty with access or accessibility to the modern technologies.

So what is the value of e-government anyway? Well, it seems the definitions of value are as many and varied as the number of people involved in the value chain. For instance, those of us who have experienced online motor tax know that part of the value to us is in the reduction of hassle involved – for some it means saving time or not having to assemble all the paperwork or give all the information that you gave before. Indeed, for some the value may be as simple as a saved marriage! I am sure too that the value for the collection authorities is in the ease with which they can collect the money and the potential to move on to perhaps a more comprehensive service that the technology makes possible.

Part of the difficulty is that in the world of quality service, there are many people who hold the view that all channels of access should be held open to all citizens. Indeed, I know that in Canada, for instance, research shows that people tend to move across the channels that are available rather than stick to one. This raises a question about the emphasis on service as defined by access rather than the prudent use of taxpayers’ money in the provision of suitable and efficient channels ” an unfortunate consequence, as I’ve said before, of the creamier interpretation of quality service. But until a lot more people are using all the online services it is not really possible to start looking at the efficiency value realistically because it costs more to have extra channels.

By Syl O’Connor