Time to end vague views on e-govt

1 Jul 2004

There was a suggestion of EU presidential fatigue at the Fourth E-Government Conference in Dublin Castle last month, not only at the main events, where the auditorium was barely three quarters full, but also in the press room.

Rows of deserted computers, gallons of un-drunk coffee and the booming sound of speeches reverberating around the big empty room told its own story. There were just two journalists in there for most of the first day.

Clearly, the hype and excitement surrounding e-government has long since left town. But what remains in its place?

Towards Innovative Transformation in the Public Sector was the rather self-conscious name of this year’s conference, taking place at the tail end of Ireland’s EU presidency. The notorious ‘e’ prefix was notable for its absence at an event where a selection of ministers and dignitaries from around Europe were all singing from the same hymn sheet. They used their keynote speeches to put the onus on financial accountability, aided by a new approach to benchmarking and measurement.

Some of the more interesting discussions on these topics were taking place in the seminars and breakout groups. According to Davy Janssen of Antwerp University, more than 30 organisations are currently carrying out government benchmarking projects. The annual report from Accenture is probably the best known of what the researcher believes is a bad lot.

“Complexity is just wished away,” said Janssen as he criticised the benchmarking practices for their crude content analysis, ambiguous definitions and a general lack of depth. Measurements are largely based around the amount of online forms that citizens can fill in while less visible process changes are not acknowledged or rewarded.

It was just such a survey that propelled this country to the top of the heap a couple of years ago, prompting the Wall Street Journal to run with the now infamous headline: ‘Ireland leads e-government in Europe’.

“That was the only time our work was acknowledged,” said Frank Mather of the EU Commission with a wry smile. Mather heads the team that has set the parameters for the commission’s benchmarking methodology back in 2002. The objective at that time was simple, as he explained: “We believed getting Europe online was the answer to all our problems. The benchmarking has its limitations but it enables member states to have a clear level of how they are progressing. The aim of the process is to help develop policies.”

He did, however, concede that the methodologies used had come to the end of their usefulness and said that there should have been more measurement of back-office process change. “We have no argument and it’s a major shortcoming,” he admitted.

Janssen reinforced this view: “Overwhelming back-office problems are not touched upon [in the benchmarking]. There has been more of a focus on results than progress.” And he had strong advice for government departments going forward: “Do not focus on benchmarking exclusively, focus on where you want to go. If you know where you want to go you will know what to benchmark. Benchmark yourself rather than depend on a consultant.”

There was further evidence from the conference organisers that they wanted to address benchmarking methodology when Peter Vanvelthoven was given a platform to speak. Belgium’s State Secretary for E-Government was clearly irked by the way things had been done to date.

Belgium’s failure to climb higher than mid-table in any e-government ranking was down to the front-end focus of the measurements, according to Vanvelthoven. “We have been investing time and money updating our databases and the communications between our systems. This is not an easy task. Now it’s time for the harvest,” he said.

The plan includes the rollout of ID cards, with 50,000 already distributed as part of a pilot project. The objective is a national registry comprising a single data entry to service citizen interaction with all aspects of the State. By 2006, the back-end integration will enable such projects to come to fruition and Vanvelthoven expects to see Belgium climbing the ranks of the EU placings.

Another interesting part of the plan was to make the ID strategy self-sufficient with citizens paying between €10 and €15 for a card that would last up to five years. Financial accountability was the other major theme of the conference.

Dr Frank Bannister from Trinity College Dublin spoke about the challenge in creating an economic model for e-government. He started with the useful exercise of defining exactly what it is, making the point that one definition of e-government — the microeconomic effect on agriculture, for example — will have a completely different financial imperative to another, such as the impact to the national economy of Intel’s investment in Ireland.

A third type of e-government is the State’s interaction with citizens. Here was the biggest economic paradox of all. “When you think of the economic impact on citizens, the people who have most [online] access have the least contact with the State,” said Bannister. “How are you going to get economic payback by investing and reaching those people?”

He said that the people with the most contact were the disadvantaged and the poor, the very people who fell on the wrong side of the digital divide and had less access to online services.

The complexity of the challenge, according to Bannister, was not helped by the fact that e-government comprised three basic disciplines — technology, economics and government. Taken as a whole, it demanded a level of expertise that very few people possessed. “A lot of discussion has been wide but not very deep,” he concluded.

By Ian Campbell

Pictured: Dr Frank Bannister of Trinity College Dublin