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Every couple of years the United Nation’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) surveys e-government: who’s doing what, with what public services, at national and at local levels. Its findings are published with analysis and a deeper look at one or two important issues.  

This year’s report has a special focus on inclusion. What does it say? How is e-government progressing after COVID? What should we be looking out to understand and measure?

My comments in this blog draw on those I made in a UN Policy Dialogue following the launch last week. What others had to say is also worth the listen.

What’s new, what’s not

The last two years, finds the report, have seen continued progress in e-government – more governments offering more digital services and digital resources – but that progress has been slower than it might have been.

COVID-19 has demonstrated ways in which government (like commerce) has been maintained during a crisis that could have jeopardised a deal of what it does. E-government, like e-commerce, has enabled more resilience. But it’s also demonstrated three things.

First, resilience has depended for effectiveness on human agency. E-government is not about making government digital but making it hybrid: ‘the primary objective is not digital development but… supporting human development through digitalization.’

Second, improvements in e-government have been unequal. Richer countries, with better-resourced governments, have been able to do more than others. Wealthier citizens have been able to take more advantage of whatever they have done. The lines are blurred between traditional and e-government today, but proactive measures are required if e-government’s to be inclusive.

And third, public policy’s important. E-government can make things better – more efficient, more effective, more inclusive – if the policy framework for it works in that direction. Without that, it can even make things worse. Ensuring public trust in what is offered and delivered’s critical.

Inclusive government

There’s a chapter in the report on inclusion – social, economic, digital and governmental – which adds important emphasis. "Leaving no-one behind" is, after all, a cornerstone of the Sustainable Development Goals that(e-)government is meant to serve.  

That chapter recognises that digital development and digital inequality are now integral to social and economic inclusion and exclusion. Making things digital doesn’t make them more accessible, if people don’t have connectivity, can’t afford it (or handsets or data) or don’t have the capabilities required to use it.

So digital inequality can exacerbate existing inequalities. As I pointed out in a recent blog, social, economic and digital inequalities interconnect, and are impacted by cultural and political realities within their contexts. ‘Digital solutions’ can’t fix the underlying causes of these inequalities. Technology can be supportive, but the underlying causes need to be addressed directly.

The report recognises that the first priority for successful interventions through e-government is to identify where there are problems – whether they’re in public services or digital technology. Thereafter it recognises three sets of needs for public policy:

  • to balance equity, economy and efficiency in determining what can and should be done;

  • to address access, affordability and ability in enabling everyone within society to use the services that go online;

  • and to build those services around reliable data about need and populations, inclusive design and methods of delivery that are accessible to all.

And so…

As usual, the E-Government Survey makes a valuable contribution to understanding what is going on. I will address four underlying issues.

What ought e-government to do?

First, what’s e-government about? Different governments have different contexts, different resources, different populations, different problems, different priorities… and different values. Authoritarian governments are going to see e-government’s potential differently from those with democratic norms.

A question one might ask, therefore, in any context is whether an e-government initiative is aimed at making life easier for governments or citizens. (It can be both.) Whether it puts more agency/control in the hands of governments or citizens.

Making things digital, in any case, does not necessarily make them better. It does not make bad government turn good, though it may help. It can make things more efficient when well-implemented, but many people round the world know that it can make them less efficient if the implementing’s poor.  

Likewise discriminatory government can become more, not less, discriminatory when it's made digital. Governments that violate the rights of citizens can use e-government to violate them more effectively.

Policy frameworks

These outcomes aren’t determined by technology but by the political, social and economic frameworks that surround them. Improving government via e-government – making it, in DESA’s words, resilient, agile, cognitive – requires the right policy framework for the national context.  

It depends, as DESA notes, on good data, inclusive design and thoughtful, inclusive implementation, including consideration of risks as well as opportunities, the engagement of users in planning services, monitoring of outcomes, the willingness to adapt adopted strategies if they turn out to be less effective than was hoped.

What works in one place won’t necessarily work well in others, so copying ‘best practice’ from another country may well prove far from best in practice. Big consultancies are often keen to offer systems that they’ve implemented elsewhere, and to include unnecessary, costly bells and whistles when commissioned to deploy services in less wealthy countries. Buyers should beware.

Incorporating risk

Opportunities are rarely realised if risks are unconsidered. Anticipating and avoiding risks, by contrast, can greatly enhance success. There’ll be different risks in different contexts, but three seem to be widespread.

One's the risk that digitalisation may deepen exclusion. It can be relatively easy to configure services so that they’re accessible to the large majority of populations, including most who’re disadvantaged. Experience in many countries shows, however, that the most marginalised are hardest to reach – not just with public services, but also with the digital technology on which e-government depends. More on this in a moment.

A second is the risk that e-government fails to gain – or even loses – trust of users. Digitalising services requires extensive data-gathering, combining different data sets in ways that can give data controllers greater power over citizens, and sometimes sharing citizens’ personal data with private sector companies. 

For e-government to work – for people to use services – those people need to trust it. That trust must be earned and can easily be lost. Privacy’s important here, and so’s effectiveness. If cybersecurity is breached or online services prove less effective than what has gone before, trust won’t be won and may be lost.

The third’s a policy dilemma.  Is e-government an opportunity for government to improve services or to save money? Which matters more? Cost-savings are attractive to governments, especially those that think their voters want them to lower taxes. Replacing human staff with automated systems is now commonplace in government and business. Without sufficient human back-up, it can easily reduce the quality of what’s provided.

DESA’s report advocates balancing equity, economy and efficiency and recognises that e-government ought to be hybrid rather than just digital. Those balances are likely to be crucial.

Inclusion and equality

Inclusion’s often cited as a goal of digitalisation, but it’s far from guaranteed: 

  • Social, economic and cultural inequalities are deep-rooted and can be exacerbated by digital inequalities.

  • It’s easier to reach the relatively vulnerable with new services than to reach those who are most marginalised. This is exacerbated when services are made digital only or by default.

  • Marginalisation doesn’t just result from membership of one excluded group – of gender, race, (dis)ability, caste, religion, age or other social factor – but from multiple intersected factors that can’t be dealt with in those silos.

Assumptions that e-government will be inclusive aren’t sufficient. Policy and deployment strategies are required to make it so.  

They need to address the factors that exacerbate exclusion – such as language differences, cultural discrimination, different educational attainment levels and levels of digital access – and cater for the more complex needs of those whose lives are lived most on the margins (which often requires human intervention to deal with complex needs and limited digital experience). 

Careful monitoring's required to understand how e-government is serving communities and individuals: who’s making use of it, who’s not; how that's affected by gender, social class and other demographic differences; who prefers to use traditional service access mechanisms, and how they’re faring in the new regime.

It’s important, too, to understand e-government’s effects on ‘agency’. Has it given people more control over their lives? Has it enabled them to do things that were previously impossible or too expensive? Or do they feel that they have lost control or lost the opportunity to put their point of view? How well is e-government dealing with unusual cases, with people’s needs that are not standard but require more individual consideration?

And, lastly, impact

My final point, as often, concerns the measurement of impact.  

Reports that measure progress towards digitalisation are often most concerned with inputs: how much connectivity, how many users, how much traffic; in this case, how many services are digitised. These numbers are important but they’re only part of the picture that’s required for proper policy development.  

It’s important, too, to understand what use is being made of the services provided by e-government, and by whom, to disaggregate those findings, and address the weaknesses disaggregation brings to light.

It’s important to compare experience following the introduction of e-service with experience beforehand: to see how far it has or hasn’t improved outcomes where problems had already been identified.

And it’s important to explore what broader change e-government is making in relationships between the citizen and government. Is that balance shifting and, if so, in what ways and in whose favour?

DESA suggests, towards the end of its report, that e-government enhances the resilience, agility and effectiveness of public services. It can certainly do so, but only fully if the policies behind deployment are effective and policymakers are willing to adapt to lessons learned. That’s a challenge for both measurement and public policy.

Image: Cover of the United Nations e-govenment survey 2022. 

David Souter writes a fortnightly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.