Inside the Information Society: E-government - of the people or for the people?

Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post looks at what’s happening with e-government.

In last week’s post, I talked about the growing polarisation that’s happening between cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists, and called for greater cyber-realism: recognising both positives and negatives, and taking steps to shape the Information Society rather than leaving it to shape our lives for us.

E-government’s a good issue on which to think about that shaping. So how’s it going, what’s underway, and what do we know about its impact?

Defining e-government

E-government’s about the use of ICTs to change the way that government is undertaken. I’d suggest there are five main aspects:

  • information gathering (the basis, in the future, for big data analysis);
  • policymaking (more evidence-based and more joined-up than hitherto);
  • providing public information (including open data);
  • providing public services (including transactions such as paying taxes);
  • and more participation by citizens and other stakeholders in decision-making processes.

I’ll say more about each of these in later posts, during the year. Today, I’m interested in big pictures – two in particular: what’s the relationship between e-government and good government? and how do we ensure that it’s inclusive?

The case for e-government

E-gov optimists believe that digitalisation, more or less necessarily, improves government’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Better information gathering and analysis, they believe, will enable evidence-based policy. More – and more open – public information will enable citizens to make better choices and reduce corruption. Public services will become more efficient (for users) and cheaper (for governments). More people will engage more effectively in public life, making government more representative and democratic.

There’s plenty of evidence that ICTs can, and often do, improve the quality and experience of government. There are plenty of success stories. But there are no guarantees. Experience should temper e-gov optimism.

What are the reservations?

It’s a decade or so since Richard Heeks and colleagues pointed out the high rate of failure in e-government projects. They pointed to what they called a design:reality gap – projects designed with high aspirations, which failed to meet proponents’ expectations.

Why do e-government projects fail? Often proponents fail to ask end-users – citizens – what they really want; or fail to take into account the difficulties that citizens will have in making use of them with low incomes and limited resources. Enthusiastic salesmen have persuaded officials with little ICT experience to buy complex solutions for simple problems, incurring long-term costs that are not justified. Large-scale projects tend to over-run, run over-budget, and deliver platforms that are already outmoded by the time they enter service.

So what’s been happening?

Every two years, the UN Department on Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) publishes an E-Government Survey, which looks at literature and data. It ranks countries’ performance through an e-government development index, which includes indicators on infrastructure, skills and content. It focuses on education, health, employment, finance, social welfare and environment.

The latest survey, published in 2016 but using 2015 data, gives a thorough update and presents a deal of interesting experience. I can’t summarise in depth here, but I’ll stress three points.

First, there’s much more e-government about than there used to be. Every national government now has an online presence, compared with just a few ten years ago. The scope and scale of that presence is increasing almost everywhere. It’s making use of new platforms and delivering more interactive, transactional services. Mobile e-gov apps are far more common than they were two years ago. The Internet of Things and geographic information systems are likely to be just as influential soon.

Second, like other areas of ICT4D, e-government’s much more extensive and growing much more rapidly in some countries than others. All high-performing countries in the e-government index are also high performers in the ITU’s ICT Development Index (IDI). As in the IDI, least developed countries are at the bottom of the rankings. Wealthier countries are benefiting more from e-government than poorer countries because the latter haven’t got the infrastructure or resources to make the most of it.

Third, there’s a trend towards greater integration of e-government across government departments and activities, partly driven by the potential for big data. Interdepartmental coordination makes sense in terms of government efficiency. It resonates with the need to coordinate sustainable development holistically, rather than in separate policy silos. It’s likely to make life simpler for those citizens who’re digitally literate (though it also raises important questions about data privacy and the risk from hacking).

DESA’s Survey’s strongly positive: e-government, DESA believes, has great potential to improve efficiency, delivery and participation. But achieving that potential isn’t guaranteed and there are aspects of it to be feared. As with most aspects of the Information Society, it isn’t the technology itself that determines outcomes, it’s the ways in which it’s used: in this case used by governments. I’ll end by commenting on three aspects of this: on good government, impact and inclusiveness.

E-government and good government

First, it’s not e-government that makes things better, it’s good government.

Governments that don’t have effective national statistical systems aren’t equipped to gather or to analyse reliable data sets. Not all governments, by any means, are keen on evidence-based policy or on inclusion, equality and participation. Digitalisation doesn’t prevent corruption; it can also offer new ways in which processes become corrupt. Governments can manipulate information (and public opinion) as well as making information more available.

The quality of e-government, in other words, depends on the quality of government, rather than the other way about. If governments are committed to serve the interests of their citizens, they can use e-government effectively to do so. If they’re not, though, that is much less likely. And governments that oppress rather than support their people are more likely to use e-government to increase their power, not encourage citizens to question it.

Measuring impact

Second, we need to build a broader evidence base. DESA’s Survey relies mostly on supply side data: how good the infrastructure is, how many websites and platforms are available, what transactions people can make if they wish to, how equipped they are to do so.

To judge e-government properly, and address Heeks’ design:reality gap, we need much more demand side data: on the quality of platforms and services; how many people are using them, and how they do so; the real costs and efficiency savings involved; what impact e-government is having and whether anyone is being left behind as a result.

Leaving no-one behind

Third, it’s a core principle of the Sustainable Development Agenda that no-one should be left behind.
Access to e-government (information and services) depends on access to ICTs (not just connectivity; also affordability and relevance of content, research skills and digital literacy). Even where governments intend it to, e-government doesn’t therefore necessarily counteract existing inequalities. In societies which are highly unequal, it can easily make government services more accessible to the better-off without making much difference to the poor.

That’s particularly important if governments try to make e-government the only way of accessing specific services. Requiring people to access services or entitlements online makes life more difficult for those who don’t have access or can’t make easy use of it, for example because they’re not familiar with PCs, the Web or social media, or lack the necessary research or administrative skills.

It’s difficult in all societies to ensure that those who are most marginalised take up services and benefits that they’re entitled to. Forcing people to use digital services without alternatives that are more familiar to them can increase marginalisation. E-government services should be designed to meet real people’s needs as well as saving money.

A similar point applies to e-participation. Those who are most likely to participate – in consultations, petitions, online voting, on radio phone-ins or social media platforms – are those with strong opinions and time on their hands, not those whose voices are least heard by governments. Offering new ways to participate doesn’t make participation representative: it should be part of wider engagement strategies which seek to ensure that every voice is heard, not just those that can shout loudest or most often.

E-government for the people, not of the people

E-government, in short, has much to offer and can do a lot to improve the quality of government, of public services and of participation. But it’s not an answer in itself. If people are to gain from it, it should be e-government for the people, not of the people. And it should make sure that no-one’s left behind.

In next week’s blog I’ll ask what’s meant by multistakeholder participation in ICT governance.

Image: e-government, by cea+ on Flickr Commons.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter.
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