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eGovernment - making government digital

Updated on July 9, 2013

The eGovernment Buzz

For people working in various layers of government around the world, eGovernment has become something of a buzzword in recent years. However, it is impossible to ignore it, as governments everywhere are beginning to understand the power and possibilities of making previously paper-based communication and organizational processes digital.

The national perspectives on eGovernment differs around the world, depending fx on the general digital maturity level of a nation as a whole, the existing levels of digital government and skill levels of the populace, the national political situation and the cultural backdrop. Thus in some countries digital government is seen as an important but optional channel to increase the overall service level government towards citizens - in other countries a "business case" approach is being used, with the main focus being on how to use digital communication to provide the same service but with lower overall costs.

Offhand it would seem, that nations that have worked with eGovernment for several years began with increasing service levels through eGovernment, but are now seeing it (mostly) as a means for more cost-effective service delivery and administration.

Read on to learn more about business case eGovernment and the potential dilemma between being efficient and user-centric.

So what is eGovernment all about?

eGovernment is a concept which may include any area in which you make public sector services and processes digital.

It is most often used to refer to digital communication between authorities and citizens/businesses, i.e. when paper forms are replaced with online self-service solutions. However, it also oftens refers to so-called eParticipation which concerns both citizen-involvement in the provision of public services, as when citizens digitally report potholes to their local council or are invited to interactively give ideas to the local government on how to deal with various issues. This last thing borders on eDemocracy, which is about including citizens more directly in the political processes. This again has connections to eVoting, which is about allowing citizens to vote for official elections either via their own computer or, which is more widespread, on digital voting machines at the traditional polling stations.

However more and more focus is now on how to make public administration more efficient, and an important theme in that connection is "Open data" and re-use of data, ie. allowing authorities and in some cases also companies and citizens to use data which is already in the possession of government, thus reducing (or eliminating) the need to fill in data, which is already known. Other important themes for eGovernment (because of the potential for savings) are digital public procurement (fx PEPPOL) and e-Invoicing.

To broaden it up even more, so-called "welfare technology" is also becoming more and more used in an eGovernment context, as it is basically about how the public sector provides its services, and not just the administrative ones. Other related themes are telemedicine and ambient assisted living, but then we are reaching the borders of what it makes sense to talk about as eGovernment.

The Business Case approach

Danish ambitions

Presumably one of the most ambitious eGovernment strategies in the world - and one based on a business case approach - was adopted by all levels of the Danish government in 2011. The three main tracks in the strategy, and some of the key points within each tracks, are:

  • No more printed forms or letters
    • 80 pct. of communication between citizens/businesses and the public sector is digital in 2015, and savings of up to 100 million euro a year on postage by the public sector
    • It is made mandatory for citizens and businesses to use digital self service solutions, unless special circumstances are present
    • All businesses (in 2013) and citizens (in 2014) will have a special secure digital mailbox, through which letters to and from the public sector will be processed
  • New digital welfare
    • Investing 200 million euros in IT to prepare schools for a digital future
    • Using technology to enable the treatment of chronically ill patients in their own homes
    • Simplifying and optimizing employment initiatives
  • Digital solutions for closer public sector collaboration
    • Implementering a shared digital infrastructure that is secure and robust
    • All authorities reuse core data so that citizens and companies do not have to enter or look for the same data several times
    • Legislation written for the analogue society does not prevent the use of digitalization to create a more efficient public sector

As such the strategy is ambitious with regards to how citizens and business communicate with the public sector (track 1), how public welfare services are provided (track 2) and how public sector authorities and institutions work together to share data and infrastructure (track 3). Overall the Danish government has set a goal, that 400 million euros should be saved annually from 2020, just on the public sector side, by adopting digital solutions and new technology.

A large program involving virtually all parts of government has been implemented to achieve these goals, but the success of the strategy also relies on one particular characteristic of the Danish society: Recent figures (July 2013) has shown that 93 pct. of the Danish population between 16 and 89 has been on the internet, including 83 pct. of the population between 65 and 74. This is one of the highest levels of internet penetration in the world, and an important precondition for reaching the target of 80 pct. digital communication in 2015.

The strategy is available in English here: http://www.digst.dk/Servicemenu/English/Policy-and-Strategy/eGOV-strategy

Denmark is not the only country in the world with an approach to eGovernment resembling this, although it may be one of the most explicitly business case-based strategies. In the Netherlands' National Implementation Programme for Services and e-Government, the vision is formulated as one open and accessible government. It follows, however, that by implementing the programme, Central Government will be able to save 123 million euros per year. Roughly the same is the case with the UK government's Digital by Default strategy.

User-centric vs. Business Case

a problematic dilemma?

A basic question which follows from recent trends in eGovernment is: Can e-government be user-centric while at the same time realizing a strong business case?

I would say Yes - and it has to be!

Government exists for the citizens, not the other way around. This ought to be commonly acknowledged in all civilised countries. On the other hand, government has limited means to fulfil its service obligations, and citizens - in most countries - will complain if taxes were to rise in order to keep the exisiting service levels. So the Business Case approach as a way of cutting administrative costs in order to secure funding for other service areas, such as it is being realized in various countries, is not in itself "anti-citizen".

For eGovernment to work, it has to be usable to citizens, businesses and public administrators alike. If citizens are unable to use a public self-service solution, they will keep contacting the individual authorities to get help, and the potential savings will not be realized. If services are not accessible to fx persons with disabilities, the society as a whole will miss out on a large potential for making persons, who previously relied on help to fill out paper forms or going to the local municipality, more self-reliant.

Add to this, that no piece of legislation can make a person, who does not have the skills, communicate digitally. Therefore eGovernment done properly will have to take into consideration both how to make sure that help and courses are available to citizens with no or low ICT skills, and also how to provide for those, who will never be able to use a computer, due to old age, special disabilities or learning disorders, etc.

Therefore, in my view, eGovernment has to be both user-centric and business case-oriented in order to work - it can not succesfully be one without the other.

Helen Margetts of Oxford Internet Institute recently put it beautifully in a interview for the EIU Expert views on the UN e-government survey, when she said:

If people don't use [e-government], there is not much point in it and it does not cut costs

The latest trends

learn more about it

For more overall information about recent trends in eGovernment, there exist numerous annual publications from major international organisations and publishers such as the European Union, OECD and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA).

I can recommend the United Nations E-Government Survey 2012: E-Government for the People, the EU eGovernment benchmark 2012, the Expert views on the UN e-government survey from Economist Intelligence Unit, and the reports from the OECD e-Government Studies. Note that the OECD PDFs are subscription only, but it is possible to read the publications using the OECD online reader for free.

eGovernment at Amazon

Although a lot has been written about e-Government in recent years, much of it seems to become outdated almost as soon as it is published, due to the general development in technology, skills and uptake of technology in the public sector around the world. Therefore, the year of publication is really one of the most important parameters to consider, when buying books about eGovernment. Below are some general suggestions.

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