For the countries that have it, e-government is helpful but has yet to fulfill its potential.
The first part of this essay ( "Observations From the Trenches of Electronic Government," Ubiquity, Jan. 22, 2002) detailed my observations from working in electronic government (e-gov) in five countries -- Sweden, Hong Kong, Singapore, India and Australia -- during the past seven years. . I had not thought about what these experiences had in common until a friend suggested I write them down to find if there was a pattern. Now that I have been back in North America for almost a year, I am more "plugged in" to what is going on here. This portion of the essay compares my five experiences working in foreign e-gov installations with what is happening here in North America, and draws five conclusions based on the comparison.
1: E-gov will happen mostly in the developed world.
There are major differences in e-gov performance based on geographic location. In the foreseeable future, some countries will have Internet and Web service at only a basic or token level, and some won't have it at all. E-gov -- Internet and Web services for citizens -- will happen only in those countries that have the infrastructure to support it. Specifically, e-gov will perform well in the following areas:
- The Nordic countries
- The Northern European countries
- United States
- United Kingdom
- The Asian Tiger nations -- particularly ones that speak English as a second language -- such as Korea, Japan, Singapore, etc.
- A few others including Mexico, Brazil, Israel and Dubai
2: The language of e-government is English
English is the dominant language of the Web. Run your cursor over most foreign sites and English pops up. Therefore, countries strong in English like Singapore, or that use English as a second language like Sweden, have an advantage.
3: E-government is legitimate
For the countries that have it, e-government is just another delivery mechanism for government services. It is accepted, expected and integrated. E-gov was a non-event as far as revolutionizing government services. Government has not changed. Quite the contrary, a senior Canadian government officer described the Canadian e-gov initiative -- known in Canada as Government On Line (GOL) -- as but another "line item" in his finance estimates.
4: Content management is a major issue.
Government departments and agencies are quickly losing control of their content. Letters are no longer sent to the legal department or the financial advisor to review before sending. Zap -- an email message is sent. Where is the email message filed after sending? It's usually left on the sender's hard drive. In the best case, it makes it to the local client server. Where are all the records needed for legal litigation and financial audit? They're on the hard drive of someone's computer.
In developed countries, the information that used to be stored in rows of filing cabinets has been moved from records management straight to the Web. The result will be a major crisis with government or institutional intranets when no one can find anything. There are no file numbers. The authors rarely use meta tags. To top it off, most government and business staff do not know how to search. Mention "Boolean search" and their eyes cross. They put their faith in a search engine, which for most government departments is several versions behind the latest version. Fruitlessly looking for an item on the internal intranet wastes time and creates much frustration.
The answer to this problem is content management: the art and science of organizing and finding things on the intranet. Once Canada's Government On Line became fashionable, the government concentrated on cosmetics, the look and feel, of its Websites. Every site had to look the same -- this was the government after all! It looks nice but finding the information you need is another story.
The Canadian government is converting documents to HTML as fast as it can. The result is a mess of intranet sites where staffs are dumping files onto the intranet on the one had, and on the other hand cannot find what they need. One Canadian department has some 2 million documents floating around on their intranet -- that they know of! The staff is becoming increasingly frustrated because they can't find what they want.
5 The interactive aspect of the Web has been overlooked.
While some countries have embraced e-government, a number of others have not placed enough information or services online, and are not taking advantage of the interactive features of the Internet. There is no argument the Canadian government Web pages have added service and information for the Canadian public and beyond. However, Canada's Websites, like most other government sites, rarely facilitate unmoderated feedback.
If governments wish to push any area, it should be the "bottom up" or grassroots feedback of citizens. There is plenty of "top down" but little or no "bottom up" information in Canadian government at all. There are no forums, discussion groups, listservs or interactive sites for public reaction to policy. Yet these electronic feedback devices are used daily by the media to gauge public opinion. It is surprising that the federal government departments, department ministers, or the Canadian political parties have not taken a more active role in gathering public feedback.
In The Digital Divide Civic Engagement, Information Poverty and the Internet Worldwide (Cambridge University Press London 2001), Pippa Norris states that "Democracy requires two-way communication as well as information at regular intervals beyond elections so that leaders receive feedback and maintain contact with the grassroots." In Canada, this bottom up feedback is limited to leaders' reading of newspapers and the latest polls.
Canadian government Internet Websites are at the saturation stage in terms of providing information from the legislature and departments to the public. It is now time to focus on the channel of communication from the public to the elected members.
Gordon Jenkins, of Jenkins & Associates, Ottawa, Canada, may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]