E-government is primarily about people.

E-government is primarily about people, not about technology. ICT provides the tools, but it is the people that make them work. The right tools must, of course, be provided but to fully realise the benefits of ICT for e-government, we must return to the human dimension and focus as much on people and their behaviour as we do on technology. Human-centred computing is essential.

First, some of the new system design and implementation fundamentals will be considered and then some of the new thinking on e-government, especially that arising from the recent Third Global Forum in Naples.

Modifying a moving target

The process of re-engineering government is being conducted against a background of rapid change and the external pressures of globalisation and the information society. At a technical level, the work is done against a background of constantly evolving industry standards. Formal standards making bodies have been left behind in the IT field by their slow, bureaucratic processes. The working documents used are mostly drafts, evolving to reflect industry changes. Final versions of standards are becoming historical documents, like a history written by the victors.

As a project, all these factors indicate high risk – the projects inevitably become “modifying a moving target”, long feared by conventional project managers. The traditional approaches to large-scale IT-based project management can no longer be used; the technology changes too quickly and the requirements evolve too fast. New, flexible project managers are required. Good conventional project managers are hard enough to find; those able to work well in the new order are even rarer.

Two recent major reports published in the UK examined the problems involved in the management of large government IT projects. These reports make important and cautionary reading for anyone planning such projects (Ref. 1 & Ref. 2).

The OECD have also examined the problem as part of their PUMA program (Ref. 3) and recommended, amongst other things, a “Dolphins, not whales” approach. This does not mean breaking large projects into small modules – that has been tried in the past - but involves a shift to a different way or working and thinking with total project timescales of no more than six months.

Short development cycles, to minimise the opportunity for technology change and requirements change (“scope creep”), are now fundamental to reducing the risk of IS project failures. Small is good, the smaller the project the lower the risk of failure. The future is many, small projects implemented as a rolling programme within an overall framework, not a single, large project attempting to do everything, however attractive that might be for reasons of procurement overhead.

That overall framework is the Information Strategy. Driven by the business goals, the Information Strategy encompasses, at high level, the information, processes and user interactions. Throughout, the guiding principle is to treat information as being architecture, consisting of structures containing content and process, not just content. The process information not only describes but also automates, facilitating automatic information handling and interoperability.

The new Information Strategy is thus a combination of requirements capture, information definition, linguistics, semantics and business process analysis. Leading the work of preparing the Information Strategy, or “Information Architecture”, is the role of the new Information Architect.

Human-centred computing

No IT/IS project can succeed unless the real requirements of the real users are fully taken into account. Failing to do so is one of the commonest reasons that projects fail. The difficulty is that people don’t specify what they want or they change their mind. Requirements capture is a highly skilled activity involving both technical and human factors; good practitioners are rare. Human-centred computing is the key.

Workplaces are more than just workstations and networks. Engineers integrate objects and processes but don't relate people and practices. Human centred computing starts with a study of the people and the machines but recognises that a design for learning is a design for conversation – between the users and the information - and takes a total system perspective.

The old Human Factors approach to requirements engineering concentrates on tasks, procedures, schedules, automation, interfaces, skills and training. The Human-Centred computing approach concentrates instead on practices, rhythm, emergent structures, identities and constituencies, taking into account the informal and interactive aspects of the whole process and emphasising the potential for learning and feedback.

Examining how order naturally emerges in human activity reveals previously hidden structures. A community scale evaluation takes into account how people interact, how their work place is organised and how their personal goals shape or constrain their activities within that community. Four basic human needs must come together to create a community, real or virtual: interest, relationship, transaction and fantasy.

There is an irony in the process of requirements capture for e-government. The users in this case are the citizens. Parliamentarians are the representatives of citizens and therefore clearly have a role to play in the design and development of e-government services. Are they ready for this role?

The right tools

A key factor of success for a net community will be to give members the tools they need to use their new power. Flexible, customisable tools will be needed that take these "soft" factors into account and recognise that the interaction - mutual adaptation - between technology, people and their environment cannot readily be anticipated and so must not be fixed in tools. The era of the “nailed-down desktop”, to suit IT support departments has to end.

Information anxiety is the most pressing problem to be addressed; far too much information but not enough meaning or relevance. Typically, 30% of staff time now is wasted looking for the right information. Tools to contextualise information, to make one's own collection and to add one's own annotations allow the users to seek the information in the ways that suit them best. Beyond that, the emphasis will shift from search "pull" technologies to selective "push" technologies such as rule based matching and neural nets, with the increasing sophistication of the technology allowing greater degrees of personalisation.

Information reuse

A new fundamental is a component approach to information of all kinds to facilitate reuse. Information creation should seek to create information with the richest possible structure and the maximum amount of metadata and making no assumptions as to who – or what – will reuse the information or why or how. This kind of reusable information is what will facilitate transparency, not just putting HTML or PDF files on a Web site and claiming to be “open”.

The creation of this new high-quality and high-level metadata is a task well suited to the talents of librarians. For them, moving to become a participant in the creation process, a kind of shadow author, instead of being only the passive recipient of the work of others, is also a natural evolution in the all-online world where their conventional role will largely disappear. (Ref. 4)

Information should no longer be thought of as sitting passively in a database waiting for a query. It can have an active, independent life carrying its context with it in a metadata wrapper – the messaging model that got the e-Commerce companies so excited. For many purposes, an information interchange model based on “listen and accept or discard” may prove more suitable, both in terms of timeliness and efficiency than the query or web crawler models. This has particular relevance in the political and parliamentary arenas, with their publishing dynamics.

Third Global Forum, Naples

At the invitation of the Italian government, representatives of 122 countries, agencies, business and NGOs met in Naples on March 15-17, 2001, under the theme “Fostering Democracy and Development through e-Government” (Ref. 5).

Amongst the key conclusions of the Forum were:

  • ICTs bring deep changes in the content of work and administrative organisation. They force the re-engineering of the administration in a way which meets citizen’s needs. Wider information sharing at all levels of government often makes hierarchical relationships unnecessary.
  • At the core of good governance lie the principles of accountability and transparency […] nothing is more powerful in combating corruption than conducting transactions openly and with public knowledge of the rules and criteria to be applied.
  • The full potential of ICT has yet to be realised even in the more advanced economies. The implications for new forms of democracy and active citizenship are vast.

Many issues were raised in the workshop sessions. Amongst over 30 points, the following are relevant here:

  • New electronic means of accessing public information and delivering public services facilitate and peer-to-peer relationship between State and citizen and between State and business. In this new relationship of “equals”, the client-provider system is no longer the administration that controls the citizens, but rather the opposite. Thus, citizens are not the recipients, but the co-deciders in e-government systems: public services have to be citizen and customer oriented.
  • Transparency of government action must be enhanced by exploiting all the possibilities offered by ICTs which allow the monitoring of public activities, the reduction of corruption and the enhancement of citizens’ trust and their ability to intervene.
  • Infrastructure is only one part of the digital divide; multi-level human capacity building is no less important to extract the full potential value of ICT for development, and to manage information. ICT should be incorporated in general education and professional courses, as well as in specific initiatives for raising the awareness of government officials, teachers, doctors and business people.

Deficits

There has been much talk about the digital divide between the “haves and have-nots” of the Information Society. This applies not only to different sections of society within a country but also to different countries. One recent statistic is that there are more Internet users in New York than in the whole of Africa. There needs to be equal access to e-government for all, although it is inevitable that “bridging technologies” will have to be used in developing countries to help them catch up. India has some very good examples of this approach. The G8 Summit in Okinawa agreed a number of measures to address this widening “digital divide” between developed and developing countries.

Although this equal access for all is important for e-government, there is another kind of divide that is very worrying for democracy, the so-called “democratic deficit”, the withdrawal of people, especially young people, from the whole area of politics and democracy. This has to be corrected and innovative systems for citizen participation must be developed. With commercial Internet services competing intensely for the attention of users, this will not be easy or cheap but it is essential for the health of our democratic institutions. Governments may, for now, have the monopoly provider advantage that compels citizens to consult them but this will change as the process of government is re-engineered and more service delivery is out-sourced to commercial organisations. Parliaments do not have to luxury of monopoly status; citizens do not have to consult their parliament; they can just ignore it and increasing numbers of citizens are doing just that. Not only does this reduce the citizen participation it effectively makes the voices of the special interest lobby groups stronger, so weakening the legitimacy of the democratic system.

This is not a technology or channel problem, it’s a content problem. The message is losing interest and the medium is being ignored. Reversing this trend should be the number one concern of politicians.

Technology Assessment

Another important concern for politicians is legislation covering the Internet end e-government. Umberto Giovine, a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and of EPTA, the body for European Parliamentary Technology Assessment, presented a paper entitled “From e-commerce to e-parliament: a reassessment of modern democracy”, in which he makes a number of very good points:

  • We are witnessing a behaviour that is similar to what we saw when faced with the development of bio-technologies. On the one hand, politicians seem less inclined to propose a serious Technology Assessment and greater inclination to impose ideological assessments on phenomena they find difficult to understand, and even more difficult to accept and take in their stride.
  • It is not possible to carry out a Technology Assessment of ICTs using political tools. And just as it is not possible to explore the sea-bed without plunging into the water, parliamentarians cannot make a technological appraisal of networks unless they get into the Web, acquiring its procedures and pace, and tuning in to the rhythms and lifestyles of the voters which parliaments are supposed to represent.
  • He concludes that “Parliaments will have to ride with this megatrend without trying to stop it, for otherwise they will run the risk of being overwhelmed by it and end up, like so many other low-technology products, on the garbage heap of history”.

It is essential that legislators fully understand the Internet and e-government before attempting to legislate on it. Awareness raising and education for them is vital.

Re-engineering government

As an example of the kind of re-engineering that needs to happen, the Italian government has set about an ambitious program of reform of Italy’s public administration, long notorious for its complexity of procedures, the high cost of regulation and stifling bureaucracy. It was an obsolete administration with no government-wide reforms since 1865.

The old State centralised model, typical of the continental European experience, has been radically rethought. The former status of civil servants has been replaced by a private sector approach, with individual and collective contracts. The competencies between State administrations, regions and local authorities have been rearranged with the emphasis on the local authorities to whom tasks and resources are being devolved, a process referred to as “Horizontal Subsidiarity”, focusing government on its core business.

Example figures:

  • The number of government ministries has already been reduced from 22 to 18 and will be further reduced to 12.
  • More than 95% of certificates have been replaced by “self-declarations” and “notifications of the beginning of an activity” and the principle of silent consent have replaced authorisations and licences in 194 cases.
  • Thousands of laws and decrees are being replaced by a few consolidated texts and annual simplification laws will enable government to abolish or simplify existing procedures, etc. Already, 207 procedures ruled by primary law have been de-legislated.
  • The most striking example has been the simplification of business start-up. Where, before, a total of 43 authorisations were needed and it took between two and five years to get a final answer, now there is a “one-stop shop” and the average delay is now only three months.

That is re-engineering government on a large scale and many other European countries with traditions of heavy bureaucracy would do well to study the Italian example.

The e-Europe initiative

In December 1999 the European Commission launched the eEurope initiative with the following key objectives:

  • Bringing all Europeans, into the digital age and online.
  • Creating a digitally literate Europe, supported by an entrepreneurial culture.
  • Ensuring the process is socially inclusive and builds consumer trust.

In June 2000 the eEurope 2002 Action Plan was adopted by the Feira European Council.

The latest e-Europe update, presented to the European Council meeting in Nice in December 2000, identified that “the potential of digital technologies to generate significant productivity gains in such areas as transport, education and health, is not fully exploited for several reasons :

  • fragmented markets,
  • difficulties for private investors to access publicly owned infrastructure
  • the broader social benefits of investment are often greater than the market incentives.

Member States and the European Commission need to reinforce their efforts to achieve eEurope goals in these sectors, in particular through linking the research programme more effectively to needs and strategic use of public funding to leverage private sector support.”

It should be remembered that the Internet that will be used by e-government programs is not a public sector resource, but a commercially developed and operated one.

It also observed that “there is a strong political interest to utilise the potential of the new economy to the benefit of the enlargement countries and, in a wider context, to support economic growth in developing countries. The accession countries agreed at a conference in Warsaw in May 2000 to develop plans to mirror the eEurope Action Plan. Further work is needed to make eEurope+ (i.e. the extension of eEurope to the accession countries), a reality”. The applicant countries need to play their part in this process fully to ensure that they have a say in the evolving Action Plan.

The White Paper on Governance

Another area where the applicant countries should get involved is the European Commission White Paper on Governance. (Ref. 6), due to be presented in the summer of 2001.

Promoting new forms of European governance is one of the Prodi Commission’s four strategic priorities. The Commission describes “Governance” as the rules, processes and practices that affect how powers are exercised at the European level.

The White Paper will set out recommendations on how to enhance democracy in Europe and increase the legitimacy of the institutions. This is re-engineering government at the highest level. It is also another case of modifying a moving target, as the European Union faces the challenges of enlargement, institutional reform and democracy, re-connecting the institutions with the Europe of real people and real events.

What the working papers do not, so far, discuss is the role of e-government and the Internet in the process of Governance reform. The potential is great and the need is evident. Connecting the vision with the implementation is the challenge.

A personal conclusion

My view is that the most important potential of the Internet on e-government is its potential to improve the responsiveness of government and parliaments. The best way to get citizens re-engaged in the democratic process is to ensure that their views and needs are responded to quickly – in Internet time scales, not civil service timescales. I term this “micro-governance”.

I feel that the key to this is local government. Closer to the citizens and better able to understand their day-to-day needs, local government is the ideal place to implement micro-governance and re-engage citizens, as well as being the local provider of central government information and services.

The technical challenges of the citizen interface at the front and the “joined-up government” at the back are immense and the old tools and techniques are no longer sufficient. Innovation is the solution. Brave actions that embrace the philosophy of “fail early to succeed better” are vital. Quality leadership will be the most important determinant.

This is not just modifying a moving target, it is flying without a net, a leap into the unknown. We just don’t know how e-government will affect citizens’ lives and the democratic process – we may think we do but the reality is bound to turn out differently. Big technologies have a way of creating their own direction and dynamics. And we haven’t even started considering the social implications of politically-aware agent technology. Instead of only “Big Brother” government watching the citizens, citizens will also be able to constantly monitor their government and their elected representatives. Legislators, are you ready for that?

References

1. Improving the delivery of Government IT projects House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, First Report, Session 1999/2000
2. Getting IT Right For Government - A Review of Public Sector IT Projects by the Computing Services and Software Association:
3.The hidden threat to e-government – Avoiding large government IT failures OECD Policy Brief No. 8
4. Librarian of the Future – Receptionist or Author?, Hardie, A. S., published in Vesmir 79, listopad 2000, p.614, in Czech.
5. Third Global Forum, Naples
6. European Commission White Paper on Governance

(Originally written April 2001)