E-government may be defined as the use by government of information and communication technologies, internally and to interact with citizens, firms, nongovernmental organizations, and other governments. E-government in practice, therefore, consists of both complex networks of information systems within government organizations and a huge range of websites with which citizens can communicate, interact, and transact.
In some sense e-government has been around for over half a century in larger developed states; for example, governmental organizations in the US and the UK used computers for internal operations from the 1950s onwards. But the term e-government only came into common usage in the 1990s as societal use of the Internet became widespread. While earlier technologies were largely internally facing, the Internet for the first time provided government with the possibility to interact electronically with individuals and organizations outside government. Thus the Internet brought far greater possibility for the “transformation” of government through the use of electronic tools than earlier technologies, and the topic became interesting to a far wider range of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers than hitherto. By the 2000s, almost all governments had some kind of electronic element, even if only a website describing the main institutions and political leadership.
Information and communication technologies provide both potential advantages and new challenges to government. Such technologies have long provided the potential for government to be more efficient and effective, as the early automation of bureaucratic operations offered potential for reductions in staff (although early investments in such technologies were often hard to cost-justify in practice). With the Internet, the possibilities for cost reduction increased still further, as the marginal cost of Internetbased interactions is generally less than interactions taking place by letter, telephone, or face-to-face. But the implications of e-government are far wider than increased efficiency. Large-scale computer systems have long shown themselves in the public sector to be policy-critical. Most government departments in developed countries that process large volumes of transactions quite simply cannot operate without them, bringing widespread chaos when they fail to work. They also create new possibilities for new policy “windows” in terms of innovation. Margetts (1999) and Hood and Margetts (2007) have shown how digital technologies open up potential for innovation in the use of all four of the “tools” of government policy: nodality (the capacity to collect and disseminate information), authority, treasure (money, or other exchangeable benefits), and organizational capacity.
As use of the Internet became widespread from the early 2000s, most developed governments introduced e-government initiatives, accompanied by “targets” for electronic service delivery. Certainly, governments have dedicated increasingly significant resources to the pursuit of electronic government, with most industrialized nations spending over 1 percent of GDP on the government’s own information and communication technologies. The UK, for example, spends around £15 billion annually on its own e-government effort, including a massive £6 billion dedicated to modernization of the information systems of the National Health Service.
In general, however, governments have struggled to develop the skills and expertise to develop their electronic channels. By 2006 most were reliant on a market of private sector computer services providers, who develop and maintain their information systems. In most industrialized states, distinct markets of global and domestic companies have grown up to service the public sector, with wide variations across governments in terms of the shape of the market and the extent to which domestic companies play a role (Dunleavy et al. 2006). These companies have shown themselves to be important players in contemporary government. More recently, the larger Internet corporations have come to play a role in the delivery and holding of information about citizens, in a way that can be difficult for governments to challenge. In 2005, for example, when the Federal Bureau of Intelligence in the US asked Google for a million anonymized records of the users of pornographic websites, in order to understand patterns of usage of such sites, their request was refused.
Visions Of E-Government
Until the 2000s, academic visions of e-government tended to range from the highly utopian to the severely dystopian, with a lack of sustained empirical research filling the middle of the spectrum. Most of these visions revolved around the modernist notion that technology will somehow lead government to become more rational and efficient, with strong parallels to Weber’s predictions for bureaucracy and his analogy of bureaucratic organization as a “machine”.
What have been termed “hyper-modernists” (Margetts 1999) have argued that as the Internet and associated technologies become ubiquitous, government will become more and more efficient and therefore smaller, until eventually governmental organizations themselves will become increasingly irrelevant. The most populist writer in this vein was probably Alvin Toffler, who in a trilogy of books running over 20 years from 1970 argued that the decentralization afforded by information technology would inevitably lead to political decentralization as well, so that eventually bureaucracy itself would become irrelevant: “exactly like businesses, governments are also beginning to bypass their hierarchies – further subverting bureaucratic power” (Toffler 1990, 255).
While also believing in transformation for government through technology, “antimodernists” concentrated on the negative effects, believing that e-government would be more powerful, and more intrusive in the lives of citizens, than traditional bureaucracy. Writers such as David Burnham (1983) argued that the increased possibility for surveillance and control offered by information and communication technologies would lead electronic governments to the “Computer State” or the “Control State,” whereby governments use CCTV cameras, “smart” identity cards, satellite navigation systems, electronic tracking devices, and centralized databases with sophisticated search capabilities to maintain an ever-closer eye on the activities of their citizens. These dystopian views are reminiscent of the more literary scenarios portrayed in Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. With technological development, surveillance technologies have become increasingly sophisticated and electronic identities more complex, while after the terrorist attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, and in other countries thereafter, many populations appear to have become more accepting of such technologies, believing them to be effective in counteracting terrorist activity. As governments appear to have had a freer rein in introducing surveillance technologies, a new generation of anti-modernists began to define the “Surveillance Society” (Lyon 2003).
Only in the 2000s did a sustained body of research into the development, functioning, and implications of e-government really begin to develop, and even by 2007 this research is still rather ghettoized within other academic disciplines. Writers in the field of communications do not tend to focus on government, perhaps because governments’ use of communications technologies is less innovative and transformational than that of media organizations. For the same reason, management research tends to focus on the private sector, regarded as more innovative and cutting-edge in the delivery of online services and e-commerce applications. Political scientists tend to minimize or leave aside entirely the implications of technology in government, regarding it as a straightforward administrative tool with no policy implications. Even by 2005, many standard texts on public administration and public policy barely mention computers or the Internet.
Meanwhile, the study of e-government has become heavily populated by management consultancies, IT corporations, and international organizations, which have produced a number of reports and rankings of countries in terms of their e-government development. Most prominently, Accenture produced a series of reports, each covering around 30 countries, from 2002 to 2006, Cap Gemini for the European Union produced a raft of reports on e-government development across European countries, and the United Nations continues to maintain an “e-government readiness” index and annual report for all the countries in the world (for example, UNPAN 2005). The OECD has produced a number of reports and single-country studies. Many of these studies are also based on a modernist notion of development, the so-called “stages model” of e-government, whereby governmental organizations (or in many cases, whole governments) are assumed to go through a number of “stages” (first a kind of web publishing model, followed by interaction and transactions, followed by the facilitation of “seamless” government, and ultimately “transformation”).
While most of these international reports tend to emphasize differences between governments, detailed research at the country level suggests considerable variation across governmental organizations. Although most countries with e-government initiatives have some central mechanisms and agencies for control and coordination, such agencies tend to have limited remit over the largest of government departments. So, for example, in many countries such as Australia and Canada, tax agencies lead the field, with some countries attaining very high levels of take-up of online services; 98 percent in Chile, for example. Social welfare agencies tend to have lower levels of online service provision, due in many cases to a (sometimes mistaken) perception of low levels of Internet penetration among their users.
The Reality Of E-Government
In practice, the transformation of government through electronic tools, both for good and for bad, still seems elusive. Neither the wildest dreams of the hyper-modernists, nor the worst nightmares of the anti-modernists appear to have materialized. The use of the Internet varies widely across societies and also across governments, but use of information and communication technologies has not in any deterministic way caused liberal democratic governments to become less liberal or less democratic. Neither have authoritarian governments necessarily become more authoritarian, although the nature of their authoritarian techniques has changed. Certainly many countries, particularly China and several Arab states, practice sophisticated Internet filtering techniques (see Deibert et al. 2007). But in all these countries the new capacity for their subjects to develop social networks outside their country and to be aware of developments in the rest of the world can outweigh the increased control that technologies internal to government permit.
As for the “hyper-modernists,” their visions are challenged by the trend for governments in most countries to lag behind commercial organizations, and indeed society in general, in capitalizing on the potential benefits of Internet technologies. In the UK, for example, the 2005 Oxford Internet Survey found that only 39 percent of UK Internet users had interacted with government electronically in the last year, while over 85 percent of Internet users had used the Internet to look for or buy goods or services (Di Gennaro and Dutton 2005). Others have identified a number of cultural barriers to e-government development, both from the supply side (in terms of civil servants being resistant to new electronic channels) and the demand side (in terms of citizens being willing to interact with government in new ways). Certainly the economists’ dictum that the Internet has transformed the ability of firms to know their customers and treat them differently has not applied to government to anything like the same extent.
However, the potential for e-government to look different from traditional notions of government remains, with the opening up of a wide range of new options for policymakers. Electronic road pricing for example, provides new possibilities for incentivizing drivers to use certain routes at certain times or even to stop using their car in favor of public transport systems. Ticketing systems present new policy options in terms of encouraging the use of public transport and, when combined with congestion charging, encouraging the use of public transport in favor of roads with potential environmental benefits. In law and order, electronic tagging systems allow a new intermediate option between incarceration and freedom for convicted individuals. Most of these potential applications of e-government have a key distinguishing feature: they allow the segmentation of citizens. Governments can identify and treat groups of citizens differently according to their circumstances and need. Such treatments can range across the four “tools” of government policy. For nodality, information can be targeted at specific groups, through websites used by specific age groups or group-targeted emails. Treasure, in terms of social welfare benefits or tax credits, for example, can be easily means-tested according to other financial information held by government. Authority can also be targeted, through “fast-track” border control systems, for example. Even physical organization can be group-targeted, for example through barriers that respond to transponders fitted to police and emergency vehicles but not to normal cars, as used in city centers in several parts of the world.
As noted above, in the early days of e-government the type of systems that governments were using were internal to government. In general they were not used by citizens; even when home use of personal computers became widespread, they were stand-alone machines unlikely to be connected to a wider network. In contrast, the Internet is a societal phenomenon which is making a huge difference to the lives of many citizens. Thus technological development in general, and technology-mediated relationships in particular, have an independent effect on e-government, by placing a continual pressure on governments to innovate. Governments have to respond to technological innovations used, for example, within the criminal world, as many traditional forms of crime and fraud become electronic and cyber-crime itself becomes a rising phenomenon. Many social problems have moved online, as Internet gambling has proved itself more addictive than its offline equivalent, cyber-bullying more psychologically damaging than in the playground, and Internet addiction itself has become recognized as a rising social phenomenon (Hood and Margetts 2007).
Another implication of the changing nature of technology is that government is under increasing competition for public attention and visibility in the online world. Governments have been traditionally deemed to possess “nodality” (Hood 1983, as noted above) – the capacity of being at the center of social and informational networks and in a privileged position with respect to the collection and dissemination of information. In the online world, governments find themselves under increasing competition for that nodality. By 2006, most people used search engines to find information they needed, and few look further than beyond the first 10–20 results. So whether information about an organization is easily found within those results is vital to its visibility. In an online world where at the time of writing the auction site eBay had 168 million users, the social networking site myspace.com had 100 million users, the online bookshop amazon.com had 35 million customers in over 250 countries, and the community site craigslist.org, linking urban communities all over the world, had four billion page views a month, governments may find themselves struggling for online nodality.
Furthermore, as Internet-based technologies themselves developed toward Web 2.0 applications, where users generate content through recommender and reputational systems, blogs, wikipedias, social networking sites, and user feedback systems, governments too have to innovate if they want to take advantage of applications like these. In 2007 such applications were almost absent from governmental organizations, whereas in other areas they had become ubiquitous. So, for example, in the area of job search where private sector sites were offering job applicants the chance to post video clips and photographs and even teleconferencing interviews, government applications such as the UK Jobcentre plus were offering only text-based systems where employers could paste CVs and jobseekers could look for jobs, but there were few other facilities available. Here competition is also evident, with Jobcentre plus holding only 13 percent of the job application market in the UK, with consequent implications for the capacity of government organizations to tackle unemployment and job mobility issues.
Where governments do innovate in this area, the potential is great. By the mid-2000s, some authors were beginning to suggest that “digital-era” governance was a new potential paradigm for public administration, replacing the dominant trends in public management of the previous 20 years, a cohort of changes termed “new public management” (NPM; see Dunleavy et al. 2006). NPM was characterized by disaggregation of public organizations (into agencies, for example), competition (through outsourcing) and incentivization (through performance pay and performance management). In the countries where NPM was implemented in its most extreme form, it led to increased fragmentation and complexity of government, with a concurrent reduction in transparency. In contrast, digital era governance seems to offer new possibilities for increased transparency, with the web offering a “window” into governmental organizations and reduced complexity as Internet-based technologies facilitate a “joining-up” of previously fragmented governmental organizations.
There is nothing inevitable about digital era governance, as the discussion of the reality of e-government over time has suggested, and indeed a number of possible scenarios may emerge. But at its best, digital era governance, where innovations such as Web 2.0 applications are employed, could facilitate new potential for citizens to play a role in solving social problems. In health and social care, for example, where in some countries citizens can already view their own electronic health records online, where electronic booking systems for GPs and hospitals could be readily available, where user-generated information might enhance the possibility of choice in health-care, and a huge range of health information is available freely online for those skilled enough in Internet use to look for it, there seems potential for citizens to play a greater role in tackling their own health-care than has ever been possible before, just as Internet banking involves users taking a more proactive stance in the management of their bank accounts.
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