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Feel the Engagement

Feel the Engagement

The real challenge to success in e-government is not technical, but cultural and organizational

The real challenge to success in e-government is not technical, but cultural and organizational.

Public sector managers need to adopt an attitude an attitude of cautious but sustained experimentation as they examine new ways to improve relationships with citizens and work to overcome current confusion and a patchy record on the e-government project.

But they also must accept that it will take considerable time to figure out how new tools impact a deeper level of engagement and connection between citizens and governments, according to Martin Stewart-Weeks, director, public sector (Asia-Pacific) Internet Business Solutions Group for Cisco Systems.

The first wave of reform in all of this has been focused very much on the service delivery end, which is not unexpected of course because it's often where people have their most direct experience of dealing with governments

Martin Stewart-Weeks, Cisco Systems

"[CIOs need to] recognize that the technologies themselves have shifted and evolved to the point where this dimension of the debate can no longer be ignored. I think they have got to get their heads around it, to put it in the vernacular."

Stewart-Weeks wrote an opinion piece this week for [ital]On Line Opinion[end], which describes itself as Australia's e-journal of social and political debate, called "Never mind the service delivery, feel the citizen engagement". In it he argues that the patchy track record of governments on the e-government project over the last decade (featuring "some steady progress, a few outstanding successes and some dispiriting failures") has allowed three insights.

First, the real challenge to success in e-government is not technical, but cultural and organizational. "Not surprisingly, we've worked out that realizing the promise of new communication and collaboration technologies in government is much more about the people than it is about the machines and networks," he says.

Second, that e-government only becomes compelling when it is invisible: "An integral part of the larger endeavours of public sector reform, democratic renewal, and the changing role of government in the knowledge economy."

And finally, governments have been more interesting in increasing the reach, convenience and quality of services than in enhancing the reach, convenience and quality of the basic relationship citizens enjoy, or endure, with their governments.

"The first wave of reform in all of this has been focused very much on the service delivery end, which is not unexpected of course because it's often where people have their most direct experience of dealing with governments, so Centrelink and the Tax Office and Education Departments and Health Departments and so on have been busy trying to find ways to use these new tools and technologies to improve the convenience and effectiveness of service delivery," Stewart-Weeks says.

"I think what's also been in the mix, although less focused on to this point, is how these tools impact a deeper level of engagement and connection between citizens and governments, and that tends to be around a whole series of issues relating to the way governments engage with and talk to and listen to constituents around all sorts of things: policy development, particular program changes, getting feedback from customers about the issues that are bothering them — all of that kind of stuff."

The consensus around the world is that this dimension of e-government has been somewhat underdone because it has so far proved so challenging, he says, although the advent of Web 2.0 does seem to be providing some simple, easy-to-use and very reliable tools that play very directly to this issue of how governments listen to and connect with their citizens.

Even managers unfamiliar with Skype, wikis, podcasting, blogging, social networking sites like MySpace and Flickr and Wikipedia, need to understand that their cumulative, and it seems irreversible effect, is to make it easier to harness the collective intelligence of massively dispersed communities of people and interests and their diverse experience and expertise.

"These rapid changes and bewildering opportunities are conspiring to confuse the world of politicians and public sector managers," Stewart-Weeks says. He recommends a new book, Electronic Engagement: A Guide for Public Sector Managers (ANU E-Press, 2007) by leading Australian e-democracy researcher and analyst Peter Chen, that aims to "equip public sector managers to assess the value that new communications and computing technology may bring to their interactions with a range of potential stakeholders".

Written for managers keen to expand their approach to public engagement, it sets out a typology of engagement consisting of three distinct activities — active listening, cultivating and steering.

"What this timely guide suggests is that we need to confront, in an intelligent and practical way, the possibility that the tools and capabilities of 'electronic engagement' are making new demands on all who are involved, in some way or another, in the business of governing and in nurturing a resilient public realm. And that should mean all of us," he says.

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