Whole-of-government systems and processes are paving the way for the era of the "joined-up" government.
E-business and e-government are about the art of the possible, which extends far beyond current business-to-consumer and government-to-consumer initiatives and the Webification of information.
Government agencies and departments need to progress through various levels of maturity before they reach the Nirvana that is e-government.
There are essentially four stages of e-business, which equate directly to e-government. The first stage is recognised by all and is basically brochure-ware, in which Web sites are only used to provide information. The second stage is simple G2C or G2B transactions within the one agency. This is not interactive but provides some consumer benefit, such as paying RTA car registration; however, it mostly impacts internal agency processes.
The third stage is complex G2C or G2B transactions, also within the one agency. It is interactive but transactions are limited by the scope of the agency, such as helping a citizen determine their tax liability online and then taking the payment online.
The final stage is complex customer-centric transactions, which span multiple agencies and require G2G capabilities. This stage entails citizen-, business- or government-initiated transactions that use all relevant information about the transaction regardless of what agency owns the data.
For example, a Department of Community Services (DoCS) caseworker dealing with a family has access to all related information to assist in properly dealing with any situation. This does not mean an increase in big brother-type activities but rather, a better, more efficient way of using information that already exists. Another example is when a citizen or business changes its contact details or business licensing without needing to know which government branch has the responsibility.
The Next Stage
At the moment, most agencies are at stage two in their e-business development. They have progressed beyond the www.whatever-you-want.com stage, where the objective was to develop static, informational Web sites. From here the concept shifted towards actually getting transactional e-business up and running and the dotcoms (now dotgones) were born.
We are now witnessing a trend of emerging rationalism where the objective is to get e-business earning money, not burning it. Some agencies, such as the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) are venturing ahead. Most understand the benefits beyond mere transactional capabilities and are ready to embrace them.
While Australia and New Zealand are among the leaders in this development, it will take serious business process re-engineering and change management to extend the e-government movement beyond government-to-citizen and government-to-business initiatives, as current government structures and procedures are a myriad of agencies and departments acting autonomously.
Many analysts envisage an alternative they call a "joined-up government". This describes agencies working within the one support structure and with a shared network of resources. The idea is to trim down the government and replace individual agency and department support mechanisms with whole-of-government systems and processes, allowing departments to interact and share information.
Taken a step further, it is possible to have a "joined-up economy", made up of government and enterprise with the shared goal of being competitive in a global economy.
Business vs Government
The idea is not as abstract as it might first appear. Government and business face the same pressures, deadlines and challenges and recognise similar benefits from e-business. The majority of organisations are refocusing, rationalising and restructuring to remove the silo mentality and do more with less, faster, more effectively and consistently. They are striving to save costs while still aiming to provide better services, in the manner and the location expected by customers. Social issues such as privacy and the digital divide also impact the development of e-business and e-government.
The government and private sectors have been equally susceptible to the limitations of e-business trends, with government struggling to understand how e-technology can change the way it does business as an information-rich, process-dependent entity.
The main barriers to e-government are working with people and the structures they have put in place. In a lot of cases, individuals are not willing to change the way they do things, even for a better way. Agencies are concerned about the responsibility and ownership of information and government as a whole needs to adopt a more customer-centric approach to citizens, as opposed to an agency-centric style.
The 96/4 Rule
Government is not alone in its lack of understanding about e-business. The majority of people do not grasp the full implications of the new market cycle, which is a combination of the end of the industrial revolution and the beginning of the New Economy. The goal under this regime is a joined-up economy, where it will not be about small steps but huge leaps forward.
Any new product or idea takes time to be diffused through society and accepted by the majority of people. The principle applies to anything from Darwin's theory of natural selection to a CD player. And in the case of the information economy, political and social concerns, such as privacy and security, are additional hurdles.
The market cycle is represented by a bell curve and is divided up into pre-intro (where the product is being developed), introduction (where only the unwise buy it), early adopters and then general acceptance.
The Paerto rule, or the 80/20 rule, says that 80 per cent of people do not understand something new, while 20 per cent of people think they understand it. In the New Economy you can expand on this to make it the 96/4 rule. Here 80 per cent of people do not understand it and 20 per cent of people think they understand it. Of the 20 per cent who think they understand it, 20 per cent actually do and 80 per cent do not - making it 4 per cent who actually understand the New Economy and 96 per cent who haven't a clue.
The 4 per cent are early adopters. For a market to get from this introductory stage to complex customer-centric transactions, this 4 per cent needs to grow to 20 per cent.
This journey involves a transition from awareness to understanding and then action. People certainly recognise the term e-business but actually being able to define it is another matter. People do not understand what is possible until they see it and they do not apply it until they understand it. And when they do apply it they don't understand how to do it. Understanding is undermined as the introduction of a new market cycle is characterised by confusion and frenzy, trials and tribulations. There are too many experts, snake oil peddlers and failures and not enough successes to act as the guiding light.
Gartner Group believes that beyond the first phase of transition to e-services, the public sector will experience a series of e-shocks or tectonic shifts. Furthermore, current economic and government thinking is based on ideas from the industrial revolution, which means big business and multi-level structures.
Technology has made some of the problems disappear. The issue of who owns the data is now void, replaced by common definitions and the idea that e-government is not about one central depositary of data, but about sharing information from wherever it resides. There is no need to secure a central database of information and the security and transaction management is done at each agency level. Social concerns about the privacy of information are also being assuaged as people begin to realise that the information being used is the same as it always has been - it is simply shared more effectively between relevant organisations.
The reason governments are striving to adopt e-government is because they cannot afford the huge overheads entailed in government as it becomes bigger, more inflexible and complex. Services need to be provided more cost effectively, efficiently and to a broader base.
E-government will also attract new business as it will be easier to navigate government administration, it will be easier to set up a business, and industry will be more willing to invest in government and economy projects.
An e-government implies macro changes and ramifications as well as cost and citizen benefits. National governments need to become more competitive globally, because it becomes easier to deal with government the more the economy strengthens. The dollar follows suit and foreign investment is attracted to a buoyant economy. As a result, government resources are freed to focus on big picture things as opposed to basic service levels.
The outcome for consumers and citizens is access to more and better services for everything, anytime, anywhere. It is a mutually beneficial scenario as government is able to extend these extra services further, more efficiently and effectively and can encourage a self-service mentality.
The concept of e-government is starting to diffuse through government, business and citizens and the results will be extraordinary across the board, not isolated to particular companies or agencies. A stronger economy and better standard of living can be had by all when the concept of a "joined-up economy" becomes more than academic talk.
Stephen Barripp is principal, Public Sector practice, Unisys Australia/New Zealand
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