The e-government road not yet travelled looks very bumpy indeed.
E-Government rankings have been the fashion of the last year. Several research groups, consulting firms, government and non-government organisations have engaged in relatively high-profile surveys to detect who is best, who is leading and who is trailing behind in electronic government service delivery. Significant examples include Accenture, the European Commission with Cap Gemini, Ernst & Young, Taylor Nelson Sofres and the World Market Research Centre, just to name a few. All these surveys tend to highlight how many services are available online and what is the level of interaction that is possible, ranging from just finding some basic information on a Web site, to conducting a complex, end-to-end transaction online.
In most of these surveys, Australia ranks in the top three or four countries, and this clearly witnesses the comparatively high level of maturity of several online government initiatives in the country, at all levels (from federal, though state, to local). This is indeed reasonable, as geographic and economic drivers have been strong pulls for earlier initiatives than in other parts of the world.
However Australia, as well as most other well developed countries, has entered a new, more complex phase in the e-government transformation process. In Gartner's definitions, e-government is a transformation process of internal and external public sector relationships using information and communication technologies to optimise 1) constituents' service levels, 2) operational efficiency and 3) constituent participation.
What has been achieved so far is mostly about the transformation of external relationships, that is government-to-citizen or government-to-business, through the establishment of portals, Web sites, electronic transactions and so forth. The road ahead is about the internal transformation, that is government-to-government, across agencies and - where appropriate - across different tiers of government.
This part of the transformation is far more complex, as it encompasses technological, regulatory and organisational challenges. On the technology side, issues like metadata modelling, identification, authentication and security, application integration, top the agenda of agency CIOs and IT directors. Significant progress is being done both at federal and state level on most of these issues. For instance, the NOIE's recent document on authentication approaches is a comprehensive, down-to-earth, piece of guidance for all agencies, getting away from the more prescriptive (and restrictive) approach that other countries are promoting and stimulating a scalable, stepwise approach to this complex matter. Also on the data modelling front, the Australian Government Location Service (AGSL) has been one of the very first government-oriented instances of the so-called Dublin Core.
However, even with all the basic components already in place, the endeavour remains tough. Not all states, and certainly not all local authorities, give their wholehearted agreement to some of those standards and initiatives. For instance, whereas the Australian Local Government Association is coordinating data modelling initiatives around the AGLS, there are some local governments claiming that a more bottom-up approach would better serve their needs.
Therefore, whereas there are spots of excellence across the country and comparatively more success stories than in most other parts of the world, the effort is still considerable. Looking at the Gartner e-government hype cycle (see Figure 1), showing how visibility, level of enthusiasm and political support to the endeavour varies over time, Australia is probably leading the pack of countries that are sliding from a peak of inflated expectations down to a trough of disillusionment. This is a perfectly natural path: it happened for e-business as well as for several other technologies and technology-driven phenomena.
The good news is that some of the elements that are of capital importance to make the trough less deep and to accelerate the recovery are being looked at in various agencies government-wide. For instance, initiatives like the business licensing in NSW or the business entry point at a federal level, as well as many of the efforts at Centrelink, witness substantial attention to the need for re-engineering processes and back office operations. On the downside, however, is the economic uncertainty. Whereas Australia has been so far relatively unaffected by the recessive economy, growing economic concerns in the Western economy, as well as the war climate, may drive political concerns out of issues like the information economy and e-government. In Australia and in other parts of the world, treasuries and auditors general will start looking with increasing interest at how much more needs to be spent and to the value that these initiatives are bringing to government and the public at large.
The area of measurement and definition of adequate metrics to assess the real value of e-government, beyond a relatively traditional cost-benefit analysis, is one that definitely needs further development. An e-government initiative usually has three impact areas: service level, operational efficiency and political return (that is, impact on economy and society). An effective measurement approach should develop a few metrics across those three areas, trying to go beyond the obvious.
For instance traditional metrics for service levels tend to be the depth of the service - that is how much interaction is possible online. However other relevant measures include: the actual cost for a constituent to get the service (a combination of time spent online and offline, and hugely influenced by form complexity, administrative processes and so forth); and the ratio between the value of that interaction and the actual cost (as one is more available to accept a higher cost where there is a higher value).
Looking at operational efficiency measures - beyond the usual cost per transaction or number of transactions per employees - there are other more subtle parameters that permit an appraisal of the effectiveness and depth on internal transformation. For instance, the percentage of transactions that are initiated online but completed on a different channel; or the number of steps required for a transaction to be processed, or even the ratio between external and internal electronic message exchanges (as a measure of the degree of internal application integration vs pure Web enablement).
Last but not least, there are political, economic and societal impacts to be taken into account. Interesting examples here are some e-procurement initiatives that, while delivering huge savings, can create disruptions to local economies due to procurement centralisation. Or voting experiments via Internet or mobile phone, which may alter results by targeting specific demographic segments of the population.
An additional area where attention is required is the relationship with the private, non-government sector. A typical feature of e-government so far has been an excessive concern over issues like ownership and branding. There is often an assumption that governments must create and own their virtual one-stop shop and constituents will be well off with it. The reality is different, though; for many interactions between citizens or enterprises and governments, there are traditional or new intermediaries that may be a more appropriate contact point - accountants or banks or tax filing, a car dealer or an insurance company for a car registration or driving licence renewal, a travel agent for buying a museum ticket, a chamber of commerce to change a business registration, and so forth.
Without waiving its responsibilities in actually managing transactions or delivering information, government agencies may exploit partnership with private sector players in three distinct ways.
First of all, as traditional intermediaries. As a service used to be intermediated offline, it may be appropriate to intermediate it online.
Secondly, intermediaries may help in the integration task. For instance, almost no government has implemented a single change of address procedure allowing a citizen to communicate the change to a single point and being sure that the same information is forwarded to and correctly updated by all the agencies concerned. However there are intermediaries, either specific ones, or post offices rather than utilities, that can do it on behalf of government, making sure that information is delivered where is needed (that is, to each agency).
Thirdly, and most importantly, governments must be concerned with total inclusion (that is, all constituents must be granted equal opportunities and comparable service levels). The right way to provide compelling, high-quality online services is by engaging private players who compete with each other and have a business interest to raise the bar of quality. So far, too many government Web sites, ad portals and online services have indulged in fanciness and imitation of commercial sites. It is time to get back to the basics and use technology where the core business is.
Andrea Di Maio is research director, business process and applications management, Gartner