Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The failure of e-government

Ten years on, Web-based public services are indispensable to governments and citizens alike. Yet governments are struggling with the complexity of e-services, while critics say today's bureaucracies are equipped to meet the demands of the digital era.

Happy birthday e-government. It is ten years since governments in Singapore, the UK and elsewhere unleashed web-based public services on an unsuspecting citizenry.

Now every government in the world, urged on by the UN and the World Bank, is either already offering online tax payments, school holiday information and dog licenses, registrar, or is planning to offer them soon.

But e-government suffers the problems that bedevil all areas of government IT -- complexity, rising end-user expectations, technology disruption, turf battles and cost, not to mention the difficulties in measuring performance.

E-government has gone through three phases, according to Steve Yeo, vice president for strategic initiatives, EDS Asia. The first phase was simply getting information online, and the second was transactions. The third goal of governments today is to achieve genuine one-stop service "regardless of how the government is organized."

Asia boasts three of the best-performing e-governments in the world --Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, which consistently rank in the top dozen of global e-readiness surveys and top all of the regional studies.

They all hew fairly closely to the same formula. On the technology side, that means open platforms and standards, a flexible architecture, and increasingly wide use of service-oriented architecture (SOA).

But that's the easy part. The real issue is in the structure and behavior of governments themselves.

"It's not a technology issue," says Stephen Furst, the head of public sector for SAP Asia-Pacific. "It's about agencies being ready to give up some autonomy. It's also about collaboration, information, data sharing and access to data across agencies."

Furst, who has worked as an adviser on a number of e-government programs, said one of the big lessons was the need for "one central authority that is responsible for defining and enforcing those standards."

Other experts in online government made the same point. As an example, K.B. Yip, director e-government consulting at the NCS Group, notes that some years back the Singapore government directed that all services that could be put online should be put online.

"That means there is no debate about whether these services should be exposed online or not. If they are exposable, it should be exposed," said Yip.

Proliferation of websites
Furst said it is often the Ministry of Science & Technology, or the ICT regulator that is given the lead role. The problem is that as the program evolves "they tend to take responsibilities for parts of the e-agenda, and then you have the turf wars."

The tried-and-trusted solution is to split the executive and policy-setting from the implementation, leaving the latter to agency level in coordination with the central authority.

Singapore's tech-friendly government is a classic example. Major initiatives have the support of the Prime Minister's office. Policy is set by the Ministry of Finance (MoF), and overseen by a council of permanent secretaries. The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) is well-established as the lead agency, working closely with the MoF and the ministries themselves.

One of the useful tools for unthreading the complexity of e-government has been SOA. Effectively, this allows websites to be more easily linked across a common front end.

"SOA usually means you have a portal which is the window for the government. Whatever goes on behind the portal is transparent to the citizen," is how Yip puts it. That's how it is now in Singapore, and now the focus is on getting the back-end to be more integrated, he added. The result, however, is a proliferation of websites.

The Hong Kong government has 16 main websites. Deputy government CIO Linda So lists the burgeoning number of sites as one of the biggest issues, along with low utilization of the services.

She also concedes that the government is still locked in a government-centric, silo approach, making it difficult for users unfamiliar with departmental names and structures to find their way around online.

The big question is just how many websites is too many? Or just what other metrics can governments use to measure IT performance?

Says EDS's Yeo: "I think they are all struggling, quite frankly. My observation is they don't have clear KPIs (key performance indicators to measure success or failure. Cost-cutting is not the best measure."

In contrast to commercial websites, which seek to measure specific values, be it traffic, click-throughs or revenue, governments depend heavily on public perceptions.

"It's a big thing, especially in a democracy. Reflection depends on perception," says Furst. He says UK governments have set specific measures for borough councils. Those who have implemented end-to-end ERP systems and CRM for social services "have watched their ranking go up dramatically. The task is to get decision-makers to recognize the value."

Singapore monitors performance of its investments via a government methodology as well as against the total value of the project to the agency.

Tan Kar Joo, senior director of IDA's e-government policies and programs division, says performance is also measured at three levels: across the whole of government and at the agency and customer service levels.

Key metrics are customer satisfaction, and usage of the site and, for the agencies, evaluations against a set of prescribed benchmarks, Tan said.

Yet consumer adoption of online government initiatives is not the only measure of success. Ovum research director, public sector, Steve Hodgkinson, says the purpose of e-government is to use IT as a catalyst and enabler of operational reforms.

In this, he echoes virtually every other government official or consultant: that one of the roles of e-government is to reform government.

The aim is to get the joined-up government, says IDA's Tan -- "it's a continuous journey."

Yet a deeper problem is that e-government requires bureaucracies to function in a fashion they are not accustomed to.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) office, which last year critically reviewed Australian government online programs, said the public sector was stuck in a mindset that is out of date.

"The trouble is that the public sector has spent the last 50 years or so developing and refining output-based planning, budgeting and performance management models," ANAO argued. "This approach served its purpose for the previous few decades -- boosting public sector performance by strengthening organizational focus and accountability."

But this means it is "ill-prepared" for e-government, which requires the careful management of public processes, enabling public access to information, customer service satisfaction, and public consultation.

Ovum research director, public sector, Steve Hodgkinson, says it comes back to the public sector's challenge of conflicting mandates and requirements, pulling in different directions.

On one side is the pull toward a vertical focus on service delivery, leading to decentralization. The second "is pulling towards citizen-centric policies that require collaboration and joined-up, integrated, horizontal solutions."

The third side pulls towards means rather than ends -- to the need to manage people and processes on an enterprise-wide basis in order to "create the organizational glue" for smooth integration across the sector.

Hodgkinson concludes, "The bottom line is that CIOs are engaged in a battle with one of the toughest operational reform monsters in the public sector today.

"However, the strategy has changed and the fragmented approach leaves the public sector ill-prepared to deliver the government's outcome-based policy aspirations."

yes perhaps, for all its popularity among users and bureaucrats, e-government hasn't changed much.

[via: http://www.enterpriseinnovation.net/article.php?cat1=1&id=1090]