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Strasbourg, 3 June 2002

Integrated Project 1:

e-Governance Workshop

10-11 June, 2002
What is e-governance? By Kate OAKLEY

Kate Oakley
Associate Director
Local Futures Group
3, Queen Sq
London WC1N 3AU
[email protected]


This paper is a brief introduction to the notion of ‘e-governance,’ which I define as a set of technology-mediated processes that are changing both the delivery of public services and the broader interactions between citizens and government.

Evidence for the impact of these changes is currently weak, partly because it is fairly early in the process and partly because many governmental systems are more adept at measuring internal processes than external effects. Nevertheless, I shall try where possible to give ‘real life’ examples of the changes being brought about by e-governance, based on our extensive work both in the UK and elsewhere.

The paper will look briefly at the notion of ‘e-governance’, which we see as part of broader efforts to modernise government. We use the terms ‘e-governance,’ rather than ‘e-government’ to capture the notion of changed institutional relationships and the involvement of partners, both from civil society and business, in e-governance. E-government refers more narrowly to processes of national, local or regional government. We will propose three ‘models’ of e-governance that are currently operating – though we accept that national e-governance efforts may combine elements from one or more model. We will then look at examples of public service delivery and at how e-governance is changing, or has the potential to change, the democratic landscape. In conclusion, we will look at the weaknesses in the current approach and at how it may change in future.

Who is e-governance good for?

The notion of e-governance has its roots in attempts in many countries to ‘modernise’ government in response to perceived citizen dissatisfaction or disengagement. The manner of this disengagement varies, but has been reflected in many countries is falling voter numbers, and particularly in the ‘Anglo Saxon’ democracies, in a perception that public services are failing and of poor quality. This can result in ‘opting out’ on the part of the more affluent in favour of privately provided services including education and healthcare, with a consequent fracturing of the social consensus on the provision of these services.

Although information and communications technology (ICTs) have been used in government for the last fifty years and technologies such as the Internet or the world-wide web were both the result of work in publicly-funded or government institutions, the notion of e- governance is more recent. In the UK, the idea was born out of work on ‘Modernising Government,’ which was associated with the New Labour Administration, elected in 1997.

This notion of ‘modernisation’ was intimately connected with what was sometimes called,’joined up’ or ‘holistic’ government. The benefits of this were felt to be twofold: it was an attempt to reconstruct government in the interests of the citizens, rather than the producers, moving away from ‘departments,’ and ‘silos’ towards ‘personalization’ and ‘life events’. Secondly, there is widespread agreement that many social problems, from crime to poor educational performance are the result of multiple interactions and the only way to tackle these issues more effectively is to understand these interactions better. And this means ‘joining up’ the information that we have – so that for example, if we know that much petty crime is committed by children who play truant from school, we can identify truants at an earlier stage (or even the behaviour that leads to truancy) and hopefully prevent some crime. This means having an integrated view of the information that is held on citizens, a sort of social ‘knowledge management,’ that was impossible before the advent of widespread ICTs.

Another driver for e-government is the belief that the widespread adoption of digital technologies is vital to national competitiveness in the future. Although the evidence on this is surprisingly weak, 1all governments are concerned that if they cannot get citizens to use new technology effectively and to develop the skills increasingly required by employers then living standards will be threatened.

So there are four primary reasons why e-governance is important and has captured the imagination of many in government. It encourages the take up of digital technologies that are crucial to economic competitiveness, it allows government to redefine its role and become more citizen-focused, it enables us to ‘join-up’ information and hence govern more effectively and it can reduce the cost while not compromising the quality of public services.

All of these drivers are important, but a valid criticism of e-governance so far is that it remains supply-side driven, understanding of public demand in this area is under-developed and there is a real danger that many countries will meet their ‘targets’ for online public services, yet this will be greeted with mass indifference. If e-governance is to succeed in transforming the citizens’ experience of both public services and of decision-making it needs to pay greater attention to demand rather than supply-side issues. In the next section, we will look at the different models of e-governance that seem to be developing world wide and at how they reflect citizens’ needs and aspirations in different contexts.

Models of e-government

Just as ‘governance’ varies from place to place, so does e-governance and we are mistaken if we view the technology as ‘neutral’ or take too deterministic a view of e-governance. E-governance will be different in Australia, or France or Malaysia, just as it will be different at the local level – in Inner London or rural Scotland for example. The technological processes may be similar, but the norms, assumptions, and political drivers will vary hugely.

Our international work has convinced us that there are at least three main models of e-government currently operating:

  • The ‘new economy’ model – this stresses the similarities between e-government and e-business, is focused on delivering high quality public services and on moving to a more ‘self service’ citizenship, which over time will shrink the size of the state. E-governance is seen both as a response to the demands of businesses and of citizens used to dealing with e-businesses and hence stresses convenience, 24-hour access and so on. It is also seen as a regional and local tool for economic development – the development of e-governance will help attract high technology businesses to an area, perceived as technology friendly. In this model, the development of infrastructure tends to follow the market, with a consequent ‘digital divide.’ The US is the best example of this, but other countries such as New Zealand or the UK have adopted elements of this model.
  • The ‘e-community model’ – more favoured in continental European societies, particularly those such as the Netherlands or Scandinavians which have a strong tradition of civil society and freedom of information, high levels of education and technology penetration and a relatively even distribution of wealth. Civic networks and public access have always been importance in this model and where digital divides exist, there is often local level public intervention to mitigate the worst aspects. This model stresses potential social innovations resulting from widespread access and the role of citizens as co-producers of services.2
  • The planned economy model – used in countries such as Singapore or Malaysia, which traditionally use interventionist public sector tools to drive and shape private sector activity and investment. As in the ‘new economy’ model, economic development is very much a driver, but the development of infrastructure and the skills to use it is seen as a government responsibility, with heavy subsidies for the construction of (particularly broadband) networks.

As commented earlier, national models do not fall neatly into these categories and the UK for example contains elements of all three. The early rhetoric was very much about the ‘new economy’ model, but the dot.com bust and subsequent scepticism about new technology hype has lead to a redressing of this rhetoric. A good example of this can be seen in the 2005 targets, initiated by Prime Minister Tony Blair. These have been widely criticised for measuring availability, rather than take-up or benefits and in recent months, attempts have been made to switch the focus of these targets to those services which will have a measurable social or economic benefit. In addition, while broadband deployment had been left largely to the market, concerns about slow take-up and uneven economic development have recently prompted moves for public intervention in broadband deployment.

Although the models vary widely, all three can perhaps be criticised for sometimes being too ‘top down’ or supplier-driven. The first model responds to the needs of businesses, but not those of less affluent citizens. The third is paternalistic – ‘you will have access to technology, because it’s good for you!’ And even the second, which develops from a stronger ‘community’ model, privileges some types of communities (those that want to get involved) over others (those that want to be left alone).

Impact analysis is vital if e-governance is to make real differences to people and succeed in being anything more than just a collection of government websites and portals. Despite the plethora of e-governance systems, at both local and national level across the world, many of the results available so far point to improved administrative processes –rather than to the impacts on the citizens or places. In other words, it is easy to find examples of how social services in a particular area have moved to using a handful of forms, rather than 200, to process a claim but much harder to find out the impact of this on the clients of the social services department.

In the next section, I will turn to examples of e-governance both in public service delivery and in citizen’s engagement and will hope to determine what such impacts might be and how beneficial impacts can be created.

The story so far….

As noted earlier, the promise of e-governance is really that of ‘joined up’ governance and the major payoffs will come when technology makes possible the linking of disparate sets of information; the sharing of information and policy processes with citizens and the increased activity of citizens as producers, not just passive consumers of services. So far, most of the activity we have seen, in the UK and to varying degrees elsewhere, has been about the automation of certain services and the greater provision of information via websites and so on. These activities should not be derided. Very few citizens may want to read the minutes of council meetings online, but the provision of more government information is often vital to NGOs, advocacy organisations and so on. And the improvement in internal government processes – stopping civil servants in the Inland Revenue from having to type in every tax return, for example, should free up resources for more value-added activities.

But the ‘big wins’ are perhaps a little further down the line and will depend on a great degree of integration of government and other public sector systems. However, some hopeful signs of change can be seen:

Decentralisation of government. Sophisticated ICT systems are leading to a greater decentralisation of government. This can be particularly observed at the local level, where neighbourhood offices, one-stop shops and call centres are replacing the trek to the town hall or housing benefit office. These newer forms of neighbourhood offices or one stop shops, seek to provide access to a complete range of services – rather as the bank branch does to the banking network. This relies on having accurate information on citizens available across the system, but the opportunity it opens up is greater responsiveness to local needs – often at the neighbourhood level. The closer to the ‘front end’ that decisions about service provision can be made, the closer they can reflect local needs.

Liverpool City Council, in its joint venture with British Telecom, a 24/7 call centre known as ‘Liverpool Direct,’ is aiming to move around 80 per cent of its dealing with citizens from the ‘back office’ departmental system of the town hall to these ‘front office’ call centres and one stop shops. The relatively small number of staff in each one stop shop or call centre and the closeness they have to the population they serve means that they are more likely to see themselves as advocates of citizen needs, rather than as producers of services.

Users as co-producers. In order for citizens to become really active users and indeed co-producers of public services, citizens have to be increasingly involved in and aware of the information on which decisions are made. One way to develop this process is being pioneered in The Hague where citizens can select different public service ‘packages’ in return for revealing different levels of personal information. This is an acknowledgement that joined up government requires a large degree of information about individual citizens needs and preferences and that citizens can be empowered to decide what level of trade-off they want to make.

Of course there are dangers that over-personalised public services risk atomisation and reward those citizens that are easy to serve, make little demand on services and can use the Internet proficiently. In the public sector the data collected by personalisation is primarily a social resource and should be used for collective benefit. Thus if we collect evidence that people who do x are more likely to do y, we should be able to reduce the costs of production processes, by targeting resources more effectively – not just at individuals, but at society at large, by developing education programmes to demonstrate the benefits of doing x. These trade offs are likely to become even more apparent as smart card technology increases as a delivery vehicle. The utility of such cards is related to the amount of personal information they hold.

Partnerships of place, not organisation. Among the new organisational vehicles that are resulting from e-government are public/private partnerships such as Liverpool Direct and others, which bring together private sector systems and technology expertise with public sector services and values. Some of these benefits are financial – the ‘downtime’ for staff at Liverpool Direct call centre is used to chase bad debts and arrears, resulting in significant savings, while the cost savings on processing disabled parking badges has allowed the price of them to be reduced from £7 to zero. Others are reputational – people now talk about ’calling Liverpool Direct’; when they want an issue addressed. Although the ‘branding’ implications of that may worry some local governments, it has been instrumental in turning around the perception of an authority that was failing and is now seen as more dynamic.

Further benefits are flowing from partnerships with other public sectors or civil organisations. One aspect of being able to offer a better service is access to a significantly wider range of information, much of which sits outside the Local Authority. The London Borough of Wandsworth’s site is based on place, the area of Wandsworth, rather than the council and contains information on weather, tourist activities, crime rates and so on. It has pioneered online planning applications and in liaison with the Metropolitan Police, it will notify residents of criminal activity in their area, via an email bulletin.

A more sophisticated version of such sites are ‘observatories’ including the one recently developed for Kingston upon Hull (hull.localknowledge.co.uk), which brought together different data sets from different partners and then mapped the information in an easy to understand graphical form. The ‘neighbourhoods’ on which the information was mapped were also re-constructed to reflect where people feel they live and identify with, rather than administrative boundaries. Again, this opens up the possibilities of new forms of localism, based on richer data sets and knowledge about the places that people inhabit – not the organisational categories they are assigned to.

Improved services. Services produced at a reduced cost, or made more widely available are becoming a feature of these e-governance experiments, but genuinely transformed services are more rare. This is partly a result of uneven access to technology and again re-enforces the point that the bigger payoffs will only come when access is at, or close to, being universal. This is because running parallel systems remains expensive and because a (virtually) universal service, like income tax cannot be transformed in part – the whole system has to be re-engineered. Given this, it is to Scandinavia and other countries where technology adoption is far higher that we usually look to for transformed systems. Nearly three million Finns no longer have to file a tax return and traditional tax forms have been replaced by what is known as 'tax proposals.' Instead of asking taxpayers to report their income and property, the tax authority collects the necessary data from employers, insurance companies, property registers and so on. The tax authority then compiles this information and sends a pre-filled tax form to the citizen who can supply more information if needed, or simply accept the tax proposal. In the vast majority of cases, the citizen need take no action at all. All he or she then has to do is wait for the refund or pay what is owed. Since this system was introduced around five years ago, only 20-25 per cent of citizens now have to submit a tax return. More importantly, such a system requires a relatively simple taxation system - exceptions are costly to deal with -and since its introduction the system has indeed been simplified.

Citizen involvement - the democratic potential of ICTs has long been recognized and much of the early enthusiasms for and experimentation with, online communities, reflected this. Most clearly, technologies like the Internet make more information available to more people. Governments can still bypass this and secrecy has hardly gone away, but the ability of citizens and advocacy groups to discover more about decisions that affect them and even the basis of these decisions is undoubtedly enhanced. This greater ‘transparency’ is often over-emphasised, but the ability of citizens and advocacy groups to share a common knowledge base with decision makers, has huge potential.

Indeed, according to research from the US,3 while over 60 per cent of those who use Government websites have used them to find out about public policy issues that effects them, less than 20 per cent have used them to perform transactions such as paying taxes or applying for licences. This suggests that the re-design of public interactions with government may be a bigger incentive to use e-governance than the re-design of public services.

So far, while e-voting seems to be falling from favour, at least in some countries (in recent UK local council elections, e-voting only increased turnout by a small percentage), participation in everything from planning to citizens juries or panels on a wide range of issues, is gaining in popularity. While there are legitimate concerns about the effects of such ‘direct democracy,’ particularly where access to technology is unevenly distributed among groups, the greater involvement of citizens in decisions that affects them is undoubtedly to be welcomed. What we need now are more sophisticated ICT tools, that can capture informal, ‘local knowledge’ that people carry in their heads, as well as the rather more formal, educated discourse that tends to dominate the content of these systems.


The early life of e-governance initiatives has already seen a shift in understanding, from the view that increasing access to services by putting them on the web was all that was needed, to a more sophisticated notion of a transformed public realm. ICTs of course only enable this transformation, they do not create it and hence the social and political norms in any areas will determine the outcome of the ‘e-governance’ systems.

We are now starting to see change in governmental institutions: a greater emphasis on ‘partnership working,’ both with citizens, businesses and third sector organisations; decentralisation and changes in working processes; more knowledge intensive and personalised services and in some cases, greater openness and transparency of political processes. All of these trends have a long way to go and many could be stopped in their tracks, by issues of uneven access to technology or content which alienates or patronises users.

We need to develop far more sophisticated systems for capturing and measuring the impact of e-governance, so that we can judge its success in other than just crude, ‘availability’ terms. And we need to be able to judge the real impact on citizens, not just changes in production or distribution of public services.

Above all, e-governance needs to be seen as part of governance, not as an add-on. Decisions about technology – from use of open source to the treatment of personal data – are more and more in the political realm and this is to be welcomed. Because only when we can drop the ‘e’ and return to talking about governance, can e-governance be said to have succeeded.

1 See for example, Getting the Measure of the New Economy, Diane Coyle and Danny Quah (2002)

2 See particularly, the Dutch government document, ‘Contract with the Future, A vision on the electronic relationship between government and citizen,’ (2000)

3 The rise of the e-citizen, Pew Internet and American Life Project (2002)