- By William Matthews
- Aug 27, 2001
In Scotland, the new parliament is broadcasting its sessions via the Internet. Motorists in Canada can register their vehicles online, and when businessis slow at rural registration offices, the government is planning to transfer work electronically from busier urban offices. It is possible in Morocco to make a doctor's appointment at a state-run clinic online.
Electronic government is popping up all over the world. Even in Mongolia, it's possible to contact government officials via the Internet.
But e-government's global development remains largely haphazard. Dutch manufacturers, for example, applaud the ability to conduct business with the national government via e-mail and complain when they must revert to paper to deal with government officials at the municipal level.
The manufacturers' plight would likely be reversed in the United States, where the practice of e-government by cities and states is often far ahead of federal efforts.
Canada, one of the world's most advanced e-governments, seems to be "blindly Web-ifying a bunch of government services," rather than following a deliberate e-government strategy, complained James Sharp, a technology analyst for Forrester Research Inc.
In Europe, the concept of e-government has gained a solid foothold, but it is stymied by factors such as metered local phone service. Paying by the minute to use the Internet can make e-government discouragingly expensive. And Europe's cash-based economies, where few people other than tourists use credit cards, seem ill-suited for online transactions.
Even in the most advanced e-governments Singapore, Canada and the United States, as ranked by the consulting company Accenture functionality remains limited. At its best, e-government has achieved about 20 percent of its potential, said David Hunter, Accenture's global managing partnerfor government. "There's a lot of headroom" for growth.
By the end of 1999, many governments had more or less mastered the first and simplest stage of e-government: putting information online. But few have gone much further.
"Right now, the stage of e-government is overwhelmingly informational,"said Stephen Ronaghan, who is directing a global survey of e-governments for the United Nations.
The next step, providing services online, is much more complicated. And the goal of seamlessly enabling citizens to obtain services from multiple agencies at different levels of government remains more theory than reality.
Singapore is widely recognized as having the world's most advanced e-government yet offers few online transactions, Ronaghan said. For most public services, Singapore offers forms online that can be downloaded, printed, filled out and mailed to the appropriate government agency.
The situation is similar in the rising e-government star, Ireland. Ireland offers an attractive central government portal with information arranged around "life events," such as having a baby, starting school, getting a job or retiring. Information is often provided in English and Irish.
Ireland finished first this month in an Internet Intelligence Study that compared the e-government capabilities of the countries of the European Union. Irish government sites were praised for their ease of use, thoroughness and logical construction. And they scored 81 out of a possible 100 points, ahead of the United Kingdom, which scored 79, and 13 other EU members.
"Ireland is coming along very fast," said Phil Noble, president of PoliticsOnline Inc., a U.S.-based Web site devoted to politics and the Internet. He conductedthe survey as part of a course he teaches at Amsterdam-Maastricht Summer University.
One electronic transaction that many countries do offer online is filing tax returns, and France leads the tax pack.
In November 2000, the French government passed a law requiring medium and large companies to file taxes online beginning this summer. Spain, Finland, Singapore and the United States also offer online tax filing. It isn't surprising that tax collection is the first electronic transaction governments make available online, said Connie Dean, government industry manager for Microsoft Corp. "It's one of the easiest ways to show returnon investment. It's a great starting point we actually recommend it."
But beyond electronic tax collection, e-government has not progressed as quickly as expected.
"I think people got really excited and had overly high expectations. Then reality set in," Dean said. "It's a lot of hard work, and it takesa lot of time."
Darrell West, a Brown University professor and e-government specialist, agreed. "There are big upfront costs to building the kind of infrastructure"t hat e-government requires.
The cost is one reason e-government has stalled in the information stage. The complexity of offering services is another.
"In 2000, we started seeing the first transactions," said Janet Caldow,d irector of IBM Corp.'s Institute for Electronic Government. Those transactions included renewing driver's licenses, applying for student aid and government jobs, buying stamps, even bidding for government contracts.
As long as individuals are dealing with a single agency, online transactions are relatively easy, Caldow said. But integrating services that require dealing with multiple agencies quickly becomes much more complex.
"If you want to start a business in Texas, you have to deal with nine different agencies," Caldow said. "That presents a whole new set of challenges."
Different agencies have different back-end systems, and those systems often are incompatible with the ones used by related agencies, as are their nonelectronic operations.
As a result, Caldow said, there are very few transactions online that involve multiple agencies.
However, one such endeavor has reached "its embryonic stages" in the United Kingdom, said Caroline Sceats, a Forrester e-government analyst in London. Small businesses in the United Kingdom are required to register with three different ministries, and that has meant filling out three sets of forms that demand nearly identical information.
Soon, businesses may be able to use iForm software developed by Electronic Data Systems Corp. to complete one online form and transmit it to a government site. There, data from the form would be automatically transferred to the appropriate ministries. EDS officials say they hopes to market the software to other governments as well.
For the most part, however, the languorous pace of e-government stands in ever greater contrast to the progress achieved in e-commerce. The traveland financial industries have set high standards for online services, Caldow said.
As more people get used to the convenience of e-commerce, "they are going to expect real service delivery" from government, said Brown University's West.
Portals and E-democracy
One successful commercial innovation governments have flocked to adopt is the portal.
These Web sites are designed to provide easy access to a vast array of information on the Internet. They have proven ideal for imposing some logical order on the large quantity of information and services governments offer online.
Among the earliest government portals was Singapore's (www.gov.sg), which went online in mid-1999. Since then, countries, states, provinces and, lately, groups of government agencies offering similar services have launched portals as the best way to deliver information to citizens.
Canada and the United States have emerged as portal leaders. The U.S.government's site (www.firstgov.gov) "is one of the best portals in thew orld," said Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International LLC, a global technology policy and management consulting company. McConnell was chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Managementand Budget during the Clinton administration.
But governments have not embraced other promising uses of the Internet. Among the overlooked advances is "push technology."
Amazon.com uses push technology to alert readers when it has new books to sell. It tracks customers' purchase histories and notifies them when similar new books become available.
Governments should be similarly proactive, West advises. The Agriculture Department, for example, could use push technology to alert soybean farmers to changes in crop prices and government subsidies, he said. But in a survey of 1,813 local, state and federal government Web sites in the United States, West found that only about 5 percent used push technology.
Another Internet innovation enables users to customize Web sites so they prominently display what interests the user, but West found that fewer than 1 percent of government Web sites offered that option.
Outside the United States, citizens' expectations of e-government maybe even higher.
"When you talk to people in Europe, digital democracy comes up all the time," Caldow said. "They see citizen interaction with government, participation in governance and involvement in the political process as important or more important than online transactions with government."
When Scottish self-rule was restored in 1997 after nearly 300 years of rule by England, the Scots set about building an advanced electronic government.
Besides Webcasts and publishing its proceedings online, the new parliament began accepting electronic petitions in March 2000. The practice so impressed British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he adopted it for his own Web site(www.number-10.gov.uk). Blair's site also features interactive forums.
The comparable U.S. site (www.whitehouse.gov) is stark by contrast. The White House provides the public with e-mail addresses for the president, vice president and their wives, and a White House switchboard phone number.
"In the United States, we do not have a plan," West said. "We're making it up as we go along."
Other countries tend to focus on a few e-government initiatives at a time. "The United States sort of has one of everything going on," said Francis McDonough, deputy associate administrator of the General Services Administration's Office of Intergovernmental Solutions, which works with other governments local, state and international to develop e-government initiatives.
The benefits of a more focused approach may mean that smaller, less bureaucratic countries will be the first to create viable e-governments.
"My sense is [that] the first true electronic government will probably emerge in one of the Scandinavian countries," McDonough said. A country like Norway, for example, is small, technologically advanced and well-organized. "The scale is different" from the United States. "It's like a small company that can turn on a dime" while large companies cannot, he said.
In the United States, where a sprawling federal government interacts with 50 states and thousands of localities, "e-government is so complicated," McDonough said. "It will evolve over the next 10 to 20 years. [It's] like a baby. You can throw all the money, food and attention you want at a baby and it's not going to grow any faster," he said.
In some countries, e-government has shown up on political agendas. Britain's Blair, for example, has vowed to achieve 100 percent electronic delivery of services to businesses and consumers by 2005. Canada's e-government blueprint calls for key services to be online by 2004.
Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has pledged to make all over-the-counter federal services available online by the end of 2002. Portugal, the Netherlands and Australia also have developed detailed e-government plans, as has the European Union. So have many U.S. states.
"A plan is critical if we are going to move forward in an organized fashion," McConnell said. "We are past the "let a thousand flowers bloom'approach."
Caldow likens e-government plans to President Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the moon in 10 years.
"Kennedy didn't say how he was going to do it," but setting the goal made achieving it possible.
"The moon was easier," McDonough contends. "Everyone can look up and see it at night." Except for a handful of experts, few people understand what e-government is all about.
"I'm very puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm by the Bush administration," West said. "In many ways, [e-government is] a conservative's dream it provides better services at lower cost."