Technology
May 7, 2012

The E-Gov Shuffle

The evangels of e-government can’t be pleased with some recent findings by the number crunchers at research heavyweight Gartner Inc.

Based on the experience with Web 2.0 among 80 government clients around the world (including four from Canada), Gartner paints what it calls “a gloomy picture of current adoption and plans for Web 2.0 in government.”

“Attention is still primarily focused on technologies and applications that aim at improving engagement and collaboration,” Gartner reports. “There is little evidence that government IT professionals appreciate (and indeed plan to pursue or at least pilot) the most disruptive, but also potentially rewarding aspects of Web 2.0, such as its impact on lighter, middle-out architectures that promote reusability and composability, and the shift from constituent-centric to constituent-driven initiatives.”

Plus, if that’s not clear, Gartner adds a rather scolding note:

“Governments have always been – and will always be – conservative adopters of technology, as they are concerned with inclusion and accountability more than with the bottom line and market share. However, they should have learned a few lessons from their e-government ventures, where their attempts at modernizing their face and processes have had mixed results – even in the best cases, citizen engagement and uptake remain lower than expected.”

“There is a concrete risk of widening the disconnect between citizens who embrace technology and change their personal and professional behavior as a consequence, and governments that keep defending their turf, playing with technology at the edges.”

Gartner concludes with a high-minded reminder of the potential of Web 2.0:

“Web 2.0 is not just a bunch of promising technologies. It is an opportunity for government agencies to step back, reflect on what their core mission is, and determine how they should structure information and services that closely relate to that mission. This will allow the ecosystem of other agencies, intermediaries and communities to access those services and information in

the most convenient, effective and efficient way.”

It amounts to tough talk from an outfit with a well-earned reputation for quality research on technology issues. But it’s hardly the only such sampling; there’s a similar spirit between the lines in a recent report from British researchers.

The study, by the Hansard Society, a research forum which promotes public involvement in politics, calls on government to manage the expectations of people who connect with it online.

“Online deliberations offer a promise of transparency; unclear communication from engagement teams is often read by participants as obfuscation,” it warns.

“Websites that combine careful planning and appropriate marketing with the development of reflexive engagement strategies have a greater chance of success. In such cases, policy leads have benefited from user input with government departments seeing enhanced public trust and receiving positive feedback from stakeholders. In turn, end users report more faith in the political process and better understanding of government.”

The focus of both these reports is, of course, on the elusive side of e-government – its potential as a platform not just for transmitting “bricks and mortar” information but for the broader, more direct engagement of citizens in their democracies. The distinction between the two approaches – a kind of “i-government” on the one hand and “we-government” on the other – is looming larger as technology settles ever more comfortably into daily life.

That said, however, the champions of e-democracy are hardly being run out of the arena:

  •          A county council in Ireland has launched a wiki inviting the public to participate in local development.
  •          Britain has launched Building Democracy, an online search for proposals to address public issues and influence government.
  •          Also in Britain, the government’s Power of Information Taskforce is running a public competition to generate useful applications for public data.
  •          In Australia, a wiki-based consultation exercise engaged 15,000 participants in Melbourne’s ten-year plan.
  •          In Portland, Ore., DemocracyLab, a self-described “interactive online think tank,” is using a wiki approach to engage the local population in planning.
  •          A New Zealand wiki gave the public input into a new police act.

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