Technology
May 7, 2012

Vision trumps formula

CGE Vol.13 No.4 April 2007

There are, in the specialized world of e-government, those who argue that the future can be divined mathematically. It’s just a formula, in that view: g+e = T, where g is government, e is of course electronic, and T is – ta-da – Transformation.

Well, maybe. Probably, even. But there are several large handfuls of imposing issues to be addressed before we get to T, problems that won’t easily lend themselves to formulae of any kind, algebraic or not.

For openers, there’s the basic conceptual question of just what constitutes “transformation.” Some e-apostles shrug it off as an inconsequential obsession with angels and pinheads, but even experts like Sandford Borins, a widely respected professor of public management at the University of Toronto, hold it to be basic: “It depends still more on what is meant by transformation,” he writes in the newly released Digital State at the Leading Edge.

(Borins, by the way, identifies several different theories and theorists of e-government before looking for “the evidence of transformation…in changes in patterns of interaction between government and society, changes in the public sector as a workplace, and changes in the organizational structure and cost of government.” What follows is a careful deconstruction of the notion of transformation before a final concession that its components, “taken together,” confirm “evidence of a transformation.” That would be a Yea, then, albeit hardly one to raise the rafters. Cheerleaders like Darell West of Brown University, in Digital Government: Technology and Public Sector Performance, not to mention Don Tapscott, in his accounts of his famed “paradigm shift,” would give it much more bombast, and so would many others).

Regardless of one’s position, however, this entire argument can leave one weeping among assorted winged colleagues on the head of a pin. Other issues, most of them much less abstract, cry out for analysis and action.

Here are some of them, in much less detail than they deserve:

·     Silos. They’re still there; despite technology’s capacity to work horizontally, vertically organized government departments still march to their own drummers (and, to be honest, are often applauded for doing so by the general public. The dude who fills out a form at Fisheries and Oceans doesn’t necessarily want to see his vital stats slipped over to the Canada Revenue Agency).
·     Digital divide. It’s still there too, notwithstanding terrific advances at the municipal level. And if you think the difference between Toronto and Flin Flon is problematic, reflect on Toronto and Sheshashuit or any of a thousand other aboriginal communities.
·     Privacy. It never goes away – and if it ever showed signs of doing so, one of those pesky journalists would doubtless stir the pot with another nerve-shattering account of the state doing what it oughtn’t.
·     Spam, viruses etc. Fully 94% of e-mail around the world is now spam, according to one e-security authority. Enough spam and spyware and people could wind up, voluntarily or otherwise, in what Oxford analyst Jonathan Zittrain calls “gated communities” – cyberspots so heavily encrypted as to render all that technology merely inconvenient.
·     Financing. Beancounters would of course beg to differ, but there’s ample evidence of underinvestment – or perhaps uneven investment – in government information technology. And that does nothing at all for a related problem: Staffing. Just how will government recruit and keep those computer science grads it depends on more and more?
·     Measurement. There’s lot of it in e-government, but the metrics are overwhelmingly (if unsurprisingly) digital. What’s needed now are assessments of other variables – social, strategic, political, even ideological. There are exceptions – SAP and the State University of New York have a well-chronicled project – but they pretty well prove the rule.

All this of course doesn’t begin to address intangibles like the impact of social computing – YouTube, MySpace, texting, social shopping and such – on electronic service delivery (ESD). Or the nature of the ESD “community,” if there is such a beast, in the context of the broader cybercommunity. It’s called the World Wild Web, remember, for reasons that don’t have much to do with the Canada page.

Nor, finally, do these concerns come to grips with what some consider the heart of e-government – digital democracy. The story of e-government in this country has mostly been the story of bureaucrat-driven ESD. If, on the other hand, true e-government means engaging people in the democratic process online, there’s a lot more to be done – by politicians, more and more. There are of course exceptions; politicians Reg Alcock and John Milloy come to mind, as well as the dogged efforts of the politically-minded Crossing Boundaries initiative and the persistent efforts of centerpiece forums like the Lac Carling Congress. But by and large, e-government has been about ESD, and officials.

What could change all that? In the longer run, a little vision would go a long way, especially if it was generated by someone with equal measures of credibility among politicians, bureaucrats and the general public. It could even flow from a new forum – say, an inter-jurisdictional conference. There have been a few such gatherings on other issues, apparently; no sense letting all that inter-governmental experience go to waste.

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