Europe's e-government shortcomings are a lesson to the rest of the world

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 27, 2014
The more we engage with digital government, the less we like it. Some depressing reading from a new pan-European Union study into e-government that has tough lessons for governments worldwide.

Depressing reading from a new pan-European study into e-government that, while covering European Union (EU) states specifically, has lessons for the rest of the world as administrations pursue digital government.

The harsh reality is that despite much time and effort over the year, online public services still are not meeting expectations with government leaders failing to perceive ROI and citizens finding that public service delivery is not on a par with its commercial counterpart.

Those conclusions come from the European Commission’s 11th Benchmark Measurement of European eGovernment Services - Delivering on the European Advantage ‘How European governments can and should benefit from innovative public services’.

The study, carried out by Capgemini, surveyed over 28,000 citizens from across the 28 EU member states, found what it calls an environment of ‘quantity over quality’.

Essentially this means that there are a lot more government online services in place, but the perceived quality of them has meant they’re not being used as much as they should be.

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A major issue is the disjointed nature of online public services rather than an integrated set of services organised around the life event of the user. The study notes:

A life event captures the user’s journey irrespective of government domains and tiers. In practice, we see that these journeys are rarely completed without interruptions, thus causing an unnecessary burden for citizens and businesses.

Divisions and breaks occur in multiple places and in multiple forms:

  • Users and non-users of online public services, including what the study calls ‘a significant group of non-believers (38%) [which] refuses to use the online channel for public services. ƒƒWhat is delivered and how it is perceived, with usability taking second place to sheer quantity of services online.
  • Business and citizen services, with business services are more mature with a recurring gap of 10% on average for all indicators and over several years. ƒƒNational and local services, with local services even less user-centric (an gap of 11% on average) compared to national services.
  • Small and large countries, with smaller nations performing better than their larger counterparts.
  • Digital natives and citizens with low/ no online skills, AKA as the digital exclusion problem
  • ƒƒServices for country nationals and citizens from another EU country, with cross-border services 30% behind public services for country nationals and transactional services only possible in a very few cases. So much for a single Europe…

A single market for what?

That last point is particularly disappointing as a single market without borders is one of the supposed strengths of an EU power bloc. But the study gloomily concludes that a digital single market simply does not exist:

If this is the target, EU governments are not close to achieving it:

Only three countries are top performers for citizen mobility services (Malta, Finland and Estonia – and we know Finland and Estonia have a history of close cooperation!) Most countries are below the 50% score in the low or insufficient progress clusters.

In contrast, a single digital business market is more recognizable:

Clearly, countries perceive a stronger potential demand for cross-border services from businesses rather than citizens. There is a financial trigger in that it is, of course, beneficial to attract businesses to your country.

At the same time, citizen services may require more organisational effort and investment to reach the whole population effectively – and diversity is surely greater compared to businesses. Thirdly, in addition to stronger demand for business services and possible implementation complexity for citizen services, legislation which will act as a game changer is likely to give rise to less discussion when applied to business services.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that attention needs to be focused on the public sector single market:

A digital single market will help Europe become more competitive. The heterogeneity of Europe is a strength, but fragmentation is a risk compared to the USA and China. And what are the global implications of the status quo? It might be that various activities across Europe are beginning to create a momentum for cross-border services; however, it could certainly do with a push. The digital single market can be THE distinctive advantage of Europe.

Good theory, shame about the practice.

Horses for courses

The study defines four typologies of attitudes towards online public services:

  • ƒƒBelievers (33%): citizens who have used online public services, and will continue to do so
  • ƒƒDrop-outs (13%): those who have used online public services, but do not intend to return
  • High potentials (16%): citizens who had not used online public services, but want to do so next time
  • ƒNon-believers (38%): those who had not used online public services, and will not do so next time.

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Alarmingly, there is also a worrying inverse relationship between interaction and satisfaction with public services. In other words, the more exposure citizens have to online interaction with government, the less happy they are with the experience and the less they are inclined to use the services. The study notes:

Although eGovernment has been on the agenda for over a decade, more than one third of the internet population still refuses to use online services, as in their opinion the benefits are not large enough. Non-believers and drop-outs – more than 50% – present a real risk for governments. These are daily internet users.

So why don’t citizens want to get online with government? The study identifies a number of factors, but the main reason is simply they don’t want to. Some 80% of all those surveyed did not use online channels, with a notable prominence of a preference for face-to- face contact.

This is followed by lack of ability, lack of awareness and lack of trust, which at 11% is remarkably low given that this is the aspect that grabs the mainstream headlines.

Conventional online access is also an issue with 28% of Europeans not having home internet access. Thus, the report suggests, attention should be turning to mobile delivery of services:

Mobile could be a game changer both for countries with a limited communications infrastructure to provide access to internet and online public services, as well as for countries that are facing a lower uptake of eGovernment services. Mobile solution could contribute to an improved user experience, that better matches expectations of citizens and businesses of today.

But the study cautions against jumping into mobile without careful thought:

To grasp the opportunities of mobile, it is now up to governments to deploy the right channel(s) to reach citizens and businesses, and to facilitate them in effective use of Internet and ICT. More than ever it requires governments to really think this through. Just keeping another channel operational without innovating in their internal processes will eventually not be effective or efficient. Adapting internal processes to deliver services ‘outside-in’ will.

My take

All of this makes rather downbeat reading against the backdrop of Europe’s ambitions. The Digital Agenda for Europe (DAE) is one of the seven flagships of the EU 2020 strategy to increase the uptake of ICT and create “a flourishing digital economy by 2020. The eGovernment Action Plan 2011- 2015 contributes towards fulfilling two key objectives of the DAE: ƒto have 80% of businesses and 50% of citizens making use of eGovernment services, and ƒƒto have a number of key cross border services online by 2015.

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What are we going to do, Neelie?

My old chum Neelie Kroes is the European Commissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda. She’s commented of the findings of this study:

"It is great news that governments are making on-line public services more user-friendly, but we are still not enticing citizens to engage on-line with public administrations as they would with their bank or other digital service providers.

“Europe's citizens and businesses are already thinking digital and living digital. Now it's time for governments to be digital and more transparent in the service delivery, and this can be achieved by opening up their data, processes and services. There is no need to hesitate, governments can provide better services at less cost, create jobs and growth opportunities, and increase accountability and trust."

OK, fine, but, er….how, Neelie, how?

The report makes 5 key recommendations to address these challenges:

  • Design with a user-centric mind, which means considering user involvement and co-creation to improve user experience of citizens.
  • Enable joined up governance, which means considering a centralized governance to foster collaboration.
  • Instill transparency in new operating models, which means being open regarding performance, processes and data so that your organization will gain greater trust from users.
  • Exploit new and disruptive technologies, such as social, mobile, big data & analytics and cloud.
  • Build an e-skilled workforce.

All sound stuff - and not just for the EU, but for all nation states building towards an e-government structure. But will any of it really happen? That’s the tricky bit of course.


Graphics:  Delivering on the European Advantage? ‘How European governments can and should benefit from innovative public services’



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