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Filling in the potholes of e-government thinking

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan December 15, 2015
It's time to shake off the old ideas around e-government and start getting more ambitious about digital government's ability to re-invent processes.

Across the past 12 months, we've written a lot about digital transformation across government, in the UK, the US, Australia and beyond, and we can confidently predict that we'll be doing a lot more of the same in 2016.

But as the year draws to a close, a series of studies and analyst commentaries have popped that provide an interesting scene setter on the current year and open up possibilities for the next.

First to catch my eye was a warning from analyst house Ovum which calls on government IT decision makers to stretch themselves more in order to deliver the kind of integrated, citizen-focused services to which they aspire.

This is necessary as the old ideas of e-government and the automation of existing processes are giving way to the notion of digital government based on the reinvention of processes or the creation of new ones.
Al Blake, principal analyst, Public Sector at Ovum and author of the report, 2016 Trends to Watch report on Government Technology says:

First-generation e-government initiatives focused on automating existing government processes. We are now seeing a shift to rethinking the business of government and linking processes to deliver a digital experience.

What this means in practice, he advises, is that it's time to think beyond the easy wins in digital government and get a bit more ambitious in thinking. Or as he puts it:

Does the world need any more ‘fix my pothole’ apps?

The report argues that citizen expectations have now risen on the back of consumer experiences in the private sector:

The increased availability of high-quality consumer services continues to raise expectations as to what government can and should be able to deliver. Government ICT organisations face a year in which credibility can only be gained and maintained through continual successful delivery, and there remains no acceptance of failure in the critical systems that impact the lives of citizens.

Blake points to the emergence of cost-effective end-user analytics tools that can make evidence-based policy achievable as a game-changer:

While ‘evidence-driven policy’ has often been an aspirational goal, a number of technical developments are bringing it closer to reality. The increasing availability of massive processing power, coupled with intuitive end-user interfaces and ‘pay as you go’ delivery offerings, puts analytical capabilities at the fingertips of policy-makers and planners that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Blake also makes the point that while there's been a great deal of attention paid to notions of agile development among IT professionals, there's a need also to ensure that agility is a by-word across the entire organization.

Appetite for digital?

But is the appetite really there for digital services from government? That's the question that Accenture set out to answer in two geographically-dispersed studies, one in North America and one in Australia. The answer from the two demographics, poles apart, is a resounding yes.

In the US, 42% of respondents now conduct the majority of their government interactions digitally, with 86% of that number wanting to be able to do more.

Rather tellingly, nearly three-quarters (73%) said increased digital services gives the impression that government is forward thinking, while 72% believe that expanded digital services would both increase their overall satisfaction with government and increase their willingness to engage. No more hanging on the line for hours to government departments that don't want to pick up the telephone.

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US digital government engagement. Source: Accenture

That said, only 27% - just over one in four - are actually happy with current digital offerings, so it seems that there's a strong faith that this is the direction to head in, but there's a lot of work still to be done to make it happen well. Just over half of respondents (54%) cited poor website organization as a key obstacle to using government digital services; 39 percent cited inefficient search functions; and 39 percent cited poor website organization or too much information.

Awareness of what's possible is a simple first nut to crack, suggests the poll findings. More than half of respondents (51%) said the biggest obstacle to connected services is simply not knowing what services can be accessed online or through a mobile application.

It's the same basic story down under, although only a third of citizens currently interact with government digitally, while over half (57%) say they are dissatisfied with the availability of digital public services.

According to Accenture’s research, more than two-thirds (79%) of Australians are unaware about what digital services are available, have concerns about the amount of information that is requested to use digital services or have experienced technical issues in accessing services.

My take

I can't really say fairer than Steve Hurst, head of Accenture’s Health & Public Service digital practice, who comments:

Governments have the opportunity to drive true public service transformation through digital technologies. We are at a pivotal juncture. Digital is more than a way to keep up with savvy citizens or streamline processes. It is a transformational tool that can be used to radically improve the delivery of citizen services and satisfaction.

Or that's the theory at any rate.

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