A few days ago I received the usual email from McKinsey Quarterly flagging the availability of their article about E-Government 2.0. I always read McKinsey’s articles with interest, as I often find great insights.
Although it starts from the right premise (e-government has somewhat plateaued over the last few years), I found that its suggested recipe for future success is a bit simplistic.
The authors claim that key constraints have been ineffective and complex governance, lack of Web-related capabilities, and reluctance to allow user participation.
While I agree these are important causes for failure or lack of progress, I would argue that they are not the most important ones. Governance problems are not limited to IT but go deep into how accountability lines work and the degree of autonomy that different forms of government and constitutions grant to ministries and agencies. Also, the underwhelming uptake of some online services is often due to the fact that what governments consider as being citizen-centric does not address the real needs and demands of citizens.
This being said, the article offers an interesting analysis of those three constraints.
It highlights that accountability for Web-based activities too often resides deep within IT or communications departments and that Web-related efforts are often fragmented across an agency. It suggests that new governance models should be adopted, where
Web projects should be maintained as a consolidated portfolio with a centralized view of costs and benefits […] clear end-to-end ownership of the online experience must be established and reinforced, with accountability for user adoption rates and costs […].Line-of-business leaders should be responsible and accountable for driving Web initiatives, but to support them agencies should establish a dedicated product-management team
At the same time the article encourages government to adopt “open innovation” and user participation, as exemplified by Apps for Democracy, Intellipedia, and several crowdsourcing initiatives.
Finally the authors highlight the
need for agencies to build internal product-management and technical capabilities to identify, design, and implement solutions that overcome potential obstacles to user adoption as well as to also enable them to better select and manage external partners.
While individual elements of the analysis and of the suggested course of action make sense, their combination does less so. Let me take a couple of examples.
If one takes “user participation” beyond the traditional (and somewhat artificial) view of “e-democracy” – i.e. engaging citizens in policy making – the real challenge is how to put them in control of service delivery, by choosing when, how and through which channels they can access services. This leads to the very essence of what some people call “Government 2.0”, where citizens can mash-up content and integrate services across agencies, tiers of government, private sector and even online communities. In this scenario, putting lines of business in charge of governance is unlikely to help: on the contrary, centralized, top down approaches to joined-up government may become a constraint rather than an enabler to move e-government forward.
As far as web capabilities are concerned, the article makes a good point by highlighting that
Capabilities that enable an agency to discern users’ needs and preferences are critical. Product-management teams must be able to incorporate findings from focus groups, surveys, usability tests, pilot programs, and real-time online experiments…. Such capabilities will enable agencies to identify, design, and implement solutions that overcome potential obstacles to user adoption.
In particular, the article indicates four key capabilities – i.e. data-based decision making, site experience, advertising and promotions, multi-channel coordination – and suggests that the former two require a higher target performance level than the latter two.
However I would argue that while data-based decision making is key, both site experience and multichannel coordination need to be considered in a context where more and more content and services will be accessed through channels that are chosen by citizens and may not be under government control. Areas like search engine optimization or use of online promotion look like being almost irrelevant, assuming citizens will use third party search engines and access through a variety of intermediaries. I was expecting more emphasis on transforming the channel strategy from looking at physical channel (phone, Internet, counter) to looking at logical channels (which content and services through direct or intermediated channels for which target audience).
The article points to some innovative examples, but looks like being stuck between pushing a bolder government 2.0 agenda and defending a more traditional (and less convincing) view of joined-up government that McKinsey, as well as other consulting firms, have been advising governments worldwide to pursue for many years.