On May 25 and 26 I did attend the World Congress on Information Technology held in sunny, chilly and beautiful Amsterdam. This was a massive event with more than 4000 delegates and over 300 speakers organized on eight parallel tracks, covering themes like health, safety, mobility, energy and so forth.
I had the pleasure of moderating two quite interesting panels in the eGovernment track, which I will cover in greater detail in written research for Gartner clients.
As I was expecting, the e-government track was trapped in between celebrating current achievements, recognizing shortcomings and examining the challenges ahead, with particular reference to the economic and financial situation as well as how societal behaviors change due to technology.
Twitter was a formidable tool during the event. While the introductory plenary session was in progress with pitches from the EU commissioner Kroes and Intel’s Otellini, somebody tweeted something like “promising start but then back to the obvious“.
That was exactly the way I was feeling. Irrespective of all technology advances, the advent of social networking, the birth of new consumer devices, the widespread use of mobile devices and the much higher Internet penetration, this session could have taken place five or more years ago. EU countries and Australia are investing on broadband infrastructure: but isn’t this what many local authorities did a decade or so ago, when e-government programs were inextricably linked with investments to build the so-called information society? What’s the difference between programs like eEurope and Digital Europe? Have we learned anything from failures and are we going to do anything different as we are facing uncertainty and unemployment levels that are unprecedented?
During my session on the first day (title: The Changing Society: Vision on how IT is changing society and government), which was attended by several distinguished speakers including Constantijn van Oranje, member of both the Kroes cabinet and the Dutch royal family, the topic of “what is different?” came up again. On stage we had post-grad students who probed the panel with a couple of pretty interesting questions, such as the balance between engaging society in service delivery and the risk of compromising accountability, and the fine line between government providing loads of open public data and youngsters feeling that all information should be free, including whatever is covered by copyright laws. Besides a good insight from Constantijn (“government has to be where people are”), there were no real answers.
The second panel was explicitly addressing Open Government (Break Down the Wall). Ironically, another session that was going on in parallel, was dealing with the semantic web and – guess what? – the role of open government data.
Following tweets from the other session was fascinating and reminded me of Bach’s fugues, where a musical pattern gets repeated and then transformed or inverted in the course of a piece. One of my panel members, the General Manager of Government Online in Colombia, was saying that they had achieved the number one spot in Latin America for egov according to the UN ranking published a few weeks ago. However she admitted, together with her fellow panelist – the former Minister of Regional Development from Latvia – that the number of services online is not a measure of success, and the real issue is how to provide better services. At the same time somebody from the other session tweeted with pride that the US government would have 250,000 data sets available now.
My immediate reaction, which I shared with the audience, was “So what?”: Are we replacing a meaningless measure like number of online services with another, equally meaningless measure like number of open data sets ?
Our session, with a remarkably lively audience, debated what “better service” means, and explored how one could make a credible business case for open government. Once more, the discussion – albeit rich and interesting – reminded me of similar discussions held five or eight years ago about the whole value of e-government.
At that point in time, I was in real need for something new and refreshing. Therefore I put a question to the panelists and the audience: if you had only 100 K euro to spend on open government, how would you spend them in order to maximize your chances to return on the investment between (1) providing open data through something like data.gov or (2) empower employees to use social media tools and connect with external communities to gather user-generated information? The vast majority of the audience went for the latter.
So, while open government initiatives are being shaped on the model of what the US has been doing, government folks start realizing that value may come in unexpected and unplanned ways. It was a pity that, although she was invited to join the panel, Beth Noveck, deputy CTO, leader and evangelist for open government in the US, chose to attend a different panel instead: she could have learned something from her colleagues overseas.