For one of those coincidences that make like interesting, over the last week I have been discussing e-government strategies (or digital agendas or information society plans) in three different contexts. First of all discussing with colleagues at a meeting in Brussels. Second, commenting on the recently launched call for an Italian digital agenda. And third, helping an account executive who is in contact with one of our clients about the revision of their country’s strategy. If I go a little be further back, to May 2010, I had meetings in various countries in the Gulf area, and the topic was again how to develop or rebalance e-government strategies.
Almost all these conversations have some common elements:
- There has been a triggering event, raising the visibility of the topic among politicians. In some cases the event is the publication of one of those worldwide rankings (from the UN, the European Commission, Accenture, or Brookings) that I have been bashing on for many years.
- Prominent people in the economy and society (economists, journalists, popular bloggers, and the likes) believe that greater investment in technology will re-ignite the national economy, and that technology is a powerful weapon to modernize a bureaucracy that hinders progress and innovation.
- ICT vendors and consultants look for greater public sector spending at a moment in time when clients in other industry sectors spend more cautiously on technology.
Whatever the trigger, it is certainly important to take a deep breath and make a serious reflection about how technology can help.
As I have been critical to the latest call for an Italian Digital Agenda, readers may think that I have something against e-government and digital strategies. Not at all, I strongly believe that digital technology is the backbone for growth, innovation and transformation. However what countries, states, cities need is something more than an empty shell like the Italian initiative, something that is rooted in their context, looks at their priorities, has a laser-sharp focus on delivering on outcomes that make sense in that context and for those priorities.
In the current climate of financial, economic and political uncertainty, e-government and digital country-wide strategies cannot be based any longer just on infrastructure investments and large, long term programs and vague objectives about citizen service and satisfaction. Money is in short supply, societal change is accelerating pace, economy remains uncertain: this calls for a much sharper focus.
We have been providing consistent actionable advice on this for a long time, and still do. Glimpses of that are available on our many blogs, while clients have access to further resources. For instance:
- A useful resource for Gartner clients who want to take a critical look at their existing or draft strategies is the E-Government Assessment Questionnaire, which allows them to self assess how good their vision is and how well they can deliver (or are delivering) on that vision. I have been involved in sessions where I have run a part of the questionnaire with a group including business and IT people, and participants have gradually discovered their context and their priorities while trying to find the right answer to each question. They become very soon autonomous with using the questionnaire on their own, within their four walls. This is a tool for them and not for external consultants to perform expensive assessments.
- Another resource are the various analyses we publish on readiness rankings, to put those in the right perspective and help government executives distill the pressworthy elements that are of little use for planning purposes, from the useful data and nuggets in those reports.
- For people looking into the open government aspects, the Open Government Maturity Model helps match objectives, maturity, governance models to use open government as a tool for innovation and transformation, rather than an end in itself.
- Last but not least, the Hype Cycle for Government Transformation, which we publish every year in July, provides clients with a view about key technologies, their level of maturity, their adoption risks.
One great thing about being an analyst is that while you cannot be constantly engaged with clients on any of their projects, you talk to them at critical points in those projects, and you do so for hundreds of clients around the world. We happen to see a lot of different cases, and just looking at questions coming from people engaged on e-government projects we can detect patterns about what works and what does not.
This is why I can tell that supply-driven approaches like the Italian Digital Agenda do not work, because they lack focus. This is why some of those countries – like Spain – that did extremely well on climbing the UN or EU e-government rankings, are now struggling with justifying what they did and face systemic issues that should have been the focus of their attention, rather than bean-counting online services. This is why countries, like Canada, that once did very well on e-government, have been very close to missing new opportunities.
As I said, digital technology has a huge potential to help government transformation and weather challenges ahead. Let’s just hope people won’t waste it.