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The Boundaries of E-Participation and The Limits of E-Government

by Andrea Di Maio  |  December 16, 2008  |  3 Comments

One theme that seems to be very fashionable around the evolution of e-government is e-participation. Its definition in Wikipedia is “ICT-supported participation in processes involved in government and governance”. Processes may concern administration, service delivery, decision making and policy making.

While this definition mentions both service delivery and decision/policy making, many people use the term in the latter sense: engaging citizens in city planning or in commenting about a draft policy, creating blogs to discuss future policies or wikis for interactive policy making, and so forth.

As I have written before, this kind of participation, when it happens on-line, is unlikely to take place – or at least to thrive – on a government-controlled channel. To some extent, it would be more appropriate to see such a dialogue develop on a Parliament or a Congressman web site, rather than on a government one.  What would be much useful though is to allow people to comment about the services they receive or the administrative obligations they have to discharge, asking them to rate them and to provide suggestions for their improvement. It is most likely that also part of this conversations will take place outside the government context, on social networking sites, fora, blogs. However for services that  are partially or totally delivered online, the government web site or portal can be an important touch point to capture opinions, thoughts, suggestions.

At a meeting last week where I met international experts on e-government from several countries, there seemed to be a wide agreement about this and the fact that e-participation should be more tightly related to service delivery. On the other hand, when we discussed the role of web 2.0, a few colleagues mentioned its importance for personalizing the government portal. As if people cared composing a page with feeds and widgets from government.

Reality is that interaction with government is rare for most citizens and those who interact most are also likely to be the least inclined to use electronic channels. Service levels will increase by greater efficiency, shorter waiting times, less rather more interactions. Becoming less visible by leveraging existing data and previous interactions as well as by enabling citizens to choose their preferred intermediaries: these are steps that – especially in the current challenging times – government IT organizations should take to contain costs and increase service levels at the same time.

Although many e-government research programs, consultants and vendors seem to be beating the old drum of “more interaction is better”, there is still hope. I just saw that I have the following inquiry in the coming days, from a state authority:

“Citizens are contacting their government 1.3 times a year as an average. Even if the e-Government is a huge topic, the question remains if it does make sense to establish a digital solution for that due to the very low usage.”

I love this question and I’d wish more government officials to ask it.

Any thoughts?

Category: e-government  

Tags: e-democracy  web-20  

Andrea Di Maio
Managing VP
15 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Andrea Di Maio is a managing vice president for public sector in Gartner Research, covering government and education. His personal research focus is on digital government strategies strategies, Web 2.0, open government, cloud computing, the business value of IT, smart cities, and the impact of technology on the future of government Read Full Bio

Thoughts on The Boundaries of E-Participation and The Limits of E-Government

  1. Erik Jonker says:

    A similar small number of contactpoints with government (although a bit higher) applies to the Netherlands. But even then it can be important to establish interaction about the specific services the citizen is using. For example your yearly tax online declaration, a citizen would be quite happy to give feedback on possible improvements. That is also a service which clearly illustrates (at least in the Netherlands) that it is quite worthwhile to deliver a service that you use only once a year, digital/online.
    Furthermore the taxservice has expanded its service by giving me the opportunity to communicate (as often as i want) a change in my financial situation online which reflects on my monthly tax returns. My tax returns are than quickly changed.

    Ofcourse a large part of the citizens doesn’t want to bothered and doesn’t want government “services” as such. They would like that governement just take care of things in a reasonable way.

    There is however also a part of the population who want more transparancy and accountability and other part which have very frequent contacts which government because of their situation (such as disabled people, chronically ill etc.). They want more specific and personalised services and information in my view. The big question is however, do they want that on a government portal or somewhere else ?

  2. Jed says:

    Great article. You’re asking all the right questions.

    Count me among the consultants who argue that creating better interactions, rather than more, should be our focus. There is plenty of fun and challenging work to be done in terms of strategy development, user testing, heuristic analysis, and UI optimization for online government services before anyone tries to create more arbitrary touch points or unneeded services.

    In the US, we’re lucky to have a very skilled Federal Web Manager Council doing the research to figure the best ways to go about this. Have you seen their new white paper?

  3. Camille Woodson says:

    Is this discussion at the federal level, or state/local government? If it’s at the federal level, then I agree, the interactions are likely very limited, that is, until tax season. If it relates to state/local government, I think the stats regarding requests for information and at least attempted use of eportals will increase dramatically as job losses continue and people need more governmental assistance. It would be interesting to survey this information at the end of the first quarter of ’09.

    “Do they want that on a government portal or somewhere else ?” My guess is that citizens will want a mix to ensure that everyone gets the information they need, particularly when it comes to HHS.

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