Blog post

Digital Government is little else than making e-government work

By Andrea Di Maio | September 18, 2013 | 3 Comments


Almost every day I either read an article, or hear from a client or discuss with a colleague about “digital government”. Every single jurisdiction has or is in the process of cranking up a digital plan of some sort, or is in the middle (or better the beginning) of its implementation.

As I sift through countless documents, statements, white and green papers, I can’t help notice the parallel between digital government and what used to be called e-government. Verbiage like “citizen-centric”, bridging the digital divide, enhancing collaboration and joined activity in the back office are all areas that we saw in well-reputed e-government plans and that we are seeing again in digital plans.

There are different reasons for this.

The most mundane is that the generation of “new kids on the blocks” who are put in charge of “digital” in some jurisdiction were still at college or high school during the eGov days, and they are living this adventure as if it were all new.

Another, more serious reason might be that technology is pervasive today among citizens and businesses, and principles like “digital first” make much more sense than 10 years ago.

A third reason is a recognition that e-government has failed or at least fell short of expectations, and must be re-branded, with new roles that may have a better time than their predecessors to achieve the desired outcomes.

Whichever the driver, it is important to avoid wheel reinvention. It is true that today we have cloud, big data, pervasive mobility. However the fundamental reasons why some of those earlier endeavors failed are still there, in the cross-agency and cross-tier governance challenges, in the lack of maturity in managing an evolving base of service providers, in the lack of key technology skills inside the public sector, in the weight and complexity of legacy application and infrastructure.

Replacing “e” by “digital” won’t take us very far, unless we start taking a  close look at where previous programs failed or stumbled, and understand the fundamental differences that new technologies bring to the table in terms of architectures and ownership of data, services and assets. The irony is that while data is taking center stage (think about open data, big data, social data), the CIO role (where “I” stands for Information) gets challenged and repurposed or replaced by Chief Digital Officers and the likes.

If digital government is a just a rebranding of e-government and Chief Digital Officers just a front-office focused version of the CIO, I suspect we won’t get much more from digital government than we did from e-government.

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  • Gustavo Magalhaes says:

    Very pertinent point, with which I entirely agree. Digital government seems in fact a re-branding of the outdated e-gov. I would add however, that Open government is something new, and different. I believe it is a natural evolution of e-gov, and it is hopefully where we are heading to.
    E-gov and digital government school of thought approached this evolutaionary process mostly as a transition from a traditional paper-based public sector to a digital one-way system that provided information-based online services to citizens. Hence, it strongly suggested employing a citizen-centric view in the development of solutions for government-citizen communication.
    In this new era of ubiquitous technology and big data, seen not only in wealthier nations but also in developing countries, Open government ideas acknowledge that we, citizens, together with public and private organizations, form the government. We are government. It is therefore a substantially different mind-set than e-government or digital government, since it expands the concept of government to a civic ecosystem in which civil society, intermediaries, and governments interact for the public good. As such, the advance of Open government demands not only a technological change, but also a cultural shift.

  • Doug Hadden says:

    There is a distinction between e-government as conceived and digital government in all of it’s forms (open government, open data, Government 2.0, m-government, and your favourite: “government as platform”) that is important to realize.

    E-government was conceived for explicit service delivery. (At least, all of the late 90’s early 2000’s material that I read.) There was this notion of stages of e-government maturity from web content to providing a support channel to end-to-end transactions to single view transactions (interact for life events in a single window across multiple government departments.) It’s true that few e-government initiatives achieved the highest level of maturing. And, I agree that many digital government initiatives today are attempting to meet this vision.

    Perhaps “open government” is the next stage of maturity although it seems that many governments have made strides in this regard without have achieved e-government maturity. Notions of providing open data for transparency/economic development and methods of citizen social interaction goes beyond what had been generally understood as e-government.

    Gustavo is right on the re-branding because “e-government” seems somewhat dated, so it’s always good for governments to have initiatives that sound fresh and new.

    Gustavo is also right on the cultural shift. Transparency and citizen social interaction requires significant changes in the way in which governments and public servants view their role in society. The cultural shift in e-government, at the highest level of maturity, was to be able to view government from the citizen perspective requiring departmental silos to work together – also challenging. Governments that are not able to see that the “single view”/”single window” for transactions are unlikely to see the benefits of open data or citizen social interaction.

  • Gustavo and Doug both make excellent points. The purpose of this post was not to say that digital is the same as e-government, but that there is a risk that this happens, as suggested by the verbiage I have seen in recent documents and client discussions around the world.
    It is indeed possible to trigger deeper change than what happened with e-government by learning those lessons: changes to architectures, the use of open standard, a greater focus on data than on services, changes in how services and applications are sources, as well as many of the lessons we have learned from government 2.0 go in this direction.
    In a slide that I am about to present at our Orlando and Barcelona symposia I show the progression from e-government to joined-up (or citizen-centric) government, to open government and finally smart government (i.e. affordable, sustainable and cross-boundary). In that slides I show that digital government implies both open government and smart government principles, and is indeed very well distinct from e-government.
    If one looks at elements in the most recent US open policy, in the UK digital strategy, in the Danish approach to data as well as in some domain-specific developments that are taking place around the world, these differences are becoming apparent. in all these examples, digital government is NOT a rebranding of e-government, nor are the governance and architectural changes cosmetic.
    However the warning in my post is that some of the conditions and constraints that prevented e-government from achieving its full potential may still be there; it is important to remain vigilant and not to forget past experiences.