For the fourth year in a row, researchers at Brown University took the pulse of international e-government efforts and found it to be resting a little too comfortably. While peppered with pockets of surpriseMonaco and Togo rank near the topthe 2004 results are too similar to 2003 to satisfy Darrell West, the Brown professor of political science who led the study.
“Everyone is crawling at their own paceand I do mean crawling,” says West, who also directs Brown’s Taubman Center for Public Policy. E-government, he says, “is a new thing, and there isn’t a standard template for how it’s done.”
To its proponents, digital government was supposed to materialize as the pinnacle of citizen-friendly service. With no lines and no waiting, e-government functions are designed to pry open bureaucracies to better serve the constituents who pay the tab through their taxes. Or so the thinking goes.
Brown researchers scrutinized 1,935 government websites this summer, perusing the sites of, among others, executive offices, legislatures, judicial branches, and major agencies including education, interior, economic development, administration, and foreign affairs.
Despite the accelerated learning curve, some of the 198 nations surveyed are excelling at e-government. Taiwan landed the researchers’ top honors because its comprehensive website serves as a tidy entry point to all government agencies and departments. A quick series of clicks will whisk you from an overview of Taiwanese government to the official site for the capital city of Taipei, where you can find everything from an explanation of the foreigners tax to a link to a cab service that speaks English. In addition, the report noted Taiwan’s use of advanced technologies make it possible to contact government officials at some agencies on a PDA. The report also lauded Singapore (#2) and the United States (#3) for portal sites that clear a distinct path for citizens trying to navigate the maze of government. The United States got the nod for its “extensive privacy policies,” while the Singaporean government edged others out on utilityyou can use it to reserve outdoor parks for picnicsand creativity: its site offers online dating.
Also cracking the top 10 were Monaco (#5) and Togo (#8), up from 166 and 44 last year. How did the government websites of a principality that covers one square mile and boasts a population of 29,972, and of an impoverished West African independent republic, come out ahead of those of larger and more established governments? The answer, according to the Brown report: a commitment to tourism. The government sites of Monaco and Togo are weighted toward promotion of their nations as travel destinations, says West. “They don’t do well in terms of breadth of e-government,” he says, “but in that niche that they care about, they’ve made rapid progress.” Monaco’s site, for instance, lets you download the principality’s calendar of events to a PDA, or prepare to rub shoulders with the Monegasques by booking tickets to the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the report found that most government websites rely on modest technologies. Only 21 percent are automated enough to allow citizens to complete even a small number of transactions online. Audio clips can be heard on 12 percent of sites, while video features play on 13 percent. A handful of sites are venturing into SMS (Short Message Service). For example, Norway’s government site explains how SMS works and encourages use of the text-messaging service to contact national agencies, the study reports.
Still, the rate at which governments are rolling out online services is far slower than West had anticipated when he launched the annual review four years ago. He points to several factors that are holding governments back from greater success with their online services. Agency turf wars are one reason. Government portals require a cooperative spirit that runs counter to agency rivalries and guarded attitudes toward ideas and information. “The problem,” says West, “is getting government agencies to work together. Most value their autonomy, and e-government forces them to merge their interests. It’s one of the top complaints” by government officials about the new Internet-based access systems.
What’s more, he adds, the weak privacy policies on many government sites reflect a general conflict of interest. Only 14 percent display privacy policiesa tiny increase from the 12 percent who did according to the 2003 study. “Governments want to have it both ways,” West says. “They want to say they’re protecting privacy, but they’re not implementing measures to further that goal.” The reason, he theorizes, is that “they make money selling data, and it’s a lucrative market. They want to preserve marketing prerogatives.”
Others agree that progress on e-government initiatives has slowed among more advanced nations, but they say the reason for the deceleration is that the next generation of digital challenges are more complex. Erecting websites and portals and enabling access to and dissemination of information were the first, relatively simple steps for government, says David McClure, vice president, e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government in Washington, DC. “The tough part is what’s being done now: looking at internal processes and systems and streamlining the guts of government. Thats hard stuff.”
Another e-government study, released in May by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found plenty of demand for more traditional means of contacting government. A hefty 77 percent of adult Internet users in the United States took advantage of e-government in 2003, either by making use of government websites or by e-mailing officials, according to the Pew study. But the human touch still wins out. Researchers found that citizens said they were more likely to turn to the telephone or in-person visits to complete their dealings with government.