IT: e-government
IT: e-government

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IT: e-government

2 Scope of e-government

2.1 Modernising government

Before we start to look at e-government itself, I would like you to read some quotations. During the 1980s and 1990s, the potential of IT systems for government was discussed by many commentators, but in the UK the official argument for e-government was set out in 1999 in the document Modernising Government. This document, however, is not specifically about e-government. Rather, it is about the much broader issue of how government should be modernised. Here is an extract:

Earlier this year, a number of 'Integrated Service Teams' were set up to identify the practical problems facing people when they use public services. The teams looked at seven of the most common 'life episodes': leaving school; having a baby; becoming unemployed; changing address; retiring; needing long-term care at home; and bereavement. Some of the most common problems were:

  • People had to give the same information more than once to different – or even the same – organisations. A mother of a boy with physical disabilities said: 'I have lost count of the times I have had to recount my son's case history to professionals involved in his care.'

  • There is often no obvious person to help those most in need to find their way around the system.

  • There is a lack of integrated information to enable service providers to give a full picture of what help might be available.

  • There is minimal use of new technology. Most government departments have a website, but few allow people to fill in forms on line. And government websites are not well linked to other relevant sites.

Cabinet Office (1999), p. 23

Referencing: authors and page numbers

The referencing system used here is the author–date system, sometimes called the Harvard system. The author and date are given with the quotation, or near it. This is called the author–date citation, or just the citation. The citation is the link to the reference in the references list at the end. The reference supplies the full bibliographic information for the work cited. You can see my references list at the end of this course. (Sometimes the references list is called the bibliography, though strictly speaking a bibliography is not the same as a references list because it can include any relevant publication, whether cited or not.) Turn to the references list and find the reference for the quotation above.

It is not always clear who is the author of a source you are quoting from. This is often the case with official documents, so you have to decide as best you can whom to cite as author. When you are faced with this problem, it is sometimes helpful to look at online library catalogues, such as that of the Open University Library or the British Library, to see what name they give as the author. Enter the title of the document in the catalogue's search engine, and you should find details of the document. Another possibility is just to put the title in an internet search engine. This will sometimes produce a library catalogue record card.

Where does the page number go? If you only refer to the source once, the page number (or numbers) goes with the information in the references list. If there are multiple references to the same source, the best place is with the quotation, as here

The use of capital letters, italics, quotation marks, brackets, etc., in references varies from publisher to publisher. However, it is usual to italicise book and journal titles.

Activity 1: (self-assessment)

Construct an author–date citation and a reference to accompany a quotation from page 35 of the following book: The Rise of the Network Society, by Manuel Castells, published in 2000 by Blackwell in Oxford. This is the sole reference to this book. You will probably find it helpful to look through the references at the end of this free course.

Answer

The author-date citation is like this:

(Castells, 2000) or Castells (2000) if the author's name is part of a sentence.

The reference is like this:

Castells, M. (2000) The Rise of the Network Society, Oxford, Blackwell, p. 35.

Not all publishers include a place of publication in book references. Sometimes the order of publisher and place is reversed.

This book is actually the second edition of a book first published in 1996, as you may have spotted if you checked it in a library catalogue. The edition number is incorporated as follows.

Castells, M. (2000) The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd ed., Oxford, Blackwell, p. 35.

The extract from Modernising Government identifies typical problems ordinary people can have in dealing with government. The remedy for these and countless other problems, as far as this UK government document is concerned, is 'modernisation' of government, and part of this modernisation is the provision of services online. Typical online services would include: making tax payments, viewing a record of payments, contacting government departments and making appointments, finding information about entitlements, and so on. The first and last two bulleted points in the quotation are especially relevant. They point to deficiencies in information and services, and to a lack of integration in what is available. This takes us to the heart of what many governments (not just the UK) view as the essential features of e-government:

  • Making most, or even all, of the government's services available online.

  • Bringing online services together, so that the user does not have to go to different departmental websites for different services.

In many countries, putting government services online did not begin with the launching of e-government projects. Individual departments had started to put their services online, both for their own use and for public use, well before these highly publicised e-government ventures were launched. However, a piecemeal approach has led to inconsistent systems, and one of the goals of e-government projects is to bring order and consistency to what would otherwise be chaotic.

Although making government services available online might be modernisation, would it necessarily be an improvement?

Activity 2 (exploratory)

Try to think of some clear advantages of electronic delivery of government services. You might like to look back to the bullet points in the extract above from Cabinet Office (1999) for some ideas.

Discussion

These are my thoughts. Yours might be different.

Services would be available 'at a distance' – the user would not have to travel to them.

Services would be available round the clock.

Services might be cheaper, and might be better.

Official documents (white papers, bills, Acts of Parliament, etc.) could be more easily available as downloads from government websites.

Activity 3 (exploratory)

Can you think of any disadvantages that might follow from making these services available electronically?

Discussion

Again, these are my thoughts. Yours might have been different.

People without access to online facilities might find that conventional services are less well supported than before, for instance by being poorly staffed or more awkward to use.

If government cost saving is a reason for introducing electronic services, this saving might be achieved by making the user do work that was formerly done by government staff (for instance, finding information, filling in forms, etc.).

The last two activities have raised the issue of cost saving, or potential cost saving. Some commentators have tried to gauge some of the cost savings from e-government. The following activity asks you to complete one writer's estimate of potential savings.

Activity 4 (self-assessment)

Rachel Silcock (2001) writes:

[…] the Department of Social Security (DSS) handles around 160 million telephone calls each year (with mostly paper-based administrative systems), at an approximate cost of £2.40 per call (based on one of its most efficient call centres). If only 2% of these calls could be shifted to people looking up material on DSS web sites, then an annual saving of […] might be achievable.

Fill in the missing figure in the last sentence of the Silcock quotation by doing the calculation. Hint: you will need to find 2 per cent of 160 million and proceed from there.

Answer

2% of 160 million calls is:

At £2.40 per call, this number of saved calls amounts to a saving of:

As the data on which this calculation is based is only approximate, it is misleading to give such a precise answer. It would be better to round the answer to £8 million.

There would, of course, be the cost of setting up and maintaining the website to set against this, but the setting-up cost should be a 'one-off cost' rather than a recurring cost to pay each year. The maintenance cost would be an annual cost, but should be well below £8 million.

Referencing: mentioning the author

If the author is mentioned in the sentence leading up to a quotation, as with the Silcock quotation in the last activity, putting the date in brackets after the author is usually the neatest way of giving the date. (If necessary, the page number can be included with the date.)

Note that by 'date' I mean just the year. If the publication were a monthly, weekly or daily (for instance) I would still give only the year. The precise date would be given in the references list.

Activity 4 showed that, in principle, substantial savings could be made if transactions with the government were done online.

The Modernising Government document initially set a deadline of 2008 for making 'all' UK government services available online. The 'all' was not meant literally. It excluded services which could not be delivered electronically or those for which 'there is genuinely unlikely to be demand' (Cabinet Office, 1999, p. 62). A few years after Modernising Government was published, the 2008 deadline was brought forward to the end of 2005, and then relaxed somewhat to allow more exclusions. Nevertheless, the number of government services available online in the UK has expanded greatly, and the same is true of many other countries.

In 2005, Ian Watmore, the head of the UK e-Government Unit, was reported by Say (2005) as having said:

[…] IT in government is as difficult as it gets. Government does things in IT which are more complicated than anywhere in the private sector.

Whatever the truth of this claim, it is not difficult to imagine that implementing e-government is particularly complex. Several issues occurred to me, and I have given them below. You can probably think of others.

  • Technical issues. How are services to be made available online? Which services cannot be adapted to online delivery? For instance, can voting be done online in a way that everyone will trust? (At the time of writing, systems have been used in the USA that do not allow votes to be recounted, and lack many of the safeguards of paper-based balloting.) Can existing online services be made to work together? (We shall look at some of the issues with so-called legacy services later.)

  • Cost. All large-scale IT enterprises cost a lot. Will the benefits of introducing e-government justify the expenditure?

  • Expertise. Large-scale IT projects require a great deal of expertise to set them up, and a lot of expertise to keep them running. Is sufficient expertise available?

  • Management. How do you manage a project such as this, both in the setting-up phase and the running phase?

  • The user interface is what the user sees (and maybe hears) and interacts with. In an online environment where no one is available to help the user, how easy will it be to use government services?

  • Usage. Will people want to use online e-government systems?

Issues raised by questions such as these are part of what makes e-government such a complex undertaking. In the UK, an idea of the scale of the e-government project can be gauged from the level and type of government support it has received. Rather than being supervised directly by a government minister, the project has been run by a specially appointed manager, a so-called e-Envoy, with considerable powers and access to high levels of government.

When thinking of services being made available electronically, it is natural to suppose that this means via computers. However, in the UK e-government project other methods of delivery are envisaged too:

The strategy envisages that services will be accessed by multiple technologies, including web sites accessible from PCs, kiosks, mobile phones and digital TV, and call and contact centres.

Cabinet Office (2000), p. 16

A couple of footnotes in the same document clarify what some of these terms mean:

Kiosks are a means of providing access to electronic services in public places. Initially, kiosks tended to use touch-screen technology. More recently, keyboard input and web browsing have greatly improved their capability. […]

Contact centres combine the handling of e-mail, video and telephone calls.

There is no doubt, however, that access to government services via the Web has dominated thinking about e-government, and not just in the UK. This is what I shall concentrate on here.

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