6 E-government: other views
As you come to the end of this free course, I would like to offer some alternative views of what e-government could or should be. What these views have in common is the notion that IT has the power to transform radically the way things are done.
We saw at the start of course that in the UK the e-government project grew out of ideas about modernising government. This is true of many other countries' e-government projects also. What 'modernisation' means is not entirely clear, although it presumably involves managerial and organisational changes as well as the use of IT. But, whatever it involves, for many critics of e-government there is a feeling that the institutions of government will remain in control of the way IT is used by government.
There are other views of what e-government should be like. Implicit in many of these views is the idea that democratic e-government is not just about government services being put online. Instead, there is a view that democracy involves critical scrutiny of government. From this point of view, IT is seen to offer new tools for this critical scrutiny, and new ways of interacting with government. IT therefore opens the way for a different kind of e-government. The following extract, from the Guardian newspaper, gives a flavour of this other view:
Tom Steinberg, director of mySociety and a former adviser to No 10, wants the project to show off the success of the people he calls 'civic coders'. Their grassroots projects typically run queries on data already published by the state, returning relevant information which is fed onto elegant, minimalist websites. Simple social software tools – email, blogs, message boards, wikis – add the crucial layer of interactivity, and in one swift hack, citizen is brought closer to state.
FaxYourMP is the canonical example. Stefan Magdalinski, one of the site's volunteers, says the site came about because, 'we don't see why people should have to jump through hoops to contact their elected MP'. The site runs a postcode query to establish who your MP is, then presents you with a simple email form that quickly becomes a fax appearing in the MP's office. Run completely by volunteers, the site won the 2004 Future UK Internet Hero award and recently sent its 100,000th fax.
FaxYourMP and the websites that followed it picked up tricks the government had missed. The sites have seen ways to recycle data the government already publishes, increasing the usefulness of that data, without incurring much further cost.
mySociety is an umbrella organisation of 'grassroots' e-government projects. No. 10 refers to 10 Downing Street, the official home of the British Prime Minister.
These 'grassroots' e-government organisations often criticise governments for not presenting information in a useful way:
One thing he [Stefan Magdalinski, responsible for www.theyworkforyou.com] himself wants is for the Government to get out of the business of creating portals that the public is supposed to use as a gateway – […]. 'They should get good at search-engine optimisation and which service-delivery points they want to optimise. If they want serious uptake, promote the places where you can actually pay your road tax above all the other areas.'
More than that, says Magdalinski, they need to do a lot more to make data feeds available in formats that third parties can use. His own website is a case in point. 'The e-government framework has been going on for some years, but they still publish everything in PDF.' PDF, Adobe's portable document format that preserves formatting and can be read on almost any computing device, is good for forms and material that is going to be printed. But why produce the recent listing of MPs' expenses in that way, which makes it impossible to search them and to sort them meaningfully?
For the kinds of services Magdalinski builds, PDF is a hindrance. He wants data published in standard machine-readable formats designed to allow re-use by third parties. By the next general election, theyworkforyou.com should be able to provide a detailed scorecard on every MP: voting record, speeches made in Parliament, expenses claims. And why shouldn't charities like the Royal National Institute for the Blind be able to scrape all relevant government information – legislation, direct links to benefits – into a website that is designed to make life easier for its members?
You can perhaps see here the emergence of a different view of the role of IT in relation to government. In the 'conventional' view, IT does not fundamentally change the relationship between government and the public, but allows government to do more efficiently and cheaply the kind of thing that it has always done, such as supplying information, collecting taxes, and so on. In the other, more subversive view, IT has the potential to change the relationship between government and public, and to lead to different kinds of democratic process.
It seems particularly appropriate to end this block, by thinking about IT's capacity for transformation. Like many new technologies, IT at first offer quicker or cheaper or more efficient ways of doing what is already done in other ways. But the cheapness, speed and accessibility of these technologies have a way of encouraging novel applications, by new groups of users – as demonstrated by the grassroots organisations mentioned in this section. IT can thus transform the world in ways that could not have been predicted at the outset. The early proponents of e-government would almost certainly not have viewed e-activism as part of their agenda.