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eGovernment: A Promise Finally Realized?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Mulhearn
October 23, 2020

In the early aughts smart people in public administration circles began to discuss the interface between government and the host of new technologies flooding society. E-mail, as an example, revolutionized everything from public comment on government proceedings to the applying for a building permit.

How to best harness these new opportunities for interaction began to inform best practices while implementing change proceeded as budgets allowed: perhaps a technology master plan was folded into the strategic plan or a grant paid for a new VoIP system.

By 2010 eGovernment heralded a new era of transparency, while administrators and reformers embraced these new information and communications technologies as agents of open government. As Ursula Maier-Rabler and Stefan Huber discuss in their research, open government was a promise finally realized through these new technologies, allowing people new modes of access to previously occult public institutions. In spite of government agencies’ predilection for focusing on neatly-packaged policy products, information technologies would finally provide the public entrée into the messy processes that led to those products.

This “participatory culture” was to have fostered new levels of citizen engagement, but the technologies required to complete this system often lagged depending on funding and levels of interest. In balancing a public safety officer against a new integrated database system, for example, it was difficult to argue for the software.

But now a pandemic, while highlighting the importance of government in general, has pushed these governing agencies into new areas of service delivery not all of them were prepared to traverse. In early March, as in-person meetings suddenly became dangerous and all of us fled to Zoom, governments at every level were suddenly left with whatever technologies they’d had in place. A patchwork of legacy systems and email now had to deliver the full host of services virtually and to everyone. E-government isn’t a philosophical discussion anymore; it’s just government.

Egov and Gov IT

Electronic and virtual government service delivery is actually two issues rolled into one: E-government (in the Public Administration sense) and Government Information Technology. It is both the systems governments use for delivering services electronically and the information technology infrastructure behind those systems that produce successful modern government.

Government internal information systems have evolved over the past 50 years to serve the technical specialty of whatever office they support. For example, local land-use planning agencies have specialized mapping and record-keeping systems that are very different from those used by sanitation engineers in a Public Works department, and both are distinct from the databases used by a public health agency. The siloing of various features of government has resulted in siloed information systems as well; and while an administrator in one agency can always call or e-mail a colleague in another office or agency, the information technology systems working behind the scenes often can’t communicate. What we’re seeing now in a global pandemic environment is that the paucity of these digital interconnections undermines government efforts to delivery services virtually or to collaborate between agencies while staff are working remotely. Nobody can just run a file down to the 4th floor anymore—we must attach a PDF and allow time for the recipient to upload or transcribe that document into their own bespoke system.

In their 2009 study of information systems in the Irish Revenue Commissioners, Finn de Bri and Frank Bannister discuss how such siloing developed even amongst tax categories regulated by one agency. Each entity within the agency would adapt information technologies to support their specific needs with no consideration for interoperability. This resulted in some bureaucratic absurdities such as a taxpayer owing an overdue liability to one office within the agency while at the same time being owed a refund from overpaying another.

While legislation initiated a wholesale reappraisal of these processes, de Bri and Bannister assert that the real change occurred once business processes and customer service were integrated into the policymaking. By analyzing the various silos for similarities in both internal process and customer experience, and further analyzing those similarities, administrators were able to develop a common process that would be used by each office within the agency. The focus was on simplifying and removing redundancy to achieve more efficient and effective service delivery.

Fully-Integrated eGovernment

If the goal of public administration is effective and efficient service delivery, then 21st Century telecommunications and information technologies represent an undeniable opportunity, and the pandemic has now provided an impetus for change.

Even in a normal environment—without a pandemic—the public should have been able to access government services without the disruption to their daily lives a trip to a government office often entails. Before the pandemic, though, the user experience frequently differed depending on the agency being engaged.

Now—nearly a year into COVID-19—most governments have rapidly adapted to a new service delivery model based around virtual interactions and an atomized workforce. The Federal CARES Act has provided funding to support everything from remote work technology to customer records management software, which is an unprecedented opportunity for government to broadly implement much-needed technology updates. Through such investments the promise of eGovernment may finally manifest.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA, is a public policy analyst for the Santa Cruz County, California, Board of Supervisors. He focuses primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure and may be reached at Patrick.Mulhearn@santacruzcounty.us.

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