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Openness and Transparency: Is E-Government Learning to Listen?

Openness and improving transparency are two of the cornerstones of electronic government (e-government) policies. In this month’s column, we discuss some of the challenges of building the next phase of e-government.


Making Information Available

When the term “electronic government” was introduced by the Clinton-Gore administration in 1993 there were clear expectations that the newly available Internet would become an integral part of the government of the future.  In recent years, Internet-based information technologies have indeed become central components of civic reform efforts.  In its early years, e-government focused on making information available without much attention to meaningful interaction with citizens. Now, government agencies are increasingly exploring how new and emergent technologies such as social media, mobile apps and data access and visualization platforms can help improve their internal operations as well as their relationships with citizens and other social actors.  Additionally, these technologies can also promote a higher level of transparency amongst government officials.


Improving the Transparency of Government

Transparency is often seen as a powerful tool to transform government. Often realized through open data policies, transparency is often seen as being a panacea for all kinds of issues that Grimmelikhuijsen (2012) calls ‘diseases’ in the public realm, such as low citizen trust, corruption, bad performance, low accountability and power abuse by public officials. Open data policies remedy these ‘diseases’ by revealing the business of government to all. E-government has made information from legislative meeting minutes to budget proposals to map-based information available to the public.  A recent study by the San Diego Regional Data Library noted that transparency was the leading motivation for governments to enact open data policies.

Municipalities have learned to deploy information and communication technologies (ICTs) effectively in many areas over the last 20 years. New York City, Vancouver, Washington DC and, most recently, San Francisco are among the cities that have made significant strides in implementing model open data policies. These policies benefit citizens by making life easier, saving money and time and eliminating paperwork. Bannister and Connolly (2012) commented, “Today most governments offer easy-to-use systems for online tax filing, car registration, change of address and so on. High usage levels show that such systems are valued by the public.” These policies reflect a refinement of earlier post-anything strategies. They reflect a focus on citizen-driven usefulness and effectiveness in communication with the public.


E-Government as a Useful Tool of Government: Are We on the Right Path?

In a recent excellent article on the changing nature of the relationship between e-government and citizens, particularly regarding the deployment of ICTs in constructing digital identities (e.g., obtaining a driver’s license), Lips (2012) notes there are still many challenges and complexities associated with e-government that seriously limit its effectiveness. She writes that the main challenge e-government faces is that it is still largely perceived as solely a technological innovation rather than a tool for better public administration. This skewed perception has resulted in a weak strategic alignment of e-government initiatives with the political, managerial and democratic requirements that government leaders face.  However, many municipalities are working hard to address this perception. If you’re curious about those local governments striving to get things right, check out the 2012 winners honored by the Center for Digital Government. Ultimately, Lips concludes that the dominant thinking about the role of e-government is rapidly changing. Political leaders have adopted a social shaping perspective, a fancy way of saying that e-government’s success depends on its ability to engage citizens as partners who shape and are shaped by their interactions with e-government.  For an interesting perspective from local governments in Australia, be sure to check out Digital Local Government News and Research.

Among those organizations working to increase the utility of digital government is the Center for Digital Government, which recently issued a brief outlining a set of practices for engaging digitally connected citizens. The checklist includes conducting citizen surveys to identify social media tool preferences and maintaining an inventory of frequently requested documents. It also includes some cautions, such as researching jurisdiction requirements for public records and identifying confidential and sensitive information that might need to be redacted.    It seems that as e-government matures it becomes a better communicator, one that is able to be more than just an accessible repository of information. It is becoming adept at listening too. The next step is a richer integration of services that can be managed through information communication technologies. Remaining relevant in today’s technology supported world, it is important to remain informed and engaged. Subscribing to groups such as http://www.govloop.com , http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/e-gov or http://icma.org/en/icma/knowledge_network/topics/kn/Topic/77/Egovernment will help keep you firmly rooted in what is becoming a digital necessity, what is worth considering, and what is just a plain waste of time.


Authors: Christopher J. Godfrey, Ph.D. Director, Web 2.0 Interdisciplinary Informatics Institute Department of Psychology , Pace University; Camila Bernal, MPH(cand.) Columbia University; Hillary J. Knepper, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Pace University; Danica Spence (MSW cand.) New York University. Email Contact: [email protected]


Image courtesy of http://cel.csusb.edu/iep/iep_egov.html.

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