Why the focus on ‘e’ in eGovernment could hurt service delivery

April 2016 | Willem Pieterson

 

Introduction

The European Commission published their 2016-2020 eGovernment action plan on April 19th 2016. It is an ambitious plan aiming at an improvement of various aspects of the public sector, most notably service delivery, using ICTs. This ambition in itself is fantastic, it shows an EC who dares to move forward and have good motives to improve the lives of the citizens in the EU. The vision formulated in the eGovernment action plan is the following:

By 202, public administrations and public institutions in the European Union should be open, efficient and inclusive, providing borderless, personalised, user-friendly, end-to-end digital public services to all citizens and businesses in the EU. Innovative approaches are used to design and deliver better services in line with the needs and demands of citizens and businesses. Public administrations use the opportunities offered by the new digital environment to facilitate their interactions with stakeholders and with each other.

While I am a firm believer in the possibilities of ICTs to make improvements in government, I think publishing an eGovernment action plan might be problematic and in this blog post I am going to outline why. This hinges on two key arguments:

  1. Publishing an eGovernment action plan suggests that we need to be going towards a completely electronic government (I mean, there is no ‘government action plan 2016-2020). Like in the vision above, it creates a utopian view that suggests that eGovernment is by definition better than ‘traditional’ government and that as long as we throw ICTs at something it will become better. This is a view I would like to challenge.
  2. Focusing narrowly on ICTs ignores the possibilities to blend and integrate electronic and non-electronic aspects of government. In a world that is increasingly blended and integrated, where people seamlessly move from ICT to non-ICT driven processes, I would like to argue that -while ICTs drive many of the processes in organizations-, we still need non-electronic ways of interacting and the future lies in blending services and processes, rather than going all electronic.

I’ll discuss both points briefly and will argue that we need to move away from the term eGovernment.

eGovernment as utopian view

When highways and freeways were nascent, it was logical that many governments launched big and specific programs aiming at creating national and international highway systems (such as the US’ Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956). These programs were largely created during an era of utopian views of cars and long distance travel using cars.

Today the world is different. First of all, when these highway systems by themselves were largely completed, the necessity to have very large national highway programs disappeared. Second of all, the utopian view of the car has gone away. Despite the growing popularity of cars, people also adopted or kept on using air-travel, trains, bicycles and other modes of transportation. As a result, most countries nowadays look at transportation holistically and assess where a highway is needed and where roads need to connect to airports, train stations and other transportation infrastructures.

I think we are reaching a similar point with eGovernment now. We do not need to convince governments (or citizens) anymore of the fact that ICTs are good and ICTs can have positive effects on the public sector. Furthermore, eGovernment has reached reasonably high levels of maturity in most (albeit not all) EU countries. Many governments have systems that rival private sector counterparts and most countries have reached states of eGovernment evolution rather than eGovernment revolution. Lastly, and in my view most importantly, traditional processes and most notably traditional services have not gone away. People still go to front desks and people still call agencies and sometimes people even still write lengthy letters to governments complaining about something. There are very few studies suggesting that these traditional channels go away.

Most current studies even seem to suggest that channel patterns are remarkably stable (compare for example the findings from Pieterson & Ebbers, 2008i to Van der Geest, 2014ii). Some studies even find that use of electronic service channels has declined in certain settingsiii. This realization has been made by public sector organizations as well, with one notable example being the Dutch public employment service (UWV), where the director general in 2015 admitted that the 100% digital online strategy of the organization had failed and there was a need for more in-person contact to help job seekersiv.

In this sense, having an eGovernment action plan is misleading if we want to improve government and public services as a whole. It overemphasizes the role of ICTs in a world where old fashioned processes are still needed and even desired, bringing me to the second point.

The need for blending

While the analysis above suggests that people use either ICTs or non-ICTs, that is certainly not entirely the case. Yes, there are still large groups of people that do not have an internet connection, or do not have the digital skills to benefit from online services (something not even acknowledged in the EU action plan). However, those parts of the population that are connected and are digital savvy still use traditional channels as well.

In part this can be explained through the fact that some services (e.g. for legal reasons) still need to be used offline, however there are two other explanations. The first is that some citizens still prefer traditional contact because of their habits or simply because this communication style suits them better. The second explanation is more important and that is that the different channels of communication vary in their characteristics, rendering them suited for different types of communicative tasks (described by scientists as the media richness effectv). For example, it is really hard to explain a highly complicated and ambiguous topic via a website simply because there is no interaction (allowing to clarify questions), there is no possibility to vary words and language (if I don’t understand a word written on a website, I get stuck, whereas in a conversation I can ask for clarification) and there is no body language that can create the levels of trust needed to solve complicated matters.

Researchers (including myself) have long argued that governments should adopt multi-channel service approaches that integrate different service channels into one seamless approach allowing to benefit from the differences between channels while making the process as efficient as possible. In this integrated approach certain services are offered via certain channels and channels refer to each other when a client is served better elsewhere. An increasing number of organizations are taking this one step further and argue for blended services where certain channels are actually combined if needed. Examples are co-browsing where a service agent can follow the behavior of a citizen on a website and give directions (via voice and/or text) if needed or an agent who -in person- helps a client while supported by digital tools. The private sector is making similar moves with companies like Amazon opening physical stores in addition to their online presence, simply because it allows for a better customer experience. These stores, obviously, are embedded in the online strategy and offline activities are made as efficient as possible through support of technologies.

The bottom line here is that the eGovernment action plan not only ignores citizens preferences for offline contact, it also ignores the possibilities to benefit from traditional forms of communication to improve the quality of service delivery and have meaningful dialogues between citizens and governments.

In the future: “government action plans”

In my view, the EC has launched an ambitious plan, with many lofty goals. But I would like to plea for a different approach in the future. ICT should move from an end in itself to a means to provide better processes in the back office and better services at the client facing side of these processes. We need to stop publishing eGovernment plans and move to Government plans. In that sense it is logical to publish a ‘government action plan regarding data and processes’ and a ‘government action plan regarding services’ or something alone these lines. The goal of the latter should be to provide the best possible services at the lowest possible cost. This would rely heavily on ICTs and most citizens can and will be served primarily through ICTs. However, for certain clients and certain services in certain situations, we will have a conversation the old fashioned way, simply because it is better.

To that end, one could already reformulate the EC’s vision for better services by simply scratching the first time the word ‘digital’ is mentioned in the vision and slightly changing the rest of the language:

“By 2020, public administrations and public institutions in the European Union should be open, efficient and inclusive, providing borderless, personalised, user-friendly public services to all citizens and businesses in the EU. These services are delivered digital where possible, non-digital when needed. Innovative approaches are used to design and deliver better services in line with the needs and demands of citizens and businesses. Public administrations use the opportunities offered by the new digital environment to facilitate their interactions with stakeholders and with each other, but will not abolish personal forms of communication when it serves high quality service delivery processes.”

I am not going to argue whether this vision itself is perfect, but at least it is more realistic and does more justice to our increasingly blended world where ICT is important, but not the end-all be-all.

willem[at]pieterson[dot]come

notes

i Pieterson, W., & Ebbers, W. (2008). The use of service channels by citizens in the Netherlands; implications for multi-channel management. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 74(1), 95-110.

ii Geest, Thea van der (2014). De kanalen van Amsterdam. Rapport Universiteit Twente Center for e-Government Studies. Enschede. (Dutch).

iii See Reddick, Ch., and Anthopoulos, L. (2014) “Interactions with E-Government, New Digital Media, and Traditional Channel Choices: Citizen-Initiated Factors”. Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy, 8(3), 2014. Bests Leonidas

iv See http://www.volkskrant.nl/economie/topman-uwv-weer-persoonlijk-contact-met-werkloze-nodig~a4135960/

v See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_richness_theory