Digital Government Digital Policy

eGovernment Revolution? Not Quite Yet.

It’s been almost twenty years since government IT began evolving from automating back-office operations to implementing customer-facing functions – what we now know as eGovernment. Along with the technology came the promise of a more open, efficient and effective government; greater citizen engagement and a more participatory democracy, particularly at the local government level.

Has the local eGovernment revolution achieved its aims? Well, based on extensive research by Dr. Donald F Norris and Dr. Christopher Reddick,[1] not yet.

Both Dr. Norris and Dr. Reddick have been studying eGovernment since its inception and have published extensively on this subject. In their latest round of research on eGovernment adoption by U.S. local governments[2],[3],[4] published in 2013, they have found that eGovernment has not yet realized its full eParticipation and eDemocracy potential. They also question whether such potential exists.

The research was based on several comprehensive surveys of state, county and municipal governments of various sizes from across the US on the adoption of eGovernment. The surveys were conducted in 2004, 2006 and 2011. Key findings:

  • Table1
    Table 1

    By 2004, almost all local governments surveyed had implemented eGovernment and were mainly providing their citizens information and services. A limited number enabled citizens to conduct transactions and interact with the government through their website. By 2011, local governments were offering a much broader spectrum of capabilities: information, services, transactions and interactions (Table 1).

  • Closer examination of the data reveals that the purpose/function of almost all the services has been primarily for the provision of information or to enable citizens to conduct business transactions on-line, e.g., like paying a ticket – very few have been implemented for the purpose of increasing citizen engagement in government. Only a small number of governments have implemented engagement-enabling technologies such as chat rooms, moderated discussions and instant messaging.
  • Table 2
    Table 2

    More revealing is the data in Table 2, from the 2011 survey, in which the governments were asked which capabilities that enabled eParticipation had they implemented within the last year or planned to implement over the next 12 months. Half to two-thirds of the governments had implemented a one-directional eParticipation capability yet only 10-13% had plans to implement one in the near future. Two-way interaction capabilities – which provide for true eParticipation – had only been implemented, on the average, by 13% of the governments. The values ranged from 32% for the capability to conduct public consultations to 5% for operating chat rooms. Less than 7% of the governments had any plans to implement two-way eParticipation capabilities in the near future.

So why the low numbers? The data suggest that tight budgets are the primary cause.  Survey respondents indicated that the major barrier to the implementation of eParticipation was lack of funding. Other barriers listed – which are related to funding – were the need to upgrade technology, technical staff shortages, and difficulties in putting together the business case for justifying the investment needed to implement these capabilities.

Limited citizen demand was cited as another reason. According to Dr. Norris: “…citizen participation, under the best of circumstances, is very difficult to achieve.”  So, as a result of these two factors, local governments have taken an incremental approach to eParticipation initiatives.

Could this slow growth in demand be a generational issue? It will be interesting to see if late Millennials and Gen Zers, as they reach adulthood, embrace eParticipation more widely than their predecessors. These so-called “digital natives” grew up with social media and digital interaction is a way of life for them. We shall see.

The Citizen 2015 team recently interviewed Don Norris at UMBC. An extract is featured below. We’ll publish the full interview in the coming weeks.

[1] Dr. Norris is Professor and Head of the Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Dr. Reddick is Professor and Head of the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas.

[2] Local E-Government in the United States: Transformation or Incremental Change?

[3] E-democracy at the American grassroots: Not now … not likely?

[4] e-Participation in Local Governments: An Empirical Examination of Impacts