Digital Era Governance

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From a conference report by Roman Tol:

"In the public administration debate about new public management (NPM), Professor Helen Margetts (Society and Internet, OLL, UK) claims traditional themes of disaggregation, competition, and ‘incentivization’ are worn out. Although its effects are still working through in countries new to NPM, this wave has now largely stalled or been reversed. Helen sets out the case that a range of connected and information technology-centered changes will be critical for the current and coming wave of change. The overall movement incorporating these new shifts is toward “digital-era governance” (DEG), which involves reintegrating functions into the governmental sphere, adopting holistic and needs-oriented structures, and progressing digitalization of administrative processes.

DEG has three key elements - reintegration (reversing fragmentation, joining up, re-governmentalization, new central processes, squeezing process costs, simplification, bringing issues back into government control, like US airport security after 9/11); needs-based holism (client-focused structures, end-to-end redesign, one-stop processes, co-production, agile government, reorganizing government around distinct client groups); and digitalization (electronic delivery, centralized procurement, new automation, disintermediation, open-book governance, web2.0 for government, fully exploiting the potential of digital storage and Internet communications to transform governance). DEG offers a perhaps unique opportunity to create self-sustaining change, in a broad range of closely connected technological, organizational, cultural, and social effects.

The backlash, however, is a move to a digital super state, in which information and organization is chaotic and lagged. Research concerning UK government representation and recognition on the internet shows that users rate government websites reasonably well but quality has improved little since 2002, design is text heavy, public sector sites lack innovation (particularly Web 2.0) and popular features of good private sector sites. Furthermore, Central government websites cost 208m pounds annually (estimated) – but some departments/agencies still have weak information on costs/usage of online provision and many lack channel strategies. UK government has embarked on a high risk ‘super site’ strategy, Helen continues, to centralize e-government provision in two sites – Directgov and Businesslink – which have low brand recognition and problems competing with other information sources.

Helen states management culture for digital-era governance should include the use of pervasive information; it needs to de-couple information analysis from control (contrast to targets-based culture); be customer orientation and segmentation, with attention to channel strategy; and use pro active and experimental tools. A citizen culture for digital-era governance could entail an ‘isocratic’ government which helps citizens do it themselves; stimulate co-production and peer production. Essentially Web 2.0 should run for government.

The only problem with a potential Web 2.0 candidacy is that the cultural vibe in government is that only ‘old-fashioned’ Web is easy to use, and the “government doesn’t do cool”, in fact, “it’s only working if it’s boring” (i.e. all on-line communication is text-based). Governments avoid part-authenticated information and para-state involvement – “we stand alone; we don’t integrate into society’s networks”. The general idea is that people will come to the government site and can be directed to government sources of information.

The risk of Web 1.0 in government is that it ignores young people at peril – internet change is lead by them. Planning for text-only communication, Helen argues, leads to disastrous under-investment. Moreover, people go where they want to go, with increases in competition, a focus on Web 1.0 will bring forth a net loss of visibility for government – loss of ‘nodality’ (information dissemination) as policy tool.

Web 2.0 could provide the government with rich information and content (not just text) – video, pictures, audio, podcasts, high-intensity graphics (e.g. video games). Conventional information asymmetries can be reversed with a highly specific ‘deep’ search. Also, Web 2.0 allows users to play back information about what they do and how they feel. It can offer part-finished products (e.g. part-authenticated information) to leave for e.g. experts outside the government, allowing for co-production, leading to co-creation, and ultimately making users enter the front office. Web 2.0, Helen adds, offers strong customer segmentation – opening space for social networking (peer production) – possibly involving a wide range of organizations – 3rd sector and private firms.

A 2.0 approach in the health sector, for instance, will permit performance data to be freely available, not only leading to peer-production amongst health-experts, but also offering a direct voice for the patient. This may socialize the manager to be customer orientated. So, the patient input replaces controls." (