Yesterday in Malmo, the e-government ministers of the EU had a meeting and, as is their wont, issued a declaration. As I have made clear before, I am not a fan of the term ‘e-government’, which I think tends to distract rather than illuminate, and nor am I a member of the esoteric group of people prone to get excited by EU declarations.
I might have expected in the light of that to find myself in agreement with Andrea di Maio’s trenchant conclusion:
If government 2.0 is about discontinuity, enabling bi-directional flows and engaging new stakeholders, the EU declaration has failed on every account.
Slightly to my own surprise, my reading is much more positive than that. I think the declaration says some important things, and is a very big step forward from the equivalent declaration from the previous meeting of e-government ministers in Lisbon in 2007. It places much greater emphasis on the needs of users and is much less simplistic about the place of digital channels within an overall approach to service delivery:
We will develop user-centric services that provide flexible and personalised ways of interacting with public administrations. We will develop multi-channel strategies in order to deliver eGovernment services in the most effective way. We will develop inclusive services that will help to bring down barriers experienced by digitally or socially excluded groups. Efficient eGovernment services built around the needs of users will increase trust in government and contribute to higher user satisfaction whilst achieving efficiency gains. (para 9)
It goes on to be equally clear about a more collaborative approach to service design and delivery:
We will actively seek collaboration with third parties, for example businesses, civil society or individual citizens, in order to develop user-driven eGovernment services. Collaboration with third parties will stimulate the creation of innovative, flexible and personalised services, increase the overall effectiveness of services and maximise public value…
We will encourage the reuse of public data by third parties to develop enriched services that maximise the value for the public. (paras 10 to 11)
But perhaps the most interesting change of direction from the traditional concept of e-government comes in the recognition that changing the back end of government is just as important as changing the front end:
We will analyse on a routine basis how organisational processes can be developed when we apply information and communication technologies in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness… eGovernment is an important enabler for organisational improvements.
I think what that all comes down to is that finally and belatedly the thinking has moved beyond technocratic fundamentalism. In 2007, the impression was given that e-government was good because it was e. In 2009, there is a clear shift towards recognising that e-government can be good because it is government.
That’s not so say that everything is perfect. The core of Andrea’s criticism is that whatever else the declaration amounts to, it isn’t Government 2.0. He’s not wrong about that: as he observes there is plenty in the declaration which is effectively rolling forward initiatives justified more by their own inertia than by fresh thinking. But I think there is a risk in focusing so much on what the declaration might have said that we overlook the direction in which it is moving. Andrea is disappointed that on the scale of 0 to e-government, the current score is lower than he would wish. I am encouraged that the rate of change of the score is showing signs of increasing.
But this is a good point to bring in another of Andrea’s recent blog posts, on the asymmetry of government 2.0:
Government 2.0 implies a bidirectional flow of information and services. It will require business intelligence suites that integrate data analytics with social networking analysis to help identify patterns revealing future behaviors; case management tools that give case managers the ability to alter case processing on the basis of data from external communities; online citizen services that can be integrated with third party portals; and indeed open data repositories that allow citizens to develop value added mashups and new applications.
And as he comments in his more recent post,
The declaration confirms the asymmetric view that many have about government 2.0: information flows from government to citizens (through reuse of public information) while engagement flows from citizens to government.
That seems to me to be a really helpful way of thinking about things, though as much to drive out questions as to determine what answers might be. One of the many exciting and frustrating things about dealing with government is the sheer range of activity it covers. Some aspects of government can be bilaterally symmetrical, but in others the network of relationships is much more complicated, and that needs to be recognised in approaches to service design and delivery.
There comes a point of severely diminishing returns in analysing documents such as this declaration, and this post is probably already well past it. In the end, there is not much which will change as a result of its publication, and so it could be argued that it’s not worth paying much attention to it. But precisely because the main force it will have is rhetorical, it is worth recognising what the rhetoric is doing and who it is aimed at. On that score, I see a small but useful step forward.