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Irony: Poor governance holds back e-government

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E-government offers some nice services, such as electronic RFPs and informational sites, but why aren't deeper efforts catching hold?

E-government offers some nice services, such as electronic RFPs and informational sites, but why aren't greater efforts catching hold?

McKinsey and Company recently issued a report that looked at the state of progress of e-government initiatives, and found that despite spending enormous amounts on Web-based initiatives, government
agencies often fail to meet users’ needs online
. The report's authors, Jason Baumgarten and Michael Chui, say that to succeed, e-government needs new governance models, smarter Web investment, and greater user participation.

There have been some impressive benefits seen from the early days of e-government. For example, taxpayers can file taxes electronically, benefits can be managed online, and contractors respond to RFPs electronically. This is all good. However, as McKinsey observes, there has not been notable progress beyond these early efficiencies. "Many new e-government initiatives have neither generated the anticipated interest among users nor enabled clear gains in operational efficiency," the report states.

What can be done to get e-government back on track?  McKinsey says effective governance is the key. The challenge is bringing together disparate systems and information sources together for a common purpose:

"Ineffective, complex governance processes present a fundamental obstacle to success. Accountability for Web-based activities too often resides deep within IT or communications departments. And because the Web is typically not viewed as a core business channel, Web-related efforts are often fragmented across an agency. One US agency found that it had more than 100 internal Web sites alongside dozens of external sites, as well as multiple tools and platforms to maintain them. In addition to increased costs and inefficiency, this complexity impedes adoption, as, for example, users must endure multiple sign-ons within and across sites."

Along with poor governance, e-government efforts are lagging in terms of adoption of new tools and methodologies, such as blogs, wikis, and social networking or collaborative platforms.

McKinsey has three recommendations for the government to get it's e-house in order:

  • Move to a governance model in which e-government initiatives are owned by “line of business” executives and supported by dedicated, cross-functional teams
  • Develop capabilities in critical areas such as marketing, usability, Web analytics, and customer insights
  • Shift agency mind-sets to proactively get citizens, businesses, and other agencies involved in contributing or creating applications and content

Interestingly, these three challenges mirror those being seen in the private sector in terms of gaining more value out of information technology investments. In fact, Baumgarten and Chui urge changes in the corporate culture of agencies, to follow the approaches of private enterprises -- "establish a dedicated product-management team—consisting of designers, information architects, developers, and editors—responsible for not only the initial development process but also ongoing improvements to usability and functionality." McKinsey says these teams need decision-making authority -- "empowered to make quick decisions, and rewarded for adopting a test-and-learn mentality so that it can feel free to shut down pilots or programs that are not meeting expectations."

Where can a well-governed highly collaborative e-government lead us beyond online drivers' license registrations?  Opening up innovation to outside sources is a powerful tool. For example, the District of Columbia municipal government staged an “Apps for Democracy” contest to encourage developers to create applications that would give residents access to data such as crime reports and pothole repair schedules. Forty-seven applications were created in 30 days. McKinsey notes that "hiring contract developers would have cost approximately $2.6 million, whereas the cost of running the contest was a mere $50,000."

In another example, the US federal government adopted software code developed by a nonprofit organization for USAspending.gov, a database of government grants and contracts. McKinsey observes that "the government had initially estimated that it would cost $10 million to create the database and $2 million a year to maintain it, but it adopted the code developed by OMB Watch to run FedSpending.org, which had been funded through a $334,272 grant."

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure