Understanding the goal of e-government: Style vs. substance

E-government means many things to many people. For some, it's just a snazzy Web site. Ramon Padilla discusses what he thinks e-government should really mean and describes the four categories of e-government organizations.

Keep up with the issues and challenges that uniquely affect public-sector IT with TechRepublic's free Government IT newsletter, delivered each Tuesday. Automatically sign up today!

E-government. Does the word strike fear in your heart? It does for me because of the myriad of ways the term is bandied about and because for some, it seems to be the sole measure of a government IT shop's success.

For many, e-government means that the government agency  has a Web site. The degree to which that Web site is interactive and allows the public to network to obtain services over the Internet is the benchmark for how "electronic" your government really is. Of course, the federal government has its definition of e-government that is set out in the E-Government Act of 2002. This legislation established a new Office of Electronic Government within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB provides guidelines on a wide range of e-government issues.

You see, the true definition of e-government is how well it utilizes technology to improve the productivity of its workers as they serve the public in their particular capacities. In fact, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) reports its findings each year on the performance of e-government. I think you can lump most government agencies into one of four categories.

The four categories of e-government organizations

Category I – Snazzy on the outside, ugly on the inside

There are some government organizations that have superb Web sites that provide excellent functionality—but don't look behind the curtain, because to gaze there is like staring back into the Stone Age: slow and under-performing networks, low-quality or non-existent end-user support, aging systems, poor security, antiquated applications, unresponsive technology management, etc.

How can this be? Quite simply, the powers that be have decided to invest in only those areas that are visible to the public. If the Web site looks sophisticated, then all the other operations must be too—that is the kind of thinking that goes into this decision. However, while the Web site might look slick, security best practices may be non-existent. Because of poor protection against virus threats, for example, the network is compromised, resulting in significant downtime and a waste of taxpayer dollars. As you can see, a glitzy front door does not mean the shop is in order behind it.

Category II – Not much to look at, but lots of heart

Conversely, there are those e-governments who have a very plain Web presence, but are using technology in sophisticated and dynamic ways behind the scenes, such as:
  • Well-managed and high performing networks
  • Superior customer service
  • Established IT governance and portfolio management
  • Implementation of effective and smooth running applications that support the core business of the departments, such as: mobile data terminals in police, fire, and EMS vehicles, advanced jail management systems, superior ERP installations, etc.

Category III – Superstar—inside and out

E-governments who have incredible Web sites AND are doing an excellent job with technology throughout their organization.

Category IV—You can judge a book by its cover

Some e-governments have lousy Web sites, which happen to be a true reflection of their lack of technological savvy and a general lack of organizational interest in making good use of IT.

Which type of e-government are you?

If you are a member of Category III, more power to you! But first I want to focus on Category II—those with lots of substance, but no "shizzle."

The problem with being a Category II is that from an outsider's perspective you are hard to distinguish from Category IV. Why is that an issue? Because for many, perception is reality. It doesn't matter that your organization is a well-oiled machine that employs technology to work smarter—for those who don't understand your behind-the-scenes expertise, your organization may not be perceived as being technologically up to date. Why should this matter to you? Because when it comes time for a change in administration, it could mean big trouble for your IT department. I have seen an entire IT organization dismantled as a result of a merger between governments where one side was a Category I and the other a Category II. Guess which organization was decimated in favor of the practices of the other? You got it—to the elected officials, Category I organizations must know what they are doing—look at their Web site!

The reality is that if you are a Category II, your IT operations are focused on making the organization better—not just looking better. And while you are not against e-government in the sense of providing Web services to the public, you have given priority to internal projects, like making the network more reliable, or installing a new financial system, or coming up with innovative ways of serving applications to users for less cost and with greater reliability. Or perhaps the kind of government work you do does not lend itself to public Web applications. In any case, your organization is internally focused. And while all that work fits the "real" definition of e-government—you score low on the shizzle factor.

The solution is to provide more shizzle, of course! It doesn't have to be in the form of your Web site (although that medium plays a significant role); it can be done through press releases, newsletters, public speaking, involvement with community user groups or business groups—even through networking. Whatever method you use, you must get the word out about the good things that your IT department is accomplishing and the quality of service you are providing.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox