Why are governments so slow in taking up eGov?

I recently was asked this question in an exchange on an article I wrote on good public governance, a couple of years ago. The article underlying this question is behind this link, and was written by Bill Eggers of Deloitte.

Governments aren’t necessarily that slow in taking up eGov

My first off-the-cuff reaction was “but are they?” Because I’m not sure governments are really that slow in taking up eGov. Now, you need to take this for what it is worth, a view from one person who has been involved both as a consultant and as an auditor with the Belgian federal and Flemish governments in one way or another since 1997.

Deloitte’s arguments are not really public sector specific

If you have not read Eggers’ article, the crux of the argument he makes is that technology is easier to access now, the development life cycle of ICT implementations was not appropriate, the skills were not there and the delivery models were not adequately developed. I’m summarising, perhaps too much. The point is, I don’t agree. Some of the points Eggers makes are relevant, but he is not surprising me or kicking in doors that were not open to begin with. His arguments can as easily be applied to private sector as to public sector or government services.

He fails to highlight some of the most essential reasons why digital government/e-gov has not yet fully taken off to date, and is very likely to take off in the near future. Let me explain my main four main arguments.

My four main arguments

First, mosts government are and remain a social employer for quite a few people whose skillset could partially or even entirely be replaced by eGov solutions. Social employment is considered by many government officials and politicians to be a core responsibility of government. However, structural budget constraints are changing this attitude. But such attitude change takes time to have tangible effects. The natural reduction of such employees, mainly through retirement, is not at a point where an eGov replacement solution is completely realistic, yet. And if the work is being done now, many people don’t see the use of replacing people with systems at this point in time. This is one of the reasons that Eggers fails to mention in his article for the proliferation of web front-ends that have no back-end. The back-end are these people. Eventually, they will no longer be required to do this type of menial work.

Second, the article ignores the maturity and the cost of the necessary backbone systems. Because public key infrastructure used to be expensive. As in “really expensive”. And it’s essential to ensure the security that these systems need. After all, we’re talking about significant amounts of essential information and money being exchanged.
Belgium built one of the first integrated public key infrastructures in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s. Our electronic ID card and the integration with our social security systems remains one of the more advanced in the world and an example for many countries.
But the upkeep costs a lot. The cost of public key infrastructure is influenced by the need for data quality and the total cost of ownership of the central systems. The cost of ensuring and maintaining data quality is still very important and remains labor intensive, but technology allows citizens and legal entities to provide this information more freely and in an much easier way now than before. The solution for this is really starting to take shape only now. Technologies like block chain can make a real cost difference, because the need for an expensive central clearing house is at least reduced. The cost and time to build a similar backbone system now, using modern techniques, would be significantly lower, as would the total cost of ownership.

Third, and dependent on the second, the need to rethink services e-Services, while often the same for the end-user, will need to be administratively set-up completely differently than the current mainly labor-powered systems. This is beyond restructuring/reengineering, and requires a fundamental rethinking. Few consultants are both embedded enough to understand the specific needs of an administration, its support structure and the end-user on the one hand and independent enough to escape incremental thinking on the other.
However, such break-through thinking and the willingness to let go of existing service paradigms will be essential in the future. Now, it happens already. Look at the service-voucher system the Belgian federal, Flemish and Walloon governments have implemented. It is a subsidy based co-payment system that completely rethought the existing service paradigm and ended up bringing a lot of household service from the grey to the real economy. In the process, it automated and outsourced the back-end, which is not a core government competency. Does the government lose out? Not really: it still has access to all the information, but does not need to focus on the menial work of processing.

Fourth and last, questioning the essential tasks of government We often forget that most government services were built in a time where the market could not cost-effectively provide certain services, and those services then evolved into large administrations. Administrations that strive to keep themselves alive and growing. This is not just a conclusion in public sector. Read Clay Shirky on this topic if you need convincing that it plays in any large structure.
However, public sector has no real tradition of zero-based service assessment, where we first look at what is necessary, then at what the market can offer at correct rates and then have the government pick up the rest of the necessary services the market does not yet provide. This requires thinking and a certain freedom of thought and action that is not easily found.

In conclusion

Governments are not necessarily that slow in taking up eGov. However, governments are powered by lots of people that do work that computers can do. Budget pressures and a progressively older group of public servants lead to a gradual replacement of menial work by systems. But public sector systems have security requirements whose requirements are much more stringent than most commercial systems. The back bone required for providing that level of security cost a lot of money. New technologies, such as block chain, are likely to bring down that cost. Once those systems are available, creative groups of people, most appropriately combinations of consultants and public servants, need to fundamentally rethink services. This is already being done, but we can go beyond what exists now, and liberate the public sector from the requirement of doing menial work that can be automated. And last, but not least, the public sector needs to question its own role – especially at the task level – in light of the evolving capabilities of systems offered in the marketplace. Why should the public sector provide those services that can be provided by private sector at a correct price?