E-government and beating the boredom factor

Govis keynote speaker sees a conflict between e-government and decentralisation

There is a fundamental “paradox” between digitally-enabled government and the New Public Management (NPM) philosophy which has become entrenched in New Zealand, says EDS’s Steve Griffin, keynote speaker at the Govis conference.

NPM, exemplified here by the reforms of the mid-1980s, concentrates on decentralisation and the separation of policy making from policy implementation, with the latter in the hands of relatively small, special-purpose agencies with a private-sector-like business style.

“Digital era governance”, by contrast, sees efficiencies in re-integration, reorganising the separate agencies functions into “bundles” that relate to particular life events as experienced by the citizen.

The digital era has also brought a tendency to centralise common “all-of-government” functions such as customer authentication, which runs counter to the separate accountability of agencies and their heads which has been fostered under NPM.

Part of this contradiction can be overcome by the capacity of ICT to present a virtual face to government functions, says Griffin. Interaction with citizens can, to some extent, be virtually integrated into “one-stop shops” for services, while remaining physically in the hands of separate agencies. But there are limits to the coexistence of these two approaches.

Internationally, New Zealand is viewed as having entrenched the NPM style of government more fully, and earlier, than any other country, says Griffin. This is why its progress towards digital governance is being watched with so much interest.

Digital governance involves two major components: traditional e-government, whose aim is to improve the efficiency of people’s practical transactions with government; and e-democracy, which gives people the opportunity to participate more fully and directly in government decision making.

While the former can often be justified using a business case, the latter is less easy to justify. It involves a positive effort to interest and educate people as to the importance of government issues, and to keep them supplied with neutral information on which to base decisions.

Griffin says surveys show people view participation in government decisions as “one of the least interesting things to do over the internet.” It has to compete with entertainment, shopping and other interactions that are of much more immediate interest.

There is also a centralisation/decentralisation trade-off, too, in that the further away a question gets from local interest the less interested — and competent — people are when it comes to making decisions. Neither of these is a reason not to involve people. The answer involves informing and educating people, as the founding father of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, said. But this takes effort and investment, too.

But some jurisdictions have made all this it work, by identifying questions of local relevance and involving interested constituencies electronically. One of the most far-reaching and, apparently, successful experiments, says Griffin, involves Barcelona in Spain which, coincidentally, also has a population of around four million.

Griffin joined EDS NZ last year as its client industry executive, government. He worked in London previously as director of strategic outsourcing for the British management consultancy, Rawlings & Co, and for EDS in the UK, working on the central government and finance sectors.

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