E-govt user: citizen or customer?

E-government runs the risk of treating people as customers rather than citizens, departmental IT managers have been warned.

E-government runs the risk of treating people as customers rather than citizens, departmental IT managers have been warned.

Within the dominant theme of e-government at the Govis (Government Information System Managers) conference early this month, there was considerable scepticism as to whether e-government’s current moves and policies handle anything like the whole task of getting the citizen involved with the government process.

Just allowing people access to data with a minimal opportunity to communicate in the other direction goes only a small part of the way towards “citizenship”, says Victoria University social sciences lecturer Kate McMillan. The concept of the citizen has been with us since Aristotle. A citizen is someone who helps define the rules by which they are governed, by “participating in an act of collective decision-making”, and then undertakes to live by the rules they and their fellow citizens have created.

Aristotle’s “citizen” had to be a householder, a native of the country and male. “The history of the last 300 years has been of an increase in the rights of citizens and in the number of people qualified to be citizens,” she says.

But this demands certain basic needs to be satisfied first. “You can’t access your civil and political rights if you’ve not got food to eat.” Or, as other speakers pointed out in the e-government case, sufficient knowledge to use a computer and sufficient income to afford one.

Malcolm Menzies of the Futures Trust says in “customer” mode, a citizen will express his or her wants. Any information system must be able to deduce from this what the inquirer needs. “I want a benefit” might, for example, indicate a possible need for training — directing the inquirer to another government agency. The system must make these cross-links, once made by a live customer service operator.

“It should not be assumed everyone wants more information,” he says, or that information will create more opportunity in everyone’s lives.

E-government poses the danger of merely speeding the delivery of existing government with all its failings — an interactive veneer of modernity without fundamental change, says Michael Bott, from the NZ Council for Civil Liberties. A reorientation of the process of government to bring greater participation by the citizen is a necessary element of the mix.

“Privacy and anonymity must be preserved,” he says, noting some US government agencies use cookies to gather information covertly about the inquirer.

The predicted introduction of electronic voting, by 2005 at the earliest, risks adverse effects on the anonymity and impartiality of the voter, he says. “Suppose the woman voting from her home terminal has an abusive partner who can stand over her and make sure she is voting the way he wants.”

Ross Bell of the Citizens Advice Bureau says electronic channels could lead to a withdrawal of on-the-spot government services, including some that cannot be provided online. “Then they will expect us — CABs and other community organisations — to provide those services.”

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