Private enterprise could replace many functions of the state as governments move services and processes online, attendees at Gartner Group's European IT conference heard Monday.
When governments consider the channels through which they deliver services, "It's not just the phone, the Web, and the counter, it's also the government and the private sector" that should be taken into account, said Andrea di Maio, a senior analyst at Gartner.
Governments should ask themselves what they want to achieve by putting services online, and whether a private enterprise could perform some of the functions better. "E-government might not be for governments," he said.
One area in which this is almost certainly the case is in the management of IT services and infrastructure. The general shortage of skilled IT personnel hits government services even harder than private enterprise "because salaries are not as high as in the private sector," he said. For civil servants, "It's much better to try to focus skills on management," he said.
However, transforming government into "e-government" is not just about IT outsourcing, said di Maio, but also about outsourcing of entire business processes. Governments should retain only the functions they are good at: An administration's core competency may be "doing very good customer service" -- in other words, implementing the will of the electorate.
Service delivery is just one aspect of e-government, however, said di Maio. There also needs to be a focus on constituency participation, but "governments are trying to stay away as far as possible from this objective," he said.
Above all, he said, "E-government is a transformation process, a transformation of the way governments relate to citizens and enterprises, and between government agencies."
Governments do not exist in isolation, they exist in a society and an economy which may also be transformed by technology. Di Maio introduced another term, e-governance, to describe this development and enforcement of regulations that allow the information society to function.
"There is no e-government without e-governance. But in many countries, the link between this and e-government strategy is missing," he said. For example, the data privacy laws may be enacted so strictly that the integration of services between agencies is impossible.
There are also significant non-technological barriers to the spread of e-government.
Much has been said of the digital divide, something which more than one government has pledged to eliminate by providing universal access to technology. However, "It's not just access to technology," warns di Maio. "There are also the people who decide to opt out. People will be afraid of this global governance. They will refuse to be monitored by their government or their employers."
They will need to be served through traditional channels, without classifying them as second class citizens, he said. Returning to his theme of the multichannel strategy, he said, "If I am a bank, I can choose to deliver certain services just through the Net, but this is not an option for governments, they have to provide comparable standards of service through the different channels, they have to center their strategies on constituents."
There are also political constraints. Hiring policies and contracts in the public sector are particularly rigid. In some countries in Europe, employment in the public sector has traditionally been an alternative to unemployment. The e-government transformation would mean that a substantial proportion of public sector employees would have to be "let go" or moved into new roles.
"The average civil servant will have to be IT literate to some extent, but will have to learn a different job, from back office to front office, for example.... But there is legislation in place today which makes changing job descriptions particularly painful," he said.
If implementing e-government successfully will be difficult, measuring the degree of success will be no easier.
"There is a frenzy to benchmark," said di Maio. The U.K. government benchmarks electronic service delivery against that in other countries, "But this simply doesn't make any sense because countries like the U.K. and Germany are very different in the way they are organized and in how the citizens trust the government."
Whatever criteria e-government is measured by, it is often harshly judged. "We tend to be slightly negative on the success rates of e-government initiatives (but) they have the same success rate as private industry," he said.
If citizens don't like the way e-government is serving them, they can't change their supplier, merely its board of directors. Multinational businesses, on the other hand, may have more choice. "We increasingly see competition from different states, for example to attract companies that will definitely pay taxes, to attract more taxpayers."
But in order to compete, which services should be provided online first? Consideration is often in terms of how much getting a service costs the constituent or the business, said di Maio. "We have seen some U.S. state governments doing this analysis. But they are overlooking another dimension, the value to the citizen. You must understand the combination of the cost of the service, and the value of the service." Paying a high cost for a high value service may be an attractive proposition.
Most European countries have set soft targets for the number and nature of services they will provide online, with the exception of the U.K., which claims it will provide 100 percent of services online by 2005. "We think it's unachievable," said di Maio.
More pragmatic, he said, was the Irish goal to put all but the most complex services online -- but, he asked, complex "from whose point of view, the citizen's, or from the point of view of the person who has to implement it?"
To illustrate the pitfalls which await those implementing services, Di Maio spoke of his two brushes with e-government in his home country.
The first was with the online tax payment system. In Italy it is now possible to pay your taxes online -- but only if you know how to install the Java virtual machine on your PC in order to run the secure payment applet.
"There were two aspects which struck me," di Maio said. "For the average user I think the three pages of instructions (to install the software were rather heavy... (and) the second thing was that the four call centers for help were only available between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m." People filing their tax return online are unlikely to be doing this during standard business hours, he noted.
His second example concerned the difficulties his wife encountered in taking the state examination to become a teacher. Government officials repeatedly told applicants that the venue for the written examination would be posted on the Internet -- but did not know the URL. Eventually, she found the answer and was able to take the examination.
When they advised candidates of the results of the examination, officials committed "multiple infringements of personal data protection laws" by posting the results in the form of a spreadsheet containing the other details of all the candidates.
"These are examples of the immaturity of e-government," he said. "There is a serious mismatch between political claims and the size of the challenges that have to be overcome."
The Gartner ITxpo Europe continues through Thursday afternoon.
Gartner, in Stamford, Connecticut, can be reached online at http://www.gartner.com/.