E-government, in short, allows the private sector to operate in areas that used to fall strictly within the public domain. The challenge for policy makers is to recognize that what is good for business is consistent with good government. Planners start with grand visions of on-line services but then flounder amid cross-agency squabbling. Or they fail to attract enough users or get sidetracked by expensive high-tech bells and whistles. Research on e-government efforts around the world has helped to identify three critical lessons for their proponents.
First, don’t underestimate the resistance of government employees to change. Washington State overcame this barrier by creating the Digital Information Academy. Mandated by the state’s governor, the academy helps departments map their existing services, encourages them to rethink the design of their services, and tries out new processes on focus groups. By involving government employees, the academy makes them less fearful and gives them a stake in e-government’s success. To ensure cooperation among departments, the governor required all of his chiefs to sign contracts stipulating the services they would put on-line within a specified time frame. When friction arises, the academy mediates.
Second, e-government services don’t justify the investment if citizens and businesses don’t use them. The majority of the people of almost every country don’t have Internet access (Exhibit 3), so e-government initiatives must include efforts to increase Internet penetration and usage. Most countries will have to develop channels other than personal computers in homes. In Dubai, for instance, where PC-based Internet penetration is under 15 percent but mobile-telephone penetration is over 50 percent, e-government will eventually adopt wireless applications. In Hong Kong, where Internet penetration is more than 40 percent, the government is nonetheless building e-government kiosks in shopping malls, supermarkets, and railway stations.
But access isn’t enough: e-government must also give the public financial or other incentives to use the Internet for transactions. In the United States, for example, people who file their tax returns on-line get their refunds deposited into their bank accounts within three weeks—half as long as it takes those who file paper returns to get a check in the mail. More than 30 percent of US tax returns are currently filed on-line.
Finally, e-government can be either a profit engine or a financial black hole, depending on the strategy and mind-set chosen. Its cost ranges from $30 million for department-specific efforts to over $100 million for fully integrated service portals. Unless vendors too invest at the outset, governments must justify these commitments by identifying, up front, the specific ways in which costs will be cut and users will be served more cheaply and conveniently. The National Information Consortium, for example, agreed to provide e-services to the citizens and businesses of the US state of Virginia in return for a cut of every transaction.