Pavlichev, Alexi and Garson, David G. (eds). Digital government: principles and best practices. London: Idea Group Inc., 2004. xii, 379 p. ISBN 1591401224. £57.50
The emergence of the Internet as a major technological and social force in the 1990s was accompanied by a recognition that this medium could have a transformative impact on the relationship between government and citizen. Politicians seized upon the promise of the Internet and portrayed themselves as visionaries to willing electorates. The resulting mandates to modernize government and redefine the relationship between the government and the public using this new, ubiquitous technology brought with it the promise of an end to monolithic, inefficient governments, and the emergence of responsive, accessible organizations. While politicians embraced the vision and promise of the Internet, bureaucrats were tasked with redefining the relationship between the public sector and the electorate using this new technology.
This is where Pavlichev and Garson's book comes in. It is aimed directly at working level bureaucrats who must implement e-government. In the words of the editors, the purpose of the book is to provide "...an overview of the management challenges and issues involved in seeking a new form of governance - digital government." This book contains a variety of papers by academics and practitioners from Australia, Canada and the United States. It is divided into five sections that cover distinct aspects of e-government.
The first section introduces digital government and includes articles on the promise of digital government, and historical accounts of its international emergence. This is a very ambitious section, as it could easily be the subject of an entire book. It tackles tough, theoretical issues that must be worked out if practitioners and academics are to approach the implementation of e-government in an effective way. For example, in his article entitled "The Promise of Digital Government", Garson looks at the very nature of e-government and concludes that:
E-government... is better thought of not as a revolution but as what it is: an attempt to bring the e-business model into the public sector. A component-by-component examination of the e-business model shows that it is fraught with problems, challenges, and limitations as well as opportunities. The promise of digital government will be fulfilled only by a new generation of public managers who are generalists, not technocrats, capable of integrating the disparate fields of consideration that are necessary aspects of the vision of e-government as a whole.
The second section looks at the virtual face of government. Two of the papers in this section look at web portals, which are portrayed as the interface between citizen and government within the context of e-government. One of the papers, by Franzel and Coursey, argues that attention with respect to government web portals to date has focused on design issues such as usability. In this paper, they focus on management issues such as commercialization and centralization. After defining a management-oriented perspective to the study of government web portals, the authors use a case study approach and examine the experiences of five states to advance this perspective. Their review of these government web portals goes beyond a descriptive analysis and examines them from the perspective of six key issues that they feel deserve attention: client definition, political use, centralization, commercialism, outsourcing and performance measurement. The authors do an effective job of identifying and evaluating these sites against these very pertinent principles.
The third section of the book, entitled "Issues in Digital Governance", contains very concrete information on e-government and will be of particular interest to public servants and others who are tasked with implementing e-government and all that it entails. This section contains papers that look at privacy issues, e-procurement, and e-commerce, among other topics. The paper on e-procurement by Krysiak, Tucker, Spitzer and Holland, concludes with a series of steps that the authors recommend to e-government practitioners:
Over the past two and one-half years, we have found that there are certain steps that effectively promoted the move to e-Procurement. Each of these steps came about through trial and error. Each has withstood challenge.
They then go on to offer six mistakes to avoid in any e-procurement endeavour. Although theoretically sound—the authors obviously have an excellent grasp of project management principles as they apply to information technology projects—the real strength of these principles lies in the fact that they are the product of experience.
Having given us a glimpse of the current state of e-government, the fourth section of the book forces the reader to take a step back and looks at preparation for digital government. This section looks at very pertinent areas such as how to produce useable data sources out of disparate information and how the bureaucracy and academics who study bureaucracy must prepare in order to be able to function in an e-government environment. Finally, the book looks at the future of digital government by examining issues such as the digital divide and citizen participation.
This book does an excellent job of identifying and investigating a variety of phenomena that surround e-government. It will be useful to both academics and practitioners. The latter will find the case studies and concrete examples of particular interest, which is a particular strength of this book.
A notable absence in this volume is a section on security and e-government. Several papers do address this issue in one form or another, but this is an area that certainly deserves its own section. One cannot work in government informatics without being cognizant of security issues. How to balance security of data (and ultimately the public trust) with the promise of a more open and responsive government is a challenge being faced by public servants tasked with implementing e-government in its many forms. Red tape and a snail-like pace for adapting to change have traditionally characterized government bureaucracy. It has been the subject of various reform efforts in western democratic countries for over thirty years. In today's world of instant information and the demand for responsive organizations—the world of e-government—this traditional model of government is clearly obsolete. The challenge remains to balance the public's right to privacy with the need to innovate and be responsive.
Attention also needs to be paid to areas where there is a clash between traditional government realities, and the new culture that accompanies the online world. The implication of this clash on operational issues needs to be explored. For example, the online world demands decentralization and democratization over content. Government has traditionally been very centralized in terms of its control over content. Is there room in e-government for such culturally entrenched online entities such as wikis, which allow individuals to not only author content, but to change content authored by others? This certainly challenges traditional views of authority and control over content, but it is very much accepted in the online realm. This is an issue faced by bureaucrats involved in the administration of web sites that contain public content.
Finally, the issue of transparency increasingly faces governments in the age of e-government. The online world demands transparency of organizations that have a virtual presence. It is not uncommon for individuals to be able to send e-mails to CEOs and presidents of companies, for example. Can citizens now expect to do the same with Deputy Ministers in Westminster-style governments, who are the de facto CEOs of their respective departments? What does this mean in terms of the relationship that a Deputy Minister has with the public? Does she now enter a realm traditionally occupied by her political masters? Must she be responsive to the public that her political master serves, or is her primary allegiance still to her Minister? The Westminster system traditionally demands that her allegiance remain only with the Minister. On the other hand, how can she ignore the public when her Minister and Cabinet are promising a responsive bureaucracy?
Despite these notable exceptions, the editors and authors are to be commended for doing a very fine job of covering a wide variety of issues in an emerging field. They have produced a volume that has great value for academics and practitioners alike.
Suhas Gangadhar Deshpande