Digital Government @ Work: A Social Informatics Perspective

Book Review by Chi Onwurah: “In the 1990s and 2000s, tech cynics would often quote Robert Solow’s 1987 quip, ‘You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.’ Now that value chains have been disintermediated and dependent business models trashed, it is less common to hear that. However it would still be appropriate to say ‘You can see the digital age everywhere but in Government.’ Certainly in a recent Policy Exchange report, the Prime Minister’s former digital advisor Rohan Silva did his best to portray the public sector as a digitally backward captured client of ICT oligarchs now being reluctantly dragged into the 21st Century.That makes the timing of Digital Government @ Work by Ian McLoughlin, Rob Wilson, and Mike Martin all the more fortuitous. The book seeks to give the reader a broad evidence-based understanding of what digital Government can be, what it is, and the challenges it faces. It is largely successful. Steve Halliday, President of Society of Information Technology Management describes the book as ‘a rigorous and thought-provoking analysis of the history and the future of digital government,’ and I would agree with that analysis. Despite lengthy definitional discussions and dense referencing, the book is also very readable and what is more, should be read….
The social informatics perspective of the book means its outlook is neither entirely technology-driven – whatever the problem the right system can solve it – nor purely qualitative, but combines understanding of the technology and its social and organisational impact with an analysis of the interdependencies at play in the context of public service delivery. These are illustrated by detailed case studies from  Children’s Services, the National Programme for Local e-Government (FAME) and telecare, which highlight failings in current approaches to what they call ‘technology enactment’ as well as the – possibly systemic – challenges to real organisational and service innovation….
Most important is the recognition that technology only empowers when we feel ownership of it, not controlled by it. If digital government is to be about empowering and improving that critical relationship at the frontline, then the ‘street bureaucrats’ the book refers to, as well as the citizen-user and the IT manager, must all be involved in an on-going co-production of the service. Rather than traditional integration we must ‘seek alternative means of coordination such as through federation and federability.’ If this is achieved, we may look to ‘digital government maturity characterised by partnership working across a mixed economy of public, private and third sectors and supported by an infrastructure of federated information and identity management systems and shared service environments’….”