Why Didn’t E-Gov Live Up To Its Promise?

Excerpt from the report Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies that are Transforming Government” by William Eggers: “Digital is becoming the new normal. Digital technologies have quietly and quickly pervaded every facet of our daily lives, transforming how we eat, shop, work, play and think.

An aging population, millennials assuming managerial positions, budget shortfalls and ballooning entitlement spending all will significantly impact the way government delivers services in the coming decade, but no single factor will alter citizens’ experience of government more than the pure power of digital technologies.

Ultimately, digital transformation means reimagining virtually every facet of what government does, from headquarters to the field, from health and human services to transportation and defense.

By now, some of you readers with long memories can’t be blamed for feeling a sense of déjà vu.

After all, technology was supposed to transform government 15 years ago; an “era of electronic government” was poised to make government faster, smaller, digitized and increasingly transparent.

Many analysts (including yours truly, in a book called “Government 2.0”) predicted that by 2016, digital government would already long be a reality. In practice, the “e-gov revolution” has been an exceedingly slow-moving one. Sure, technology has improved some processes, and scores of public services have moved online, but the public sector has hardly been transformed.

What initial e-gov efforts managed was to construct pretty storefronts—in the form of websites—as the entrance to government systems stubbornly built for the industrial age. Few fundamental changes altered the structures, systems and processes of government behind those websites.

With such halfhearted implementation, the promise of cost savings from information technology failed to materialize, instead disappearing into the black hole of individual agency and division budgets. Government websites mirrored departments’ short-term orientation rather than citizens’ long-term needs. In short, government became wired—but not transformed.

So why did the reality of e-gov fail to live up to the promise?

For one thing, we weren’t yet living in a digitized economy—our homes, cars and workplaces were still mostly analog—and the technology wasn’t as far along as we thought; without the innovations of cloud computing and open-source software, for instance, the process of upgrading giant, decades-old legacy systems proved costly, time-consuming and incredibly complex.

And not surprisingly, most governments—and private firms, for that matter—lacked deep expertise in managing digital services. What we now call “agile development”—an iterative development model that allows for constant evolution through recurrent testing and evaluation—was not yet mainstreamed.

Finally, most governments explicitly decided to focus first on the Hollywood storefront and postpone the bigger and tougher issues of reengineering underlying processes and systems. When budgets nosedived—even before the recession—staying solvent and providing basic services took precedence over digital transformation.

The result: Agencies automated some processes but failed to transform them; services were put online, but rarely were they focused logically and intelligently around the citizen.

Given this history, it’s natural to be skeptical after years of hype about government’s amazing digital future. But conditions on the ground (and in the cloud) are finally in place for change, and citizens are not only ready for digital government—many are demanding it.

Digital-native millennials are now consumers of public services, and millions of them work in and around government; they won’t tolerate balky and poorly designed systems, and they’ll let the world know through social media. Gen Xers and baby boomers, too, have become far more savvy consumers of digital products and services….(More)”