Despite the war on terrorism and a faltering economy that slashed many operating budgets, governments around the world have continued to pursue their e-government visions, according to a new study by Accenture.

Far from withdrawing from e-government initiatives, many national governments have demonstrated renewed determination "to harness the power of the information economy for the benefit of their private and corporate citizens, albeit at vastly different speeds and levels of sophistication," said the recent report.

In conducting its third annual survey of e-government leadership, Accenture set out to discover how the governments of the 23 most technologically advanced countries have progressed in their e-government programs. The aim of the study was not only to identify those nations leading in their e-government initiatives, but also to find which countries are now making the greatest progress and why. Additionally, the study highlights emerging trends in e-government, perhaps the most valuable aspect of such a report.

There is little doubt that e-government continues to present many challenges to even the most sophisticated nations. "The benefits are clear -- faster, cheaper, more personalized and efficient service delivery that citizens and businesses can access 24/7," wrote David Hunter, chief executive of Accenture's Government Operating Group, and Vivienne Jupp, managing partner of the firm's global e-government services.

"Realizing those benefits has, however, proven somewhat elusive. In moving government online, the challenges are complex; legal, administrative, regulatory, social and political forces combine to create a delicate mix of stakeholders that must be managed in the transition to online government."

In spite of the barriers, democratic governments have little choice but to continue to set e-government priorities. "Citizens' expectations of government have been permanently altered in recent years by forces such as: aging populations, increased service expectations, security concerns, a talent crunch, competition by the private sector and fiscal pressure that forces governments to find ways to do more with less," said Hunter. "End-to-end e-government transactions are emerging as one of the most promising tools for governments to use in achieving real transformation as they deliver public services in the 21st century."

The Accenture study examined a total of 169 national government services across nine major service sectors: human services, justice and public safety, revenue, defense, education, transportation and motor vehicles, regulation and democracy, procurement, and postal. But as the survey focused only on national government initiatives, where some of these services fell into the purview of lower tier regional or local governments, the study took this into account.

Rating the progress and maturity of services in these areas, the e-government leaders remain unchanged from last year's survey. Second-ranked Singapore closed the gap, but Canada maintained its position in first place, steadily advancing toward its stated goal of providing Canadians with electronic access to all federal programs and services by 2004.

Although the United States trailed both Canada and Singapore in the overall ratings, it still was one of the three countries to make the "Innovative Leaders" category -- those countries whose overall maturity scores exceeded 50 percent. All three countries have valuable lessons, which all governments can benefit from, even state and local governments.

Canadian Leadership

The strength of Canada's e-government initiatives is its focus on grouping online services around citizens' needs and priorities. The Canada site provides a single point of access for citizens, with information clustered around three audience-based gateways: Canadians, Canadian Business and Non-Canadians. The site provides access to 450 federal Web sites and offers e-mail responses within one business day.

Canadian online service delivery is based on extensive user research. In redesigning the main portal last year, for example, more than 50 focus groups in Canada and abroad were consulted. Canada also has launched an online citizens' panel to help officials gain more insight into citizens' perceptions and

Blake Harris  |  Contributing Editor