For the past decade, technology has been touted as the key tool for transforming governments and the citizens they serve. But in their ambitious attempts to innovate, many e-government programs have failed due to financial troubles.
In particular, the costs of telecommunication infrastructure and human capital have hampered e-government development, according to the 2010 United Nations E-Government Survey. The survey, released this year, notes that since 2008, governments have made strides to enhance online services, and transparency still stands as the bridge to public trust.
But government transformation as a concrete concept has collapsed under the weight of the economic crisis, said Gartner Analyst Andrea DiMaio. Why? Because as evidenced by the disruptive impact of the global recession, "the future is just too uncertain to justify one particular version of a future state," DiMaio wrote in a blog post last month.
And sometimes it's difficult to measure the effectiveness of an e-government project because the right analytical framework or measurement tools don't exist. This is crucial because of the uncertain future.
"Rather than fantasizing about the myth of transformation, governments have to accept that the future is no longer predictable and focus on what changes are necessary to make them more flexible and nimble to adapt to uncertainty," he wrote. "Many of these changes may be surprisingly far less expensive, complex and painful than the traditional transformation endeavors. They can be more local in nature, leveraging rather than fighting the concept of government silos, as they provide clear accountability lines and allow risks to be managed more easily."
Real change begins by demystifying the term "government transformation," DiMaio said -- especially now as economic insecurity gives governments a good excuse not to pursue costly government transformation programs or to fail or derail current ones.
Part of the problem also comes from gaps in e-government evaluation systems. Intel's ethnography research lab hopes to fill those holes with its Social Viability Measure (SVM), a metric and process developed to gauge the social acceptability of stimulus programs designed to boost technology uptake.
Based on two years of research, the Intel Labs study found that many programs revolve around economics and technical relevance, but other social forces (e.g., citizenship or class) factor into a program's success. The SVM uses a three-step analytical process to evaluate how those social forces might affect programs such as mobile banking or e-learning.
Currently the SVM is still in concept phase. As part of its long-term research agenda in the U.S., however, researchers have been examining the stimulus package in regard to the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. But it's too early in the rollout to identify areas of weakness, said Intel Labs Researcher Renee Kuriyan Wittemyer.
"We're interested in having a partner like a city or municipality," she said. "This is an analytical tool used by policymakers to understand strengths, opportunities, barriers and examine social forces at work."
In developing the methodology, Intel Labs has done work abroad. In India, for example, researchers analyzed public computer access centers used in a program to promote e-literacy and increase access to government services. But the program targeted low-income citizens. When it ended, entrepreneurs reached out to the middle class, who couldn't shake the perception that the centers were designed to help poor people.
"Class became such an issue that it affected financial sustainability, social stability and issues around the branding strategy," Wittemyer said. "We think about how these things work in a particular program and strategize how we can use this."