Building A Successful E-Govt Strategy

There is more to electronic government success than setting up a portal or building the infrastructure.

by / March 29, 2001
Once upon a time, technology projects were relatively straightforward. If you wanted a finance system, for example, you installed a mainframe, hooked up a handful of users and hired a few MIS staffers to keep it running and generate the necessary reports.

That golden stovepipe era, however, is long gone.

As more and more states, counties and cities attempt to launch e-government applications, it is becoming increasingly clear that they require far more planning and collaboration than ever before. Interagency and inter-jurisdictional cooperation are musts. Yet, years of isolation, outdated procedures and antiquated technology present formidable barriers to success.

"Governments are increasingly focused on delivering integrated electronic government, but are hindered by existing legislation, maladaptive infrastructures and departmental autonomy," said Brian Burke, an analyst at Meta Group in Stamford, Conn.

Forest First

Often, e-government is embarked upon from a purely technological perspective. As a result, initiatives are started in a haphazard fashion. If portals, for example, are the e-commerce flavor of the month, some areas rush to create one in order to stay current. But that is not necessarily the right place to start.

It must be understood that e-government consists of three distinct parts: policy, people and infrastructure.

E-government policy setting should concern itself with high-level matters concerning strategy as well as details such as:
* privacy of personal data;
* acceptable speed of responses
for various forms of inquiries;
* amount and types of information
to make available;
* security measures to be taken
to protect data;
* who should be given access to data; and
* penalties for lapses of security.

Security, in particular, must be given careful consideration. Old government stovepipe systems were difficult to access and often provided little in the way of usable data, but they were usually very secure. Only a handful of individuals could access them and security procedures were relatively easy to set and enforce. Not so with todays Web-based systems. By its nature, e-government provides access to satellite offices, remote locations and, worst of all from a security standpoint, the general public. It is an online nightmare in terms of security.

"There must be recognition at the highest levels of the need for appropriate privacy and security policies, while balancing the demands of open public access," said Mark Struckman, director of Electronic Government Programs at the Center for Digital Government, the knowledge-management and research division of e.Republic. His recommendation is that someone with full responsibility for maintaining privacy rights be appointed in each jurisdiction.

The people in e-government are the personnel using and administering the technology. Too often, e-government initiatives run aground. Typically, this is due to a lack of regard for the end users, either through failure to consult them during the design and implementation phases or through inadequate training on the new technology.

"To have a good plan, you have to form the vision as to what you want the end product to look like," said George Boersma, CIO of Michigan. "Then get input from lots of internal and external areas as to how to implement that vision and work out a practical sequence of steps. It definitely has to be a collaborative approach."

Although the project leader, technical experts, various representatives from the affected areas and the project team are all essential elements, not enough stress is given to the end users or citizens. This is where surveys, piloting and the establishment of user committees come in. The successful creation of Californias Child Welfare Services system was due in part to the use of these tools. "As we worked through the project, we used briefings, conferences, bulletins, Web sites and multi-disciplined teams -- every means we could come up with to involve those impacted by the system, to get them to share the project vision and objectives," said Cris Jensen, project director.

Infrastructure, the final building block of e-government, encompasses hardware, software, a network to carry the traffic and the processes involved.

Combining the Ingredients

Although each of the three elements -- policy, people and infrastructure -- is different, all three must be present for success in e-government. Each is dependent on the others. Months of carefully formulated policy and years of infrastructure establishment would produce only failure if the end users -- citizens and government employees -- were not consulted. Similarly, the study of end-user needs and wants would be futile without determining policy to govern system usage and goals.

Consider the initiatives to wire schools. These are well thought-out at a policy level -- legislation, E-Rate programs, etc. -- and involve a heavy investment of infrastructure: almost all schools have Internet connections, many are receiving high-speed connections and student/computer ratios are down to 5 to 1, according to some reports. However, the results are limited by lack of investment in the people factor. No one is consistently ensuring that teachers are trained on how to use this technology in a teaching environment. No one is designing curricula to fully utilize this new infrastructure.

To make e-government work, then, the synergistic nature of policy, people and infrastructure must be understood. All three are interdependent and demand close attention to see that they mesh well.

Drew Robb <drew> is a freelance technology writer based in Los Angeles, Calif.
Drew Robb Contributing Writer