All governments see the Internet as something very different and very promising. Now, virtually every government has a range of Internet-based programs or plans designed to enhance democracy and support effective citizen participation. Everyone agrees that IT and the Internet can transform governance. But as with everything technical, the devil is in the details.

At the Third Global Forum on e-government, for instance, hosted by the Italian government in March, representatives from 122 countries, including many ministers responsible for the e-government initiatives in their respective countries, talked of their successes and their plans for the future. Successful projects to date largely fall into the category of Internet service delivery and access to government information.

Norway points to its online system for accepting automated drafts of tax returns, choosing a doctor or applying for admission to a university.

The Philippines highlights the success of its Health Information Village, or e-Health program, that links various research, professional and expert groups involved in developing health-care applications and makes health information available to the general public.

The Italian Ministry of Finance takes pride in its Fisco Telematico network, which connects about 100,000 tax consultants, companies, banks, post offices, Tax Assistance Centers and trade associations. In the last year, the system expanded to allow taxpayers to file tax returns from home through the Internet. Italy also has an Internet based e-procurement system, which the Italian Ministry of Treasury says saved more than $150 million lira ($70,000) in 2000, and is expected to save the same or more in 2001.

The Australian governments Business Entry Point <> provides businesses with government-related information and a range of key transactions that can be completed online. This has become one of the worlds leading models for government service to business.

Mexico has Compranet, an electronic system of government contracting that allows suppliers and contractors to access information on required goods, services, leasing and public works and to present their tenders electronically, carrying through the whole contracting process to final settlement online.

Greece now offers a series of Web- and call-center-based e-services <> for filing tax forms, issuing tax certificates and responding to citizen questions on taxation issues.

Barcelona, Spain, promotes the success it has had with its city hotline, which received more than 3.5 million calls in 2000, and its municipal intranet and Web page, which also now receives more than 3.5 million hits a year.

The Third Global Forum concluded, in its summary recommendations, that technology could do much to strengthen government decision-making and policy formation. The potential of IT and the Internet is to "integrate data and facts in a more structured and comprehensive form through better knowledge management." Moreover, it recognized that the quality of data will improve through better collection and analysis. "The Internet can facilitate information sharing and the involvement of experts as well as broadening the basis on which governments seek to identify and reconcile conflicting interests and goals. A major benefit of the Internet, in fact, lies in its capacity to involve citizens and civil society in the policy debate through direct interaction."

On this front, however, little real progress has been made. Few of the specific projects presented at the forum offered this level of citizen involvement. Yet the goal is clearly there.

The G8 Government Online program recently sponsored a one-year effort to solicit and present government online and democracy experiences and ideas. Although a few years ago electronic democracy emphasized access to government information and the ability to vote on government decisions, the study found that the goal has now expanded to seven levels of citizen participation:

1. Access to information held by the government.

2. Online interaction with the government on service programs

Blake Harris  |  Contributing Editor