Digital Government: Technology and Public Sector Performance

By Darrell M. West

Publisher: Princeton University Press

$29.95 hardcover

Reviewed by Tod Newcombe

For those of us who cover electronic government daily, it's sometimes difficult to gauge exactly what is working and what isn't. We're too busy investigating today's solution or tomorrow's trend. Occasionally we're asked whether e-government has been successful, and suddenly it becomes hard to summarize exactly what is taking place. Too often there are contradictions in what we cover. What appears to be successful at first glance is often more ambiguous when viewed and analyzed a second or third time.

Fortunately we have people like Darrell West to help clarify what all the data and studies on this subject mean, and what the ramifications of digital government will be for society, the economy and democracy.

West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University, has conducted extensive studies on e-government at the local, state, federal and global levels. Now he's written a book on the subject, which sifts through reams of surveys and studies in an attempt to answer three fundamental questions:

  • How much are the Internet and other digital delivery systems transforming the public sector?

  • What determines speed and breadth of e-government adoption?

  • What consequences of digital technology exist for public-sector performance, political process and democracy?

    In a detailed and well written analysis of current e-government practices, West looks at a series of factors that have helped or hindered the growth and adoption of public-sector online services. He explains how the current citizen mistrust of government has given rise to the philosophy known as new public management. The Clinton-Gore period of the National Performance Review epitomizes what this has meant, as does the Bush administration's heavy emphasis on Harvard Business School management models to improve and streamline the federal bureaucracy.

    But better management techniques coupled with technological changes haven't ushered in a new era in government quite yet. Many issues, from bureaucratic fragmentation, scarce budgetary resources and group conflict to political fighting -- and even critical media coverage -- have exposed the limitations of government transformation via technology.

    These aren't theories. West provides chapters of empirical data on everything from the content of today's government Web sites to citizen use of, trust and confidence in e-government. He uses solid evidence to show how money is the key to performance when it comes to e-government, and dissects online tax filing -- the poster child for e-government services -- to show both the opportunities and ongoing challenges government faces when melding technology with public service.

    West gently chastises e-government proponents for being far too bullish on how quickly and comprehensively technology would enable government to change for the better. He rightly points out the factors that have limited this transformation have "more to do with organizations, financing and political dynamics than with technology, per se." Another problem is the adoption curve for new technologies. It can take decades before an innovation such as the Internet becomes a utility as commonplace as electricity or the telephone.

    Coupled with that issue is the problem of the digital divide. Without universal accessibility to the Internet at an affordable rate, those who could benefit the most from online public services are the least likely to use them.

    To take full advantage of the Internet, West calls on government to streamline its technology offerings, increase cooperation among agencies to boost integrated services, publicize the existence of government portals and to appoint a high-level administrator -- especially at the federal level -- with independent resources to take charge of electronic governance.

    E-government has been over-hyped, unduly criticized and simply misunderstood. The result has been a lack of vision of what e-government can and will be for the country and the world. Fortunately Darrell West has done us all a service by putting the evolution of online government into clear perspective backed by solid evidence.

    Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

    With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.