Electronic government has been a professional interest of mine for more than 15 years. During that time, I have seen tremendous growth in applications and services at all government levels. I've also observed a dramatic increase in the customer base for e-government -- It's no longer the province of technophiles and early adopters. Research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project and other sources indicates that all segments of American society are online and and active in one way or another, and that government services and information sources are widely visited. This is all to the good because it allows access and transparency few of us could have envisioned in the 1980s or earlier.
In my own visits and exchanges with a number of governments, I have also observed that some serious work remains to achieve the promise of e-government. More often than not, e-services appear to be issued independent of one another and designed from the inside out -- from the issuing agency's vantage point rather than the requesting citizen's or business'.
This is not the fault of the CIO or the web team. The fragmentation of service reflects the independent organization of agencies, departmnets and programs. Services are often artifacts of that design.
For instance, when I founded my business some years ago, the process of registering my business name was independent of the incorporation process. While much of the baseline information about my business and myself was the same, the business processes were independent. So I had to re-enter much of the data from the first application into the second. Admittedly this wasn't a terrible burden, but it signaled an unintentional insensitivity to me as an applicant, and a needless duplication of data collection and management practices.
I could tell similar stories of related activities, such as securing campground reservations and fishing licenses, that illustrate how different organizational masters approach e-government from their own separate vantage points rather than through the eyes of the citizen consumer, who views camping and fishing as part of the same stream of outdoor recreation.
Why Getting It Right Is Important
Government faces at least two persistent threats in the years ahead. One problem stems from the continued erosion of confidence in government by citizens who believe the public sector costs too much and delivers too little. It's a problem exacerbated by the failure, in large measure, of government to stay within shouting distance of what online consumers can do commercially.
Some purists argue that citizens aren't consumers and ought not be treated as such. My point is simply that we citizens either choose, or are required, to conduct business with our governments all the time. The quality, ease, artfulness and integration of the experience inevitably get compared to our experience with commercial sites ranging from Amazon.com and American Express to Zipcar and Zillow.com.
A far greater threat is that our nation is growing fiscally unfit. There is a gathering fiscal storm that threatens the long-term viability of public institutions and, potentially, the very fiber of American life and power.
Together and separately, both threats argue for leaner government in which citizens are given more direct control of, and responsibility for, their informational, transactional and regulatory exchanges with government. In other words, we need a well crafted and well executed approach to e-government. This is particularly true for next-generation citizens (young people now in the K-12 system and early years of college). They are a different genus of citizens, who I like to refer to variously as either homo connectus or homo entertainus, but are commonly referred to as millennials. Quite simply, government services have to be designed to be:
If we don't do a better job conceiving, designing, packaging and marketing to this connected class that I call "the New Wired Majority," we risk their indifference or estrangement from civic life - all at the very time the bills of our past excesses will come raining down upon their shoulders. Today, the inconvenient truth is that we have an inconvenient government designed for an earlier era that is ill positioned for the tough times and demanding audiences ahead.
The Merits of a Portfolio Approach
At the outset, I acknowledged the substantial progress in e-government during the last 15 years. Even so, this question remains for CIOs and their executive counterparts: How will we elevate and accelerate the investments that must be made in e-government over the next 15 years to minimize the impacts of the coming fiscal crisis and win back citizen confidence?
I don't know what it's like where you work, but many governments are not readily suited to consider this question for structural reasons. They are too big; too compartmentalized with multiple divisions, sections and units; and too many players are making independent decisions about the form e-government takes on the ground.
Years ago when I was starting my IT profession, I heard a presentation on strategic planning by Hugo Uyterhoeven, a Harvard-based consultant and lecturer in the fields of business and government with a focus on long-range planning and corporate organization. Uyterhoeven argued that, when effective, strategy provides direction and cohesion to an enterprise.
I have concluded that it is a decided lack of effective strategy that causes most e-government efforts to underachieve. Many governments seem to have a technical and tactical approach to e-government that falls within the domain of the technologists, rather than a business strategy (lean government) that is executive-driven and market-focused (to improve the experience of citizens, businesses and partners). Lacking business direction and organizational cohesion, e-government comes to us episodically rather than purposefully. The results are OK, but seldom exceptional.
My conclusion is that a different approach to electronic government can achieve a better outcome for government, and better meet the expectations of the citizens and businesses they serve.
The E-Government Portfolio
What I'm advocating is a portfolio approach to e-government project selection, investment and deployment that is designed for policy-level decision-makers, not technology managers. The idea of managing technology applications portfolios is hardly new; credit must be extended to Richard L. Nolan for his breakthrough work in this arena back in the 1970s, Managing the Four Stages of EDP Growth.
The notion of an e-government applications portfolio assumes that policy-level decision-makers (legislators, governors, budgeters) can understand the concepts and language of business investing better than they can the arcane technobabble of IT and the Internet. As such, these elected officials and executives have a far greater chance of driving strategy (recall the earlier discussion about common direction and cohesion) when they have a model ... in this case, a portfolio model.
A financial portfolio is a collection of investments held by an institution or a private individual. Portfolio management involves deciding what assets to include in the portfolio, given the goals of the portfolio owner and changing economic conditions. Selection involves deciding what assets to purchase, how many to purchase, when to purchase them, and what assets to divest. These decisions always involve some sort of performance measurement, most typically expected return on the portfolio, and the risk associated with this return.
The unique goals and circumstances of the investor must also be considered. Some investors are more risk averse than others, some favor growth stocks, while others favor strong dividends. Still others invest for social responsibility. These same precepts can be applied to technology investments in general and e-government investments in particular.
Charting Your Current Position
Before you start investing, it's useful to know what is in the current portfolio.
"But I don't have an electronic government portfolio," you may protest. Yes you do! I developed the Quadrant Model as a way of plotting past investments in e-government, identifying the audiences they serve, and understanding the level of sophistication each investment aims to achieve.
When you look at the model, notice there are four distinct audiences e-government attempts to serve: citizens, businesses, employees and partners (typically other governments, nonprofits or even commercial providers). Notice, too, that the level of sophistication and direction of the relationship deepen as investments move from the center of the model outward through the four stages.
If you were to catalog and then pinpoint with black dots on the Quadrant Model all the electronic services that your unit currently directly delivers to these various groups, what kind of scatter gram would form?
In seeing the scatter gram, does it suggest a tacit policy your enterprise has been following over the years? Does the diagram properly reflect your service strategy? (Do you have a service strategy?)
What if you were to plot in red dots a second unit from your government? How might its electronic footprint appear? And if you assumed the black unit (say business licensing) and the red unit (say economic development) had similar objectives and/or audiences, does the apparent mismatch in footprints make sense or does it suggest a problem in aligning investments and integrating the consumer experience of businesses?
However the pinpoints array themselves, the model can be useful for uncovering and understanding past investments and future opportunities.
After performing this exercise, you're ready to identify future opportunities that your unit and others in the government can pull together into the portfolio. As with the previous discussion, a model for capturing potential opportunities can be useful. Here are five steps for capturing and qualifying e-government investments.
Step 1: Agency-Level Prospecting
Your organization may be a large, complex state or a county government with a variety of agencies, boards and commissions. Or it may be a smaller municipal government with fewer departments and sections. Either way, the model can work.
During the prospecting phase, your objective is to enlist each major organizational entity and get them to identify and briefly summarize the electronic government opportunities available for potential development, keeping in mind that these may be aimed a citizens, businesses, partners or employees. A useful way to approach this exercise is to exclude any activities that are intrinsically "physical" or "personal" in nature - such things as firefighting, meals on wheels, police patrols, juvenile case work, etc. The mother lode of e-government activities will be found in the transactional, informational and regulatory practices of your government.
You want to aim for three, five or 10 of the most promising opportunities from each agency or department.
Step 2: Program-Level Portfolios and Priorities
The second step is to convene the agencies or departments in a particular program area (public safety, natural resources, human services, transportation, etc.) to get them to review the various opportunities identified by each agency or department. Next have them select a workable number, perhaps three to five, that are most beneficial to the interests of the program area relative to their work with citizens, businesses, partners or employees.
Assuming your organization probably has six to eight major program areas, and assuming the agencies or departments within each program can agree on three to five e-government initiatives that are merit-worthy to their common interest, the universe of chosen prospects and priorities across the face of your government could yield 25 to 40 potential projects that go in the queue for further consideration.
Step 3: Capturing "Market Demand"
The third step is to ask a sample of citizens, businesses and partners to review the list of prospective investments, and express their interests and priorities. This can be done several ways, with focus groups and surveys as leading vehicles for gathering input.
In most businesses, such market research is standard fare. In government, it is seldom done, but it offers the opportunity to design from the outside inward: to discover the design elements and expectations of the very group(s) served by the offerings.
Step 4: Establishing Viable Commercial Approaches
At this point, you have polled agencies/departments to tally what potential e-services are on their agenda. You have also identified and elevated the prospects most important to each program area, and then asked citizens, businesses and partners to weigh in with their preferences. You are closing in on your enterprise e-government portfolio.
The fourth step is to share with vendors - likely in the form of a request for qualifications or request for information - the leading e-government summaries by program area, including the public preferences learned from focus groups or surveys.
Essentially you want to find out two things. First, what vendors have existing offerings or capabilities that can seemingly map to the stated preferences in your portfolio. Second, what approach do they advocate? Some vendors have canned offerings for specific e-services that are paid for via transaction fees. Some vendors are conventional software houses: custom builders that expect full payment to construct the application. Still other vendors (IBM and Accenture come to mind) may be willing to custom-build applications for a stake in the net savings produced.
Lessons from this phase are very useful in sizing the universe of responsible potential partners and in understanding their approach to the market -- your organization may be drawn to transaction-based strategies to develop e-government services ... or you may prefer a buy-build approach.
Step 5: Building the Business Case and Deployment Plan
The last part of the process is to formalize the portfolio based on what has been learned. Specifically which opportunities appear to provide the greatest (or most important) benefits to external audiences? What prospects are affordable given existing and future budgets? What combination of prospects best fit the service footprint of your organization? What e-government projects enable more sophisticated or advanced initiatives in the future? You can add your own values (risk, reach, relationship) to the decision-making.
However you decide to do it, formalizing the portfolio makes everything explicit. It allows decision-makers to compare competing investment decisions by using the vernacular of business (price, risk, yield, growth), rather than technology (HTML, Java, applets, etc.). It makes decision-making comprehensible, and allows a department, agency, or entire government to target where it makes its decision based on a service strategy and understanding of e-government stages.
Don't Forget Governance
Smart investors don't lay down their money and do not track the performance of the investment against expected benefits. They review their portfolio frequently, changing the asset allocation as conditions in the world, country or investment segment change. Smart investors are also willing to prune under performing investments. They tend to be on the lookout for rising stars.
So it must be in managing the e-government portfolio. Past investments must be watched to ensure they produce expected benefits and serve their intended audiences. In other words, managing the e-government portfolio is a continuous activity, not a one-time budget event. It's also an activity that requires "thinking in time" - assessing the performance of the entire mix of e-government investments, not just the latest one in development. In other words, a program view, not just a project perspective.
The governance must comprise policy-level decision-makers (elected officials, agency heads) for whom e-government is a business strategy rather than a technology initiative. It should include imaginative and resourceful technology and organizational change agents who champ at the bit of innovation. And it absolutely should include representatives from citizen, business and partner organizations whose interests must be front and center in the e-government agenda.
Tough times await us. We need a clear-headed, strategic, directed approach to electronic government that achieves a leaner delivery model capable of serving the routine needs and expectations of our citizens now and in the future. Good luck (now get to work!).
George K. Beard is the founder of GovernmentWise Inc., a management consulting firm; a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Government; and teacher at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.