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High Stakes Neighborly Competition

Digital government in the global village.

by / August 8, 2002
You can learn a lot from a precocious 8 year old. A friend tells the story of young girl who he tried to help one afternoon. She was holding a disposable camera with the lens pressed up to her face.

"No, no," said the wise adult, "you need to have it the other way around to take a picture."

"No, no, no," came the determined response, "it works better my way."

Puzzled, he finally looked at what she was doing. The original purpose of the camera was less important to her at that moment. Having spotted something of interest in the distance, she had improvised a telescope by peering through the viewfinder backward.

Digital government is likewise proving to be nimble and robust enough to adapt to changing needs. Originally conceived to create the capacity to deliver public services more conveniently and cost effectively, it has now taken on national purpose in helping to secure the homeland.

But there is more. It too is off in the distance, and it deserves a closer look. The political and financial investments by governments worldwide point to a larger purpose: economic competitiveness. Polling data hints at the potential. A 28-country survey by the Australian firm Taylor Nelson Sofres indicates that online government is second only to buying books as the highest use category among Internet users worldwide.

It is not an accident that the digital government initiatives of the 54-member Commonwealth of Nations are led by its business council. It is also instructive to tease out the priorities embedded in the names given to digital government in three commonwealth countries.

Government Online

Government Online is seen as so vital to the future of the Canadian province of New Brunswick that Premier Bernard Lord has taken the unusual step of appointing himself as minister responsible for For Lord, it is about citizens and businesses facing Internet services as a means to building economic opportunities in a region too long dependent on the vagaries of exporting raw resources. Lord is counting on the fact that capital markets are no respecter of borders. Nor are ideas or people. It also reflects a sober assessment that not all resources are renewable forever, and that historical accidents behind companies locating themselves in their founders' hometowns are no longer enough to keep them there.

Lord's federal counterparts at the Government of Canada have also adopted the term Government Online, reflecting the historical view that technologies -- rail, radio and now the Internet -- can bring common experiences and uniform levels of service to a narrow ribbon of population stretched across a huge land mass. In a country characterized by big government, Government Online is a big deal, an extension of the policies and investments that have long attempted to foster national identity within its borders and promote its trade-dependent economy in the world beyond.

Joined Together Government

In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister's Office of the e-Envoy has embraced the term Joined Together Government. It is the terribly civilized idea that those who have business to do with each other should be able to, while keeping government on the same page ministry to ministry and presenting one face of government to citizens and businesses alike.

The name echoes the theme of information technology integration common to countries everywhere, but transcending formerly discrete IT systems in the British context is a means to a greater end. The larger purpose is to "make the UK the best environment in the world for commerce." To that end, the British government is investing the equivalent of $2 billion over three years in the Web properties of central government, over and above existing IT budgets. A clear-eyed and characteristically conservative report from the National Audit Office documents its concern with the uneven implementations to date, but concludes:

"Development of e-government is not just a matter of some big agencies implementing large-scale transactional facilities and the remainder operating basic Web sites. All public agencies need to pursue a balanced approach to developing electronic publishing and more interactive and more useful content for citizens and enterprises, alongside transactional facilities where appropriate."

While mixed, the results have been sufficiently compelling for The Observer newspaper to opine, "E-government is a long way off" but that "the Internet is a blessing for government."

Knowledge-Based Government

For its part, Singapore's eCitizen portal is the presentation layer for what it calls knowledge-based government. It does everything you would expect online government to do, plus it interrogates the data byproducts of transactions to identify patterns and inform decisions about government operations, the citizen experience and how to attract new businesses by reducing bureaucratic barriers to entry.

The relationship between digital government and economic development is not new, but a growing number of governments are unleashing the competitive instincts that have been latent in much of digital government. The viewfinder has been turned around, and there is growing interest in what they see in the distance. As we look to see the innovations of international governments abroad, their telescopes are pointed here -- and for good reason. The opportunities and challenges faced by many national governments more closely resemble those of states in the United States than those of the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Many cultures have a long and proud tradition of neighbors helping neighbors -- recognizing that life is not a zero sum game and that those neighbors are also competitors. States have become accustomed to competing amongst themselves in the friendly environs of the Digital State survey. The result has been an environment for sharing promising practices. But it has also helped make competing a habit, encouraging states to get and stay at the top of their game.

Much the same could be said of the global Stockholm Challenge, which counted the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, France, Italy, Canada, Australia, Brazil, India and Israel as leading entrants among the 750 projects it reviewed last year. The 2002 prize winners will be announced in early October.

The lesson here is digital government is ultimately an outward looking enterprise in a high-stakes global economic strategy, and worthy competitors are emerging from all over the world. Let the games begin.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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