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China and U.S. Collaborate on Digital Government Research

China taps American knowledge to build a system for public CIOs, digital government.

In October 2006, Sharon Dawes of the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the State University of New York at Albany and past president of the Digital Government Society of North America, traveled with a U.S. delegation to China. During that trip, the delegation of researchers and practitioners joined a similar group from China and spent several days focusing on international digital government research.

In her article about that trip, Breaching the Wall, Dawes highlighted common challenges the United States and China face in pursuing digital government strategies. The public-sector problems in both countries are "simultaneously local and global - and every level of government in both countries is affected by and challenged to do something about them."

More than a year later, something is being done to raise digital government strategies, and in China's case, increase the role of the CIO. Recent activities include knowledge exchanges around key crosscutting issues, such as creating a public CIO system in China; jointly funded research workshops and collaborations on domain-specific issues such as public health surveillance; and creating institutional relationships through collaboration agreements on operational and practical initiatives.

Building China's CIO Capability
China is currently developing its own CIO system similar to the U.S. version. This effort has come with challenges similar to those faced in America. In particular, the Chinese public sector has struggled to replace its prior business model, which was based primarily on a one-to-one relationship between project leaders and projects. Also, directors of information centers or offices traditionally were not executive-level leaders. In addition, many responsibilities beyond digital government are assigned to the appointed information executive.

To provide China some of the United States' experience as background, I traveled to Beijing in April 2007 and visited the Chinese Academy of Personnel Science to provide an overview of the U.S. public CIO system's evolution. This session contributed to the ongoing effort to build a CIO system that takes advantage of lessons learned elsewhere, but also reflects the uniqueness of China and its vision of digital government.

Wu Jiang, dean of the Academy of Personnel Science, in a November 2007 presentation at the Chinese e-Government Forum, cited four problems with China's current system: CIOs do not have enough authority; responsibilities and roles are not clear; responsibilities and capabilities don't match, so even when directors have power, they don't always know how to manage technology and information; and China lacks a personnel system to recruit, retain and properly compensate public CIOs because the position is new to Chinese government.

China is now considering three changes:
· adopting a structure that can match the responsibility, power, interests and capabilities of CIOs;
· implementing a scientific and systematic human resource system to formalize the appointment, evaluation and management of public CIOs; and
· establishing efficient and well coordinated IT management structures.

Yuanfu Jiang, e-government director at the National School of Administration, recently started a new program to help create a network of individuals with CIO-like responsibility in China. In late 2007, Dr. Jiang formed a new CIO association to bring individuals with CIO-level responsibility together on a regular basis. As it did in the United States, the two-pronged approach - creating new policies and organizational structures, and building communities for CIOs - appears to be making a difference.

Joint Digital Government Studies
In April 2007, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NNSFC) launched an exploratory effort to jointly fund digital government activities, which will create synergy, identify common research interests and explore ways to establish long-term international collaboration between the two countries.

The Special Collaborative Project in Digital Government Research program is designed to "investigate the role of digital government technologies and frameworks in improving government operations; study the underlying principles governing the development, evolution and adoption of digital government technologies and frameworks; and promote general understanding of these principles and their application."

Ten projects were jointly funded out of this program, including collaborative research areas (e.g., infectious disease informatics and biosurveillance), as well as topics about sharing information (e.g., digital preservation). The NSF and NNSFC are holding a series of workshops in China this spring on the topic of digital government to maintain momentum and collaboration between the two nations.

The motive for studying disease informatics is clear: China, the United States and many other countries must work together to manage the spread of diseases. This project will offer two workshops, providing researchers and government IT executives an opportunity to learn about both individual and collaborative strategies to promote public health and better understand how IT can be applied across the entire spectrum of public health services.

Ideally these international collaborations will produce written products of use to both practitioners and researchers. Recent issues of Government Information Quarterly, the leading digital government research journal, for example, have provided readers a first look into China's emerging freedom of information policies, as well as e-government case studies taking place in various Chinese cities.  


Digital Government: Institutional Relations
Research workshops and knowledge exchanges are designed to bring together individuals with common interests. The expectation is that new collaborations and partnerships will emerge from these informal connections. To further this goal, organizations in the United States and China are also pursuing another strategy: institutional relationships.

In 2007, the CTG signed an agreement with the China National School of Administration to collaborate on research and offer executive development programs. The center signed a second agreement with the China State Information Center to translate CTG publications into Chinese. Experts in both countries are being appointed to advisory boards and program committees as a means to secure these relationships.

International events, such as dg.o, the International Conference on Digital Government Research of the Digital Government Society of North America, and ICEGOV, the International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance, increasingly illustrate the potential and growing interest in new relationships revolving around global digital government.

It's important to remember as Dawes explained in her article, "Public CIOs are players in this game." Public-sector CIOs in the United States and China have much to gain from these efforts. Through new collaborations and knowledge-sharing capabilities, we have the potential to inform information problems (e.g., security and identity, pandemic, and climate change) operational problems (e.g., organizational change and IT skills development) and other challenges such as an aging work force. The transfer of expert knowledge between the United States and China offers public CIOs the opportunity to both contribute to and learn from the ongoing dialog of change.