E-government is dead, long live 'digital government'

There is no doubt that the eGovernment movement has failed or at least fallen short of expectations, but a simple rebadge of the idea won't take us very far in finding out why this is the case.

Almost every day I either read an article, or hear from a client or discuss with a colleague about “digital government”. Every single jurisdiction has or is in the process of cranking up a digital plan of some sort, or is in the middle (or better the beginning) of its implementation.

As I sift through countless documents, statements, white and green papers, I can’t help notice the parallel between digital government and what used to be called e-government. Verbiage like “citizen-centric”, bridging the digital divide, enhancing collaboration and joined activity in the back office are all areas that we saw in well-reputed e-government plans and that we are seeing again in digital plans.

There are different reasons for this.

The most mundane is that the generation of “new kids on the blocks” who are put in charge of “digital” in some jurisdiction were still at college or high school during the eGov days, and they are living this adventure as if it were all new.

Another, more serious reason might be that technology is pervasive today among citizens and businesses, and principles like “digital first” make much more sense than 10 years ago.

A third reason is a recognition that e-government has failed or at least fell short of expectations, and must be re-branded, with new roles that may have a better time than their predecessors to achieve the desired outcomes.

Whichever the driver, it is important to avoid wheel reinvention. It is true that today we have cloud, big data, and pervasive mobility. However the fundamental reasons why some of those earlier endeavours failed are still there, in the cross-agency and cross-tier governance challenges, in the lack of maturity in managing an evolving base of service providers, in the lack of key technology skills inside the public sector, in the weight and complexity of legacy application and infrastructure.

Replacing “e” by “digital” won’t take us very far, unless we start taking a  close look at where previous programs failed or stumbled, and understand the fundamental differences that new technologies bring to the table in terms of architectures and ownership of data, services and assets. The irony is that while data is taking centre stage (think about open data, big data, social data), the CIO role (where “I” stands for Information) gets challenged and repurposed or replaced by Chief Digital Officers and the likes.

If digital government is a just a rebranding of e-government and Chief Digital Officers just a front-office focused version of the CIO, I suspect we won’t get much more from digital government than we did from e-government.

Andrea Di Maio is a vice president and distinguished analyst in Gartner Research, where he focuses on the public sector, with particular reference to e-government strategies, Web 2.0, the business value of IT, open-source software. You can read his other posts here.