W3C European Symposium on eGovernment

In Spain for a couple of days for the European Symposium on eGovernment organised by the World Wide Web Consoritum (W3C).

Hosted by the Spanish city of Gijon in the Asturias region, the seminar has been an attempt to identify some common themes and issues concerning the development and delivery of electronic services by government.

My input (the slides will be available shortly and will be linked here…) was to give the opening keynote speech under the deliberately provocative title “HAs eGovernment lost its way?”. By taking a few practical examples – electronic identity management, knowledgemanagement and the thorny area of standards and interoperability – I wanted to underline my concernt hat too much of eGovernment has become bogged down in technical detail and concern about technology as an end in itself, rather than concentrating on the essential objective of eGovernment – to deliver services.

I am ever grateful to Tim McGrath for his metaphor regarding eGovernment: he used, in a discussion we had a couple of years ago, the example of the original iron bridge of the industrial revolution (located in the eponymous village of Ironbridge in the industrial heartland of England). He argued that Ironbridge was essentially a wooden bridge that happened to be made of iron: as there was no “template” upon which to base the design of the bridge (by definition, as it was the first of a kind), it was engineered on the familiar design pattern of the wooden bridge. It simply did not – probably could not at the time – take account of the new opportunities that iron and steel could offer both in terms of design and structural engineering. His point was that much of what passes for eGovernment follows the same pattern: it is just “paper-based” administration that happens to use ICT and digital artefacts, using old and familiar approaches based on 19th and 20th century concepts of public administration.

eGovernment on the other hand should be more than that, it is a process of deep transformation that touhces all aspects of service delivery and should look to benefit from what technology can offer today, rather than simply mimicking the necessarily limited opportunities ofthe paper-based world.

Nowhere is this more evident in thinking around electronic identity: why do we even talk about electronic identity cards? Precisely because it is the real world artefact with which we are so familiar. And yet it is so limiting a view, when one considers today how much identity can be determined, asserted, proven and used without any single “token”, whether identity card or other. This is something I and my company have been working on, as a possible input to a new OASIS initiative on personal information management.

A particular problem within the European Union is that public administration is an exclusively national and member state competence, and despite the need for an increasing number of cross-border services, the European Union can only offer guidelines and support activities. It has no mandate to impose.

On the issue of interoperability, there has been much confusion: interoperability is not an end in itself, it is rather a means towards achieving the specific ends of delivery of a particular service or need.

One final message regards what I’ve called the “reflex of cooperation” – or rather the lack of it: all too often, well meaning officials launch into big IT projects without pausing to see and look around to see if anyone else elsewhere might already have tackled and even solved the same issue already. A first step towards building economies of scale through joint project development and towards cross-administration services will be to introduce this reflex of cooperation into corporate administrative culture.

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