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By Jason Baumgarten and Michael Chui
Early breakthroughs in e-government -- the use of information and communications technologies to provide and improve public-sector services, transactions, and interactions -- have enabled government organizations to deliver better service and improve effectiveness and efficiency. In many countries, more than 70 percent of taxpayers now file taxes electronically, for example, and many other transactions -- ranging from renewing drivers' licenses and paying parking tickets to managing government benefits -- can be conducted online. Employees within government agencies also use the Internet routinely to manage internal processes, such as human resources and travel.
However, despite the continued allocation of enormous resources, progress on the e-government front appears to have plateaued over the past few years. Many new e-government initiatives have neither generated the anticipated interest among users nor enabled clear gains in operational efficiency. In the face of unprecedented fiscal constraints, as well as users' heightened expectations based on the integration of the Internet into their daily life and work, it is imperative that the public sector refine its approach to e-government to ensure that these initiatives achieve maximum impact.
In our experience, three obstacles have, however, limited the impact of e-government efforts: ineffective governance, lack of Web-related capabilities, and reluctance to allow user participation in the creation of applications and content.
Ineffective, complex governance processes present a fundamental obstacle to success. Accountability for Web-based activities (the focus of this article, since such activities have the broadest applicability and the greatest potential) too often resides deep within IT or communications departments. And because the Web is typically not viewed as a core business channel, Web-related efforts are often fragmented across an agency. One US agency found that it had more than 100 internal Web sites alongside dozens of external sites, as well as multiple tools and platforms to maintain them. In addition to increased costs and inefficiency, this complexity impedes adoption, as, for example, users must endure multiple sign-ons within and across sites.
Most government agencies also lack the necessary capabilities to develop and improve Web services. Whereas best-practice private-sector companies employ specialized talent to adapt and optimize their Web sites, governments rarely prioritize Web capabilities and have few experts in Web design or analytics.
Even those agencies that have begun to overcome the challenges relating to governance and capabilities have yet to join their private-sector counterparts in embracing Web 2.0 technologies -- such as blogs, wikis, and mashups -- that allow users to participate in discussions, develop applications, and combine data from multiple sources. This stems from a mind-set that favors maintaining control over the use of data, and from valid (though manageable) concerns about security. But as users become more accustomed to online participatory experiences, governments' failure to embrace Web 2.0 threatens to reinforce the public's perception that government Web sites offer a vastly diminished experience.
To reach the next level in e-government services, organizations must overcome each of these obstacles. First, they must move to a governance model in which e-government initiatives are owned by "line of business" executives and supported by a dedicated, cross-functional team. Second, they must develop capabilities in critical areas such as marketing, usability, Web analytics, and customer insights. Finally, government agencies must shift mind-sets to proactively get citizens, businesses, and other agencies involved in contributing or creating applications and content.
Implementing these changes will enable public-sector organizations to provide Web services that are used by more people with greater ease, reduce the costs of developing and maintaining the services over time, and offer more functionality and content, thereby providing a higher return on public money spent. Although focused on initiatives in the United States, the recommendations in this article are broadly applicable, as government agencies around the world continue to recognize opportunities to improve their interactions with citizens, businesses, other institutions, and their own employees through online services.