Look it up on the web

, Internet, Modernización de Empresas

The growth of i-government.

look-it-up.JPGEVEN the most curmudgeonly critic would have to admit the one great benefit of e-government: it comes twinned with i-government, where i stands for information. As readers under the age of 30 may be only dimly aware, before the internet age simply getting hold of information on any aspect of government was often far from straightforward. Getting the right form and finding out how to fill it in might involve going to a post office, writing a letter (sometimes enclosing a money order or a stamped self-addressed envelope) or visiting a government office and often queuing. Government printing offices sold official documents to cover their costs and sometimes to make a profit.

All this meant that information came at a price in time, effort and fees. In poorer countries it might require more than that. The forms might not be available, or they might have to be bought from profiteering officials or their friends. The layout would change regularly, so that applicants with the wrong form could be fined or encouraged to pay a bribe to have their mistake overlooked. Being in charge of publishing the latest regulations used to be a lucrative niche: a business would pay handsomely for information about a new standard that its products had to comply with.

These days, governments in advanced countries put virtually all documents intended for public consumption online. That gives the citizen-consumer everything he might want, along with much that he probably doesn’t. Even e-backwaters such as Turkmenistan or Myanmar provide things like visa application forms on the web, although in other respects they may be invisible online.

It goes without saying that simply providing information is no guarantee of good government (being able to download a form does not mean that the embassy will be efficient, let alone that the applicant will get a visa). All the same, it marks a huge change. Just as scarcity favours corruption, knowledge brings power. Making the right forms freely available is only part of it. More broadly, putting laws, regulations, parliamentary debates and the details of state budgets online makes maladministration harder. Those outside government can ask sharper questions about its decisions and be more confident about making their own. Those inside government have less excuse for misrule.

The flagship project of this kind is America’s usa.gov, a multiple award-winner and probably the best single e-government website in the world. It sticks chiefly to providing information. Although it also offers 100-plus online services, these turn out mostly to be links to other sites where you can renew a passport, contact an elected official or download a Polish-language visa application form. It is complemented by a family of other sites, such as benefits.gov, which offers information about every part of the largesse that the taxpayer directs to the needy.

My country, right or wrong

Yet even in this relatively straightforward task of making public information properly public, technology offers plenty of scope for blunder. In its most recent annual report on the world’s government websites, America’s Brown University catalogued an array of mishaps found last year. For example, the website of Chad’s embassy in Washington, DC, had been taken over by a cheeky business, as had that of Libya’s mission to the UN and Timor-Leste’s ministry of justice. In Nepal, the ministry of industry and commerce, mentioned on the main government site, had no active links. The latest “news” story on the site of Laos’s embassy in Washington, DC, dated from 2006. Tonga’s national portal offered links such as “about us” and “quick facts” that did not work. Mexico’s site for “agriculture/hunting/fishing/rural development” provided links to an “English” option that led nowhere. And some sites carried advertising suggesting a surprising degree of official entrepreneurship: Bolivia’s portal, for instance, had a banner ad for passion.com, which promised “sexy personals for passionate singles”.

Even if government websites are not actually wrong or dysfunctional, they are seldom designed with the outsider in mind. For a start, they are often far too numerous and poorly linked. In Britain, Alex Butler, an e-government chief, has closed 551 of the 951 central-government websites that existed in early 2006. No new ones are permitted. The aim is to shift content onto directgov, the British government’s central information point, and to a sister site offering online public services to business.

But directgov has its critics too. William Heath, who runs a witty blog on government reform, idealgovernment.com, describes the website as a “random generator of self-referential public-service information”. That may be a bit unfair. Directgov’s managers agree that the site’s search engine needs improving, but argue that its main role is to package information into useful clusters: “coherent citizen-focused topics”, in e-government-speak.

Yet government websites rarely fit the way that people actually use the internet. A Google search for “UK” “government” “childhood” “obesity” and “help” brings up a site that links to some mildly interesting statistics, but the excellent “children and healthy weight” page on directgov does not come up among the first 100 results. France, which prefers the term “transformation” to “e-government”, has put impressive swathes of government information onto a well-presented and well-designed website.

look-it-up2.JPGCompanies have mostly understood that visitors to their sites do not necessarily come through the front door. Their websites cater for the fact that consumers often start internet shopping by searching for a particular product or going to a price-comparison site. Governments, by contrast, do not “optimise” their websites to make them easily readable by outside search engines; indeed some actively discourage the idea—for example, by making information available only to registered users.

So even the apparently simple task of publishing well-presented and logically arranged information on the web turns out to be surprisingly difficult—and remains incomplete. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has defined four stages of e-government, each more demanding than the last. After information comes “interaction”, then “transaction” and eventually “transformation” (see chart 1). The more transformational the change, the bigger the benefits. But it turns out that, at all stages, the biggest beneficiaries will be governments, so they may have to work at persuading users to accept the changes.


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