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12/12/09 Civic Technology , Digital Government

Don’t Forget ‘Traditional’ E-Government

While at the European level experts, practitioners and policy-makers are debating the role of the web 2.0 in public services and while most of the advanced OECD countries are delivering policy drafts and reports on the so-called Government 2.0, many Italian local Public Administrations are having difficulty in delivering not only Government 1.0, but in some cases even a beta version.

The Ministerial Declaration on eGovernment, approved in Malmö, Sweden, on 18th November 2009, defines policy priorities to be achieved by 2015:

1. to empower businesses and citizens through eGovernment services and better access to information
2. to facilitate mobility in the single market by seamless eGovernment services
3. to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the Public Administration.

The first objective in particular seems to meet some of the requests of web 2.0 enthusiasts, who are asking for a more active role in terms of co-designing public services and accessing public information; having in mind, for example, a European version of the American data.gov portal, they perceive open collaboration with government as a way to create new user-generated services and foster transparency (see for example the open declaration on the role of web 2.0 in public services).  In this regard, a key passage of the document emphasizes the importance of the availability of public sector information for reuse: “New demand-led information products and services enabled by the reuse of public sector information will support the transition of Europe to a knowledge-based economy”.

bolle2However, from a strict Government 2.0 point of view, the Declaration as a whole is still mainly dedicated to ‘traditional’ eGovernment and, rather than a revolution, it appears to be (frankly, as expected) the result of a compromise between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ way of thinking about innovation in public services, or, perhaps in fairer terms, some sort of ‘step-by-step’ innovation strategy. As Andrea DiMaio pointed out in a recent post, this impression is somehow confirmed by the fact that “the publication of the most recent e-government benchmark, which is the first outcome of the renewed contract between EU and Capgemini, shows a disappointing continuity with the old e-government approach”.

Is this actually bad news for public sector innovators?  Is this ‘new’ and fashionable view of eGovernment the defining solution to the many challenges that European Public Administrations are facing? Yes, in many ways it is; this ‘new’ approach is undoubtedly a step in the right direction and its role in the declaration could definitely have been more significant.  Co-designing of public services and open government, in particular, could force the Government to bring innovation to the next level and even trigger further improvements in efficiency and the effectiveness of Public Administrations.
Obviously, however, this should not be the only solution, at least for Countries of the Eastern and Southern Europe that are still engaged in developing digital infrastructures and delivering most of the basic public services on line.
Italy is certainly part of this club. Far from delivering web 2.0-like services or sharing public databases on the web (with some exceptions, of course), Italian PAs, especially at the local level, still do not have the technological and organizational ability to complete the delivery of a mature e-government transformation even at a “1.0” level, mainly because the italian local administration is fragmented into thousands of independent agencies and there is no efficient national data exchange framework for inter-agency information flows.

The latest data collected at the EU level highlights this gap.  According to the Eurostat chart published on 8th August 2009 in the European Commission Digital Competitiveness Report on i2010 strategy, Italy appears in 22nd position out of 27 Member States for take-up of advanced public services among both citizens and enterprises, i.e. those services that allow the final user to complete a transaction via the web, otherwise called ‘self-services’.  Eurostat statistics show not only an alarmingly low e-readiness rate among Italian young people compared with their counterparts in the rest of Europe, but also specific difficulties when using advanced public services via the web.

While waiting for fun and interactive web 2.0 public services, it is obvious that no take-up is achievable if most Public Administrations fail to deliver their most useful basic services on line. Indeed, the principal determinants of this low take-up rate can be found not only in the demand-side aspects like low broadband penetration among households (steadily lower than the European average) or the high proportion of elderly people normally excluded from digital technologies, but also, even now, in the scarcity of the supply of on-line services.  As stated in the last 2009 CapGemini Report, which has been measuring public services availability since 2005, in 4 years the position of Italy among the other Member States has dropped from 9th position in 2005 to 17th position out of the 27 EU Countries in terms of full on line availability. Those results could be even worse if the sample of the analyzed services were less biased toward those delivered by the central level and therefore easier to design and implement.  The report measurement approach, having to deal with 27 different institutional organizations and therefore to choose only the services that all Member States have in common, includes only a few of those key services that in Italy are only offered at the local level by 8,100 different and independent municipalities, more than a hundred Provinces and 21 Regional Governments.

It is at this level that the situation becomes difficult.  The latest results of the survey on ICT in the public sector by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) show that, in 2007, only 3% of the local public administrations were able to offer at least one transactional service out of dozens that would be expected.
In the above graph supply and demand of some of the key public on line services are compared. The data on availability of local e-government services is based on the results of the survey by CNIPA and DIT described in a previous post; the chart shows the percentage of individuals living in municipalities that are able to deliver the service on line at least as a downloadable form (stage 2 of the Capgemini classification).   Take-up is described using the last available data by single service from the ISTAT survey on ICT usage among individuals, special module on e-government (2006). The reported usage refers to the number of individuals who have used the the service via the web in the last 3 months, expressed as a percentage of all Internet users over the same period.

It is quite clear that those services with higher take-up values tend to show high availability percentages. In particular, it seems that local Public Administrations need to deliver a service to more than 50% of individuals in order to obtain more than 5% of take-up. Moreover, the ISTAT data reveals that those services with the lowest availability rate show the highest values of potential use. More than 60% of the interviewees, for example, would like to be able to notify moving house if the service were actually available.
In conclusion, this simple exercise may be enough to prove that there is still much to be done in order to achieve full availability of local public eServices in Italy as well as in other less-advanced countries in this field. Those who are concerned about the low eGovernment take-up levels should therefore consider that these levels, in some cases, may be determined just by a scarce availability and quality of the basic on line services.

So the ‘old’ approach to ‘traditional’ eGovernment which is prevalent in the European Declaration might sound outdated but it is, at least in some countries, still a must.

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