Thursday, November 16, 2006

Gates Project 19: Considering e-Government

I don't think I'm going to include e-government in my e-advocacy report. This is because e-government is not e-advocacy. e-Advocacy is the actions of citizens and citizen groups using ICTs to realize social change. Government is often the focus of these efforts, as government controls rule making (ie, makes laws). However, government itself does not push for change; it responds to pressure from advocates and lobbyists. Although government can serve as an advocate, due to its role as protector of civil rights, e-government rarely takes on this role.

e-Government is government using ICT's to function more efficiently. This is an important improvement over the inefficiency and corruption that are a part of many human bureaucratic systems. However, but it does not imply social change. A country might have a unnecessarily difficult divorce law that might require meetings with a judge, a court hearing, and lots of paperwork before a couple is allowed to divorce. The e-advocacy approach to this might be to rally citizen support to change the law through an e-petition, e-mail your representative campaign, or even the collecting video or audio testimonials of people trying to get divorced and created a multimedia gallery. The e-government response to this situation would be to allow people to download the large amounts of paperwork from a website and sign up for their court date online. More efficient, sure, but it doesn't mean that the law itself is disfunctional.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that government rarely gives its citizens opportunities to influence legislating. e-Government often engages citizens at the lowest level of governance - bureaucratic paperwork. In this way even a repressive government like Saudi Arabia can have a e-government initiative. According to i4donline, the Council of Ministers allocated $800 million for an e-government project that will bring 150 government service and 1,000 "subsidiary services" under an e-government system. I doubt this new system will allow citizens to take any part in the higher functions of govern like law-making and oversight in the famously opaque monarchical system.

Most e-government systems tightly define the way citizens can use the system to interact with their government (ie, fill in this form, sign-up for this time). I welcome e-government efforts that allow citizens to express themselves in a less structured way, to advocate. This more open form of e-government would need to include procedures to ensure that citizen input would actually influence decision-making processes, rather than just being pro-forma. Still, I welcome this kind of e-government, which would engage citizens in the most important work of government: making the rules that govern citizens' lives.

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Mary - check out Tony Blair's webpage - Tom Steinberg at MySociety has just built a petition function into the Prime Minister's website. I wonder whther this is an example of the kind of e-government you're wishing for? II think it's great, though there's also something slightly uncomfortable about it - the danger of cooptation seems high.
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