“There Are Still a Lot of Hurdles to Overcome”

Hermann Hill
Hermann Hill

Professor Hill, just what is electronic government?

Hill: Depending upon your perspective, there are a lot of definitions for e-government. According to the Speyer definition, electronic government means that all the processes connected with governance and administration are processed with the help of IT and communications technology that runs with electronic media. However, others characterize e-government as an attempt to design more effective and user-friendlier administrative processes with the support of technology.

Unity exists internationally in the idea what e-government may not limit itself to the electronic availability of forms and documents. Rather than technology occupying the foreground, the focus is on a certain conception of “good” administration, which means more efficient and customer-oriented administration. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which deals with the advantages of e-government, has come to the insight that e-government is “more about government than about ‘e.’” E-government can be realized only as part of a holistic solution design. Above all, doing so requires rethinking and reorganizing processes and structures.

Right new e-government is going through something of a hype phase. Might this be nothing more than a trend?

Hill: Given the number of competitions and studies on this topic, you could easily think so. But if you deal seriously with the drivers or triggers for e-government initiatives, it will quickly become clear that it’s not simply a trend.

Around the world, various motives exist for administrative bodies that deal with setting up e-government projects. Technological advances or a desire for rationalization can push them in this direction. Administrative bodies are not islands; they have to deal with the same developments that companies do. E-government can also accompany a general administrative reform or a desire for a better image. However, the most important drivers are competitive factors: the increased requirements of customers. Many citizens not only want to handle their banking business online, but also communicate with government agencies in the same way. The same holds true for companies, which count access to the operating modes of government as part of the factors related to location in international competition. All those are tangible reasons that cannot be dismissed as a trend.
By the way, e-government also improves things for government employees. They no longer process individual steps, but comprehensive workflows. In this manner, one stop at a governmental agency can deal with various transactions. Collaboration between employees or between various agencies is also simplified. This kind of greater autonomy leads to greater satisfaction at the workplace – and only satisfied employees can satisfy customers. It’s important here that the design of the process is completely electronic and that no media breaks occur so that citizens do not e-mail an agency that then prints out a form and then has it carried on paper to a traditional filing system.

Does e-government therefore affect existing administrative processes?

Hill: Of course. In fact, e-government absolutely must be part of a comprehensive strategy. Only this approach guaranteed a planned and structured procedure. At the same time, it also avoids shutting down e-government projects because of tight budgets. Whoever uses this opportunity and links e-government to administrative reform will derive significant benefits. The effectiveness and efficiency of governmental and administrative action can improve. Modernization of public administration is promoted and its orientation to service increases. Administrative bodies expand their view of administrative processes beyond services; they increasingly deal with the inclusion of procedures that have a political design and are democratic. E-government is something like a key to modern, citizen-friendly administration and to greater participation of citizens in our democracy. E-government is therefore not simply another modernization program in addition to administrative reform. It’s more that e-government provides more thrust to the reform itself.

But doesn’t e-government lead to a digital split in society – an exclusion of those who are not online?

Hill: This danger might exist, but the problem is well known. For example, in Germany the e-government strategies of the federal government, states, and localities require that public agencies work both online and offline for the foreseeable future. That’s partly because the situation with resources requires it and partly to avoid this kind of a split.

Personally, I do not believe that public agencies will ever be reachable only online. Personal advisement can’t be replaced so simply anywhere in the world, and truly personal services can’t be handled online anyway. Just think of advice about social services. In part, these demand a sensitive, social interaction that simply must occur with close personal contact.
Administrative bodies will have to maintain personal advisement services because these services clearly involve the needs of their clients. I even have the impression that with the increased use of online banking, post offices are filling up again because they still have the right windows.

When will e-government be a reality in public administration?

Hill: It’s sure to take a while yet. I don’t think that administrative bodies will have realized all the options available to them even in five years. That’s connected to the acceptance of the Internet, which is still insufficient – despite all its advances. I think that it will take another generation for the Internet to find acceptance in all sectors of the population. Interestingly, it’s the middle generation that has reservations: senior citizens and young people are more capable of excitement. But there are still a lot of hurdles to overcome until we get to the point where citizens use electronic services as a matter of course.

What problems do you see along this road?

Hill: I see fewer technological problems than financial problems. The training of employees and the readiness of citizens to use new opportunities must also increase. Unless this happens, the expected affects of rationalization will not occur. And there are deficiencies. For example, many municipal projects lack a comprehensive strategy and a systematic procedure. Often there are not good concepts for organizational and personnel development, projects are managed incorrectly, and external service provides are inadequately administered. Cases abound in which employees have been incorrectly involved, and existing processes and workflows are frequently not tailored to the new possibilities.

Administrative bodies must join forces more closely; each one does not need to reinvent the wheel for itself. The same mistakes are made over and over again. An agreed-upon procedure and targeted duplication of successful solutions can save both time and money.

What’s the position of German administrative bodies when they’re compared internationally?

Hill: The European Commission has studied the service offerings of civil agencies in the 15 countries of the EU and in Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland several times. The northern European countries and Ireland come out the best. Overall, Germany is sixteenth out of eighteen. As before, online services are dominated by services that involve tax payments. However, there is still significant need for action with permits and licenses. In general, the federal government is ahead of states and municipalities.

However, the study examined only offerings. It did not examine the quality of services or the connection to the back office. All the same, there’s still a lot to do for e-government to become a success in Germany. The new initiative, “Deutschland Online,” offers a good approach. It seeks to link the offerings of the federal government, states, and municipalities because citizens don’t really care who’s responsible for a given service. Their main concern is that they receive services well, inexpensively, and quickly from one source.

And what’s the situation like in the United States, for example?

Hill: President Bush signed the Electronic Government Act at the end of 2002. It allots some $345 million over the next four years to promote electronic administration. Since September 2000, the American government has provided a portal named “FirstGov.gov” to supply information and services from federal departments and agencies. Its search engine provides access to 31 million federal Web sites and 16 million state Web sites. In addition, a central task force is dealing with promoting e-business models in government and administration.

An international study by the Bertelsmann Foundation has shown that the offerings in the U.S. and Canada show the greatest orientation toward users. Within in the U.S., the state of Virginia and the city of Seattle are the most active, so they are ahead in the overall standings.