BFM2013_4_02_E-government in perspective

As defined by the OECD in its March 2003 issue of “Observer”, e-government is more about “government” than about the “e-”: technology has to be seen as a just an enabler toward a common trend on streamlining the interaction between government and citizens (corporate and individuals).

Historically, states consolidated government control through harmonization: defining regulations and enforcing them was a mean to an end, i.e. defining acceptable behaviours and sanctioning by law the penalties associated with violation of said rules.

Since WWII, the increasing development of market economy accelerated the pace of these harmonization activities, moving the scope beyond the mere national level.

An obvious example is WTO: also if a specific “round” of negotiations fails, it is the mere recognition of the WTO as the forum where negotiations should take place and complaints presented that should be considered a success.

But it should not be forgotten that computers pervasiveness started quite recently, when the 1950s building-sized computers were converted into penny-sized chips, allowing the development of products that would simply not be feasible using the old mechanic technology.

Before computers were introduced, the typical accounting or administrative office looked like shown by films such as K. Vidor’s “The Crowd” or “The Hudsacker Proxy”: tens or hundreds of people used mechanical computing machines to produce partial results, collected and then consolidated into coherent documents- and many administrative processes still mirror that approach.

Computer technology is pervasive, and it is increasingly being embedded not only in tools and equipment, but also used to externalize business control processes, e.g. controlling stock through the insertion of tracking chips inside products shipped to retail stores.

While at first computer and communication technology (henceforth ICT) were used mainly for administrative support, eventually business processes started to be built around computers.

A first issue that became immediately visible was: how could information be shared across companies?

After physical delivery of shared information (e.g. tapes), attempts were carried out to create electronic exchanges, with different, competing EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) standards.

If you were a company with customers operating in three or four industries, you would be asked to deliver electronically information using different communication channels with different protocols.

After country-by-country attempts (e.g. Minitel in France), it wasn’t until DARPA Internet infrastructure, originally designed to deliver business continuity at the national level, became usable through SGML/HTML/XML for commercial purposes, that widespread electronic communication began to be part of everyday life.

Internet delivers different interesting features, but these are the ones that we consider critical to Internet success:

  • you do not need to set up any custom infrastructure to communicate via the internet, as software and hardware components required are easily available
  • you can connect to third-party knowledge/services immediately, through hyperlinks
  • anything that is available online is theoretically accessible without any middle-man being involved.

Since mid-90s, when Internet was first open for commercial uses, the new medium has constantly changed, lowering the cost of activities such as market research.

Before Internet, finding information was more art than science, and most newspapers had information offices supporting journalists in finding background information, sometimes open to the general public, e.g. 1970s books described how to set up your own in-house information office.

It has been only few years, but already the technology is showing signs of having grown beyond its usefulness.

Since mid-2000s, social networks transferred online the old “knowledge networks”, but on a global scale, and merging both academics and businesses.

Even generalist social networks such as Linkedin and Facebook gradually introduced various ways to create “knowledge tribes”, built around a specific “niche”- be it a business, or just a private interest.

For over a decade, this has altered the way knowledge is shared in business communities- from the obvious (software developers and business users of complex software systems), to the traditionally more secretive (businesses based on knowledge); following the evolution of e-government can benefit from a knowledge of the basic ways to structure “virtual knowledge networks”, a concept that will be discussed in a future book .

A study from RAND, published in 2000, can be a good introduction to the concepts related to self-organizing, knowledge-based communities.