It is not surprising that most governments of the world have web sites — in fact, many call themselves "e-governments". In early November, the United Nations issued a report entitled “E-Government at the Crossroads” which showed that 173 of the U.N.’s 191 members had Web sites. That is the good news. The bad news is that only 20% of people with Internet access use them. Does this low utilization mean there is a lack of interest or is that not enough people have Internet access? Neither. The problem is that most of the "e-government" sites don’t have compelling content nor useful transactions.
The issue is not unique to e-government; you can say the same thing of most e-businesses, or e-universities, or e-hospitals. We are only five percent of the way toward what the Internet can make possible. There are technical measurements to support this assertion, but they are not particularly relevant. The over-arching issue has to do with what web sites can do — not what they look like, or how many pages or documents they have — but they can do. Of all the things that a web site could do that would simplify our lives and save us time, how many of those capabilities actually exist. I believe it is about five percent. In the case of e-governments, there are many things that could be done for their constituents. I think of the capabilities in three categories: content, transactions, and participation.
The web is an ideal way to make the rules and regulations of governments accessible to the people. The web gives new meaning to the old saying, “ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law”. Large numbers of documents about the government — it’s history, it’s organizational structure, and it’s rules — are on-line. Forms of all kinds are available which can be viewed or printed. Unfortunately, in many cases, the printing of the document is required so it can then be filled out and faxed! Actually, much of the useful content controlled by governments is not on-line at all. How about those real estate property records? Deeds? Inspection reports of various kinds? Yes, it is a big job to scan the millions of documents that exist but it can be done and it is time to start. It can be done. The Vatican Library is home for many of the world’s rarest books and documents.The library has more than 150,000 manuscripts and more than a million books. A number of technical collaborations have focused on how to both preserve the treasures of the Library and make them more accessible to scholars via the web. A related issue for governments is to begin the automation of the processes so that physical documents are no longer created without an electronic version. This is a cultural challenge more than a technical challenge but now is the time to accelerate efforts because on-line access to these documents is what people will expect.
The main driver to significant and effective use of the web in e-government will be transactions. Searching and reading content is important but transactions are how things get fulfilled. If you are wondering what the steps are to get a motorcycle license you would go to the State web site and do a search. You probably would find that there is a free manual that has been in use for a number of years. Then you would likely be asked to fill out a form so they can mail a copy of it to you. You can also learn about fines and fees on government web sites but most do not provide a way for you to pay them on-line. One very good example of using the web for payments is eFile by the U.S. government. The Internal Revenue Service has established a digital id process including very sophisticated, yet simple to use, authentication. There are other successes, including projects in Spain, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong’s one-stop Electronic Service Delivery, which allows citizens to do everything from pay taxes to renew their driver’s license on the Web have done similar things. The majority of e-governments, however, do not provide many transactions on-line. “Security and privacy issues” are often cited as the inhibitor, but a thorough examination would show that it is more resistance to change and fear of trying new things that are the real inhibitors.
Perhaps the ultimate power of the Internet for citizens around the world is the ability to be heard and to express opinions to their political leaders. We are beginning to see signs of this in America as many candidates vie to connect with voters for the upcoming 2004 elections. According to the U.N. report, only a few government sites encourage users to help make policy, and yet it is the policy area that ultimately may be most valuable to political leaders. The U.N. undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs said that the U.N. sees the Internet as a means of advancing and consolidating transparency and democracy.