The first snow of the year had fallen during the night but by the time I arrived in the centre of Bucharest it was already a grubby mush, swept away by drivers who have the alarming habit of using all of the road rather than just their lanes. The monuments of the Communist regime are easily visible on the way from the airport – huge, austere constructions (the “free press” building that now houses more than 200 independent publishers; the natural history museum, the military museum, countless enormous houses – presumably repurposed now, no longer the homes of the favoured few). It has been a while since I felt the cold drip of melting snow down the back of my neck as the water cascaded from the balconies and cornices high above. The Parliamentary Palace, venue for the conference, is just enormous – the link will give you more data than you ever imagined you’d need. Nothing prepared me for how big it is, but you would certainly not call it beautiful. To think that Ceaucescu constructed it for his home, although he met his end before it was finished. Almost every square inch of floor, stair, banister, wall and column (think of an Egyptian hypostyle and you won’t be far off) is white marble. After the revolution, it was finished off with minimal furnishings, but vast numbers of ornate chandeliers, occasional carpets and beautiful, religious-inspired, murals. Inside, it looks amazing – amazingly awesome and amazingly empty. In a country where the average monthly net wage is a little over $100 it was both inspiring and shocking. A red bull at the airport costs as much as a gin and tonic that in turn costs as much as the taxi ride to the centre of town – about $3.
The conference got off to a late start and the speeches held to just a few minutes long. I noted as I opened mine that long ago I had ready the “one minute manager” but had not expected to give the “Seven minute guide to e-government”. My slides were not available so I adlibbed making just a few of the points that I had planned for my twenty minute talk. It turns out that seven minutes is about enough time to get across the essence of what to do next with e-government. Every few conferences I try and come up with a new theme, to stave off my own boredom and also to keep the regular attendees at these things thinking. The theme this time was “e-government is as much about what you stop doing as what you start doing”.
There were some good points well made by other speakers:
– The Italian Minister talked up the single electronic identity card; a government-issued extension of the existing ID card that will be the base for all e-government transactions. He also talked of reversing the previous trend of centralisation by giving power to the local municipalities, whilst maintaining control over standards in the middle. A risky path that is as likely to result in fragmentation as anything.
– The Russian delegate noted the intention to learn from other countries that were further ahead. He said that 70% of e-government services are not used by the citizens for whom they were developed – I have no idea of the source or accuracy of that statement, but it is easy to believe that some number of that order is correct. Like his colleague from the Ukraine, he worried that there were issues around provision of “last mile” bandwidth (certainly insufficient to deliver multi-media), semantic search capability, auto-translation of content and a lack of regional content.
– The Finnish delegate listed the various national databases (seemingly covering every possible piece of information needed) which are updated regularly (it’s mandatory) and used as the source for all necessary information. I’ve looked at these before and they are certainly a huge advantage in the e-government stakes. The most powerful quote came in this speech – “Don’t push new technology (it usually fails) but do be compatible with your customers”. Those working on digital signatures and certificates (and almost every delegate listed them as a priority), beware – if they don’t work in developed countries, they probably won’t work elsewhere.
– A last minute entry came from Canada where Mark McDowell, custodian of the website “Aboriginal Planet” noted how far Canada had progressed. Take-up figures were impressive – some 75% of tax returns will be filed online next year; 20%+ of Canadians use the Internet as their PRIMARY channel to Government and 40% say that they will over the next year. I noted that all of the website pictures he showed displayed a very standard “common look and feel”, as opposed to a “consistent look and feel”; perhaps they have gone too far with that and need to re-introduce, albeit carefully, a little more sub-branding. Online consultations will be introduced next year.
So, on the theme of “e-government is more about what you stop than what you start”. Here are my 7 principles, one a minute, for the next steps:
– Stop putting online what you already have offline. If the online service is not sufficiently different, no one will use it and you will waste time and money. Leafletsonline.gov.xx is not a strategy.
– Stop replicating within your own government what has already been done. Separate ministries implementing separate systems for key functions such as authentication, payments etc is a waste. If people have to do the same thing too many times to get similar results, they won’t use the services.
– Stop building websites. The world probably does not need anymore and governments certainly do not. If you have one, that is enough. If you have more than one, start a plan to get back to one. Think how much easier it will be to focus on delivering content that is relevant to the citizen if you don’t have to piece it together from hundreds or even thousands of websites. If your people can’t find the service, they won’t use it.
– Stop and think before you say you want to include citizens in the consultation process. If 10 million people suddenly give you their views online, how will you manage? How will you let them know their views are valuable and appreciated? If the feedback is not valued, people will stop giving it.
– Stop designing services from the government view of the world and start designing them from the citizen’s perspective. If people have to think too hard about the structure of government, they will give up, use the ‘phone or go to an office for information. And while you’re at it, design all your websites consistently. That doesn’t mean make them the same, but do make them “consistently different”. That means consistent navigation, consistent styles, consistent places for related links but it also means consistency of tone and voice. It doesn’t mean make them all blue with grey text and yellow borders or anything remotely like that.
– Stop putting online tax first in the list of transactions to go online. Start putting online benefits, pension management … anything that delivers direct value to the citizen. Tax can come later – once you have given them money online they are more likely to let you take it from them online.
– Stop worrying about whether the target is valid and start delivering against it. E-government is primarily about benefit to the citizen. What follows from that is transformation of government, competitive advantage for the economy and probably a better environment all round (less money spent in one place means more spent somewhere else).
And that was that … back to the UK!