Back to the future: the big and bad e-government 1.0 attention void

Imagine you are an NGO lobbying your government to clean up one of the most notorious areas for corruption: public procurement. In response the government declares that a centrepiece of its anti-corruption strategy will be an electronic procurement system that will make corrupt interference all but impossible. What do you do? Do you applaud this move?  How about biometric ID cards that are meant to help stamp out corruption in basic service delivery and that are being rolled out in a growing number of  developing countries? E-tax systems to put an end to corruption in revenue collection, e-dockets for judges to take judicial integrity to a new level – all finding their way into administrative reform efforts?

The list could be expanded far and wide. From education to health, from financial management in local municipalities to the judiciary, governments all around the world are rolling out a wide range of highly ambitious electronic information and transaction systems that stand to profoundly transform public administrations and service-delivery and very often come with high hopes to tackle some of the most pernicious corruption risks that we face. All this is electronic government 1.0 and in the beginning (of the Internet) there was a lot of buzz how these new information and communication technologies will transform the way governments work internally and handle transactions with citizens and business.

No more. Now the focus has almost completely shifted to e-government 2.0 and how social media with its unprecedented opportunities for participation, collaboration and co-production will transform government-citizen interactions in even more dramatic ways and involve citizens much more deeply than ever before.

Exciting! But not so fast please!!

As I argue in a new working paper, e-government 1.0 may not be as visible and talked about, yet  it is big and thriving. It easily dwarfs government spending on social media and e-government 1.0 and most urgently needs to be brought back to the centre of anti-corruption research, policy-making and advocacy.

There is enough evidence of successes in e-government 1.0 to justify all the excitement that these electronic systems can have a profound impact on tackling corruption. Some TI chapters and a crop of other NGOs, for example, have done great pioneering work to help make electronic procurement more effective in tackling corruption and they also use data generated by electronic procurement systems for monitoring purposes.

During a global hackathon organised in December hackers came up with ICT solutions to fight corruption . Photo taken in Vilnius, click on the image to learn more.

Yet as the working paper also shows, on the negative side there are plenty of cautionary tales of failure and lessons from previous rounds of new technologies that suggest a very careful  and guarded approach. And here is the main message: unfortunately there is not enough evidence yet to fully understand  how e-government 1.0 can be best designed,  implemented and monitored to unfold its maximum impact on tackling corruption.

What’s more: both e-government business vendors and their clients on the public sector side may not be too interested to take a hard look beyond the hyperbole. So there is an urgent need for more research and civil society engagement on government 1.0 to critically accompany all these initiatives. Only persistent NGO monitoring, advocacy and involvement will ensure that e-government 1.0 really lives up to its promises for curbing corruption. And only the collective impact of a thriving e-government 1.0 and 2.0,  joined together at the hip, will eventually be able to generate the transformational change in public government and service provision that  is required for deep anti-corruption reforms.  So let’s revisit e-government 1.0. Any takers on the civil society and research side to rise up to this challenge?

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