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Is e-government a dangerous enthusiasm?

Yes, according to the conclusion reached by Gauld, Goldfinch and Dale* after a number of e-government case studies in New Zealand and a survey of wider literature. And it is an interesting judgement in case of New Zealand, a country with 4 million population, but well advanced in e-government. By mid-1990s most New Zealand government departments had established a web presence. New Zealand also has clearly set e-government goals. For example, by 2007, the ICTs will be integral to the delivery of government services, by 2010, the operation of government will be transformed and by 2020, people’s engagement with the government will have been transformed. Its site http://www.e.govt.nz/, primarily meant for government servants, is rich in resources. It has one-stop portal, http://www.govt.nz/, for the citizens. Government ICT spending is estimated at $3 billion annually.

But nothing of this impresses the three joint authors of this book – Robin Gauld, a senior lecturer in health policy, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago, Shaun Goldfinch, senior lecturer, Department of Political Studies at the same university and Tony Dale, a senior programmer in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Canterbury. Written for a general audience, the book “takes a critical look at policies, problems and prospects of e-government in a series of case studies. Why have ICT failures in the public sector occurred and what lessons do they provide for the future?”

The book has 7 chapters, notes, references and index. In Chapter 1, E-government and information system development, the authors provide an extensive review of literature and propose a model containing four ‘pathological’ enthusiasms: 1. Idolisation (public servants ‘idolise’ IT and see it as leading to great benefits), 2. Technophilia (More and better technology prevents or fixes problems), 3. Lomanism (Feigned or genuine belief of IT suppliers and sale staff in their company’s products), and 4. Managerial faddism (new management or structures bring benefits and prevent or fix problems (p-19).

In Chapter 2, What is ‘e-government’, authors define e-government, describe e-government expectations (managerial, government co-ordination and transformation, and participation) and developmental phases of e-government (online information, two-way interaction, vertical integration, and horizontal integration) and discuss e-government developments in Australia, Britain, United States and New Zealand.

In Chapter 3, ICT in New Zealand’s health sector: A story of lost opportunity, the authors say that “the story is one of lost opportunity, political negligence, shifting ideas about health policy and the shape of the health system, and the development of the Byzantine ICT topography.” (p-45). “ …progress was variable despite a succession of high-level information management strategies, and problems that were identified at the start of the decade remained unresolved at its end (ibid., p-48). A new strategy was successively applied in 1991, 1996 and 1999 with the patient information system occupying the centre stage of the problem. Two key lessons emerge from the New Zealand experience. First, central governance is required if interoperability, including architecture and standards, is desired. Secondly, collaboration, and not competition, is required in the health sector.

Chapter 4: A major health care information system project failure reports failure of Health Waikato ($17 million) and Capital Coast Health ($26 million) projects, both of which were abandoned. It shows the realities of implementation of ICT projects including inability to fix responsibility for failure. Similarly, Chapter 5: The INCIS fiasco in the New Zealand police force shows how $100 million Integrated National Crime Investigation System (INCIS) project, out of $800 million Police budget and 10 years of work, was abandoned. Chapter: 6. Landoline: Qualified success or partial failure, shows the mixed results.

In concluding Chapter 7: Lessons from computer development in the New Zealand, the authors dispel the belief that “project failure could be avoided largely setting in place the right monitoring regime, the right contract design, and using the required risk analysis mechanisms.” (p-121). Similarly, they find accountability at political/bureaucratic level largely intractable. Tthe authors draw the single most important lesson that large projects almost always fail (p-133) (emphasis original). Despite this conclusion, the authors are aware that large scale, ambitious IT projects will continue to be launched. They therefore advise that pessimism should be the guiding principle (p-135), pessimism being the expectation of failure.

E-government is not a dangerous enthusiasm, as the rather alarming title of the book makes it out to be. Enthusiasm is necessary in e-government, as in any walk of life, if we wish to achieve anything worthwhile. All that is required is caution, which should not be thrown away in planning and implementing e-government projects.

Problems are solved only when they are posed and faced and not when they are brushed aside under the carpet, which is often the political/bureaucratic norm in IT project administration. Gauld, Goldfinch and Dale deserve to be complimented for writing this valuable book whose strength lies in well documented case studies of New Zealand public sector though at times the reader feels that the case of project failure is often overstated. This book should not be missed by any one interested in e-government. Otago University Press too has done a good job in attractively producing it.

Dr D.C.Misra
Independent E-government Consultant, New Delhi, India
Email: dc[at][email protected]
*Gauld, Robin and Shaun Goldfinch with Tony Dale (2006): Dangerous Enthusiasms: E-government, Computer Failure and Information System Development, Dunedin, New Zealand, Otago University Press, 160 pp $39.95

Note by the Reviewer:
I had written this review some time back. It is being posted on this blog for wider dissemination.

Dr D.C.Misra
November 22, 2008

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Zach Tumin

Thanks for this quick but rich note, Dr Misra. By your account, the authors detail important risk, whether in design, development,implementation, or operation. These are substantive issues which anyone familiar with the political, technical and business decision-making around e-goverment will recognize. The title misserves, perhaps, as you suggest. I look forward to reading the full text.

Hugh Davidson

Quick note from someone on the shop floor of e-gov in New Zealand public services.

We have some great documents with some pretty lofty stated goals. Presently within the Inland Revenue department we are running an ambitious project in order to make good on those goals or, more cynically, to make it clear that we have little chance of realising them on our current trajectory. We have, as I suppose many large organisations do, a problem of the viscous ‘middle’ of the organisation. Lots of great ideas and visionary documents at the top and many talented and inspired (he says humbly) designers on the shop floor with huge problems getting projects focusing on achieving long term goals rolling. This is a recipe for big and disastrous projects that implode under the weight of their own gravity. Smaller projects will never accept concepts that focus on strategic goals and because of the complexity within government services it would take a miracle for short term band aid solutions to address transformational goals. So these transformational projects become bohemiths as we put off and put off then heap together initiatives while we apply several tons of middle management, procedures, metrics and agendas in the name of risk aversion at the micro level which ironically produces what the book might (i say might because i have not read it) call the certainty of failure.

This is a problem with project governance and not one of e-government. I would suggest that caution is just what people have used to date to guide projects of this nature. From someone who has been pushing concepts that could be described as outside the square within government in New Zealand I find that the idea of risk assessment in its current form has done an excellent job of perpetuating mediocrity and keeping managers in their jobs but done little for public services.

I am a harsh and outspoken critic and will add that people here in NZ are doing a great job and we have a great opportunity here due to the smaller population and hence smaller public service departments. Taking risks in e-gov will lead to great benefit in the long run as long as they made to be learned from and taken in a strategic way within a climate of humility, openness, self awareness and support.

Dr D.C.Misra

Thanks for your excellent piece, Hugh.
>>>>This is a problem with project governance and not one of e-government.>>>>
This is a subtle but very important distinction which project managers seldom realise while implementing a project worried as they are about deadlines.
>>>>I find that the idea of risk assessment in its current form has done an excellent job of perpetuating mediocrity and keeping managers in their jobs but done little for public services>>>>
There are three types of e-government: techno-centric (driven by tech vendors), governance-centric (driven by public servants) and citizen-centric (driven by none). What we want is citizen-centric government. But how does one operationalise the concept in e-government practice?
>>>>I am a harsh and outspoken critic >>>>
E-government needs more such people (and believe me there are so few of them!).This is one reason why mediocrity, and not excellence, is perpetuated in e-government.
Dr D.C.Misra