WCIT 2010 Blogs (May 2010)

1. The gap will always remain, but become more narrow

All major innovations have profoundly influenced society. In what way and to what effect precisely is not always known. The advocates tend to stress the chances, the critics always warn against the risks. ICT being the innovation of our time, raises a similar debate. Some people hail it as the solution to all problems, others argue that it destroys society as we know it.

What are the lessons learnt from earlier innovations? When the printing press was invented, it democratised knowledge, for more people got access to knowledge. But there must have been critics who have argued that it deepenend the already existing gap between educated and illiterate people. Even though it shifted the power structure, fortunately no one advocated abolishing the machine. It has laid the foundation for general education which has raised the general level of knowledge in society.

After the printing press the stream engine undoubtedly has stimulated a similar debate. (In)famous agreement at the time between the church priest and the factory owner was: if you keep them stupid, I will keep them poor. In the 20th century the telephone, the radio, and TV have been hotly discussed for their positive and negative influences.

eGovernment as the current innovation can be seen as a strong driver for improvement of the public sector. Some fear that it widens the gap between the haves and havenots. But looking at the earlier innovations, one can safely say that given time all will benefit. But a (somewhat narrower) gap will always remain.

2. eGovernment by any other name should promise the same

Many people consider the word eGovernment to be misleading, because it stresses the means and not the end. But that is only true when that end would be making everything digital that previously was done on paper, and nothing more. Since that would be too modest an ambition, new words have been coined to describe what eGovernment actually means: Transformational Government, Open Government, and recently Government 2.0. However, this is just semantics, the epitome “2000” used in the 1990’s for everything new having been succeeded by “2.0”. So what’s eGovernment really about?

Many answers remain in the field of means: reducing administrative burdens, enhancing efficiency, improving transparency, increasing participation, doing away with bureaucracy. The latter certainly is intriguing. There has been a time when bureaucracy was a positive innovation! As described by Weber it did away with the essence of bad government. Its positive connotation was that it made government predictable, as opposed to former times when citizens were at the mercy of their rulers.

So what precisely is the promise of eGovernment? Looking at the tendencies and challenges in society, the challenge for government is to adapt to future bottom up and horizontal approaches as opposed to present top down and vertical procedures. The “e” describes the phenomenon that access to information and lower production costs will bring about a revolution in the relationship between government and civil society. Government on demand? One may call it Government 2.0, but by any other name, eGovernment should promise the same.

3. eSociety requires a dramatic change in eGovernment leadership

In almost every country take up of eGovernment lags behind expectations. An obvious remedy is to better inform the general public about the availability of eServices or the possibilities of eDemocracy. However, this is not likely to solve the problem. In order to bridge the gap between supply and demand in the field of public service delivery and between apathy and involvement in the area of political decision making, a fundamental change in the “production process” is required.

Successful businesses have “reversed” the traditional way of designing a product or service by turning formerly passive consumers into present day active prosumers. What works for commercial services might well be an example for renewal of public services. This doesn’t mean privatising public service delivery, but rather facilitating involvement of the public customer in the design of the solution to his needs and the creation of the suitable service. In political decision making this means giving more choice for involvement outside the existing representative mechanisms.

Politics as we know it still tries to manage in a vertical and hierarchical way a society that has changed dramatically. It can’t cope any more with the horizontal and networking way of dealing that has become normal for citizens and businesses. eSociety requires a “production process” for creation and distribution of public values that is better adapted to both the needs and the possibilities of the eCitizen.

In order to bring this shift about, a different kind of leadership in eGovernment is required. We need politicians and civil servants who are aware of the challenges of change and risks of stagnation. They should act like Baron Von Munchhausen, who saved himself out of the swamp by pulling himself (and his horse) upwards by his own hair. Although some will argue that fairy tales are not real, virtual stories can come true! Who will write this eStory with the Happy End?

4. Will Greece lead the way again?

Some 2500 years ago the Greek invented democracy as a system to run society in the best interest of all its members. Their innovation, combined with the subsequent Roman interpretation, became the basis for democracy as we know it.

Over time the focus shifted from direct to representative democracy, the assumption being that not everyone is able or willing to take part in political debate or decision making. Because of this, politics became a profession and politicians an elite, thus creating a gap between the representatives and those represented. Elections have not really diminished this.
But are these assumptions still valid? Obviously direct democracy in its pure form does not work with large numbers and great distances. And the mitigating effects of representative mechanisms should also be taken into account.

Nevertheless present day Knowledge Society has created a new playing field, for at least two reasons. Citizens are better educated and certainly do have opinions how society should be managed. Moreover Web 2.0 gives new opportunities for citizen involvement that can be innovative and rewarding.

The actual worldwide economic crises makes a truly revolutionary approach to democracy both necessary and possible. A country like Greece is hit very hard by this crisis and faces the challenge to adapt to completely new circumstances. Ordinary politics won’t solve that problem. Trust and transparency are necessary to reach political agreement about austerity measures that have to be taken. More than ever a fair way to share the burden is required. Only when every one is included, can Greece (and other countries) overcome their predicament.

Many Greeks feel doomed and are pessimistic about their future. They tend to view their situation in terms of a classical Greek Tragedy Revisited. But reverting to business as usual is not an option in politics. A truly revolutionary approach to running government is the only way out. Can Greece become again the craddle, this time for Democracy 2.0?

(Published in the Virtual Space of the eGovernment Track at WCIT2010)