There is no debate that standards have always played an important role in the design and delivery of eGovernment systems, since the mid-1990s we have been seeing standards play critical roles in data exchange, authentication and the way that information is ultimately presented back to the user.
Posts Tagged ‘eGov’
As holder of the rotating presidency of the European Union, Sweden next week hosts a high-level ministerial meeting devoted to the future policies regulating and promoting eGovernment in Europe (www.egov2009.se).
This is a promising step since Sweden is particularly well positioned to take a lead in international work on eGovernment. Dispite is relative smallness it is well positioned to coordinate a common European effort to realize the great potential for improvements and development of public services based on ICT in Europe and elsewhere.
Sweden is not only one of the world´s most open economies (imports and exports account for 54% and 47% of GDP respectively according to Statistics Sweden), it is also the world´s most eGovernment ready country according to a UN ranking in 2008 (read the e-Government Survey).
Sweden, as a small open economy, has great interest in policies that facilitates international trade and specialization (and its interest in playing strategic games in international policymaking to obtain competitive advantages over other nations is limited). This provides favorable conditions for productive international collaboration in a politically sensitive area.
There are several fundamental reasons why eGovernment works well and has further potential in Sweden. One reason is of course the level of development (GDP per capita was 38,100 in PPP-adjusted USD in 2008). Access to broadband, computers and mobile phones is also widespread and citizens are generally well educated and used to ICT technology (80% had broadband Internet access in 2008 and the number of mobile phone subscriptions per 100 users is 106). These factors provide generally favorable conditions for widespread use of internet services in general and eGovernment services in particular.
There are also several factors that are specific to the public sector that are important for eGovernment development in Sweden. One historical factor that plays an important role is that Swedish citizens generally have considerable trust in the public sector. This trust stems from the fact that for many centuries the State, unlike other countries, has not been a source for oppression but rather a means for providing services in the public interest.
Furthermore, Sweden was one of the first countries with a legal right for citizens to have free access to information and it has a far reaching principle of transparency in the public sector. The right to access documents as well as information about individuals – citizens and companies – is constitutional (as expressed in the Freedom of the Press Act). Citizens as well as government agencies thus think of transparency as the rule rather than an exception.
The bureaucracy is relatively efficient and the level of corruption is relatively low (Sweden ranks number one in the 2009 Global Corruption Report from Transparency International). Most government agencies work continuously to improve productivity. Some government bodies have been quick to use ICT to improve information processing and to make information distribution to citizens better, faster and less costly. The willingness to ICT as a means to distribute individualized information and collect information from citizens has resulted in a number of very successful eGov services. For instance, the vast majority of citizens now file tax returns online or by mobile phone (SMS) (see e.g. this article in Swedish). Most parents and employees have access to information and can report parental leave or sickness online to obtain social security benefits.
The Swedish government’s approach to ICT has been in line with a general approach to make production and organizational choices based on economic considerations rather than ideology or special interests. With a large share of IP-intensive companies, the Swedish economy relies on protection and international recognition of patents, copyright and other intellectual property rights. The approach to ICT standards and software is generally pragmatic and economically rational. This has also been true when government bodies have chosen ICT systems and software; often IP-based, external and built on proprietary code.
While Sweden has been fast in using ICT for cost-effective distribution and individualization of information in the public sector, development in other areas has been considerably slower.
The use of Internet for interactivity and citizen participation – i.e. eGov 2.0 – has been relatively limited. There are few, if any, examples of user-contributed services. eGov 2.0 services are absent in essentially all areas of the public sector, including important services such as education, transportation, culture, health care and media (public service). This is probably due to a political resistance, which stems from ideas that service quality in the welfare state needs to be politically controlled to ensure “fairness” and “equity”.
The use of Internet services to improve participation in the political process, eDemocracy, is also limited. This is partly explained by a strong tradition of representative, rather than direct, democracy.
Finally, eGovernment in Sweden is limited to ICT use in the interaction between government agencies and citizens. A strategy to empower citizens as consumers of public services by enabling substitution between producers, which would contribute to competition and market integration, is lacking.
Portability and control of data by individuals is a non-existing phenomenon. For instance, Sweden does neither provide electronic health records available to patients nor electronic portfolios for students. With funding rather than production being a core public task in many sectors, including education, health care, pensions, childcare etc, a significant potential remains for new and innovative technologies in these areas.
The Swedish experience shows that a pragmatic, value-oriented and neutral approach to eGovernment and procurement of ICT and software works well when applied in an open economy with a good basic ICT infrastructure. It also shows that adoption and development works well if applied on a limited scale (Sweden has a relatively homogenous population of 9 million people).
Not surprisingly, it is relatively more easy to use ICT for rationalization of existing government services and information processes. There is significantly more resistance to use ICT for development of new and innovative services with substantial contributions from a dispersed network of citizens and external contributors. In addition, using ICT to transfer power and control over data and empowering citizens as consumers presents very difficult challenges.
Along with Open source and Open standards, we now have a new phrase; i.e. Open Government.
What does Open Government imply for standards?
Let’s take a step back. Prior to 1999, I used to work for an ERP vendor. ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) is a complex class of software that is typically intended to manage all the functions of a company (such as Accounts Payable, General Ledger, Billing and so on). Inspite of their complexity, there was a mad scramble to install ERP systems which was mainly motivated by the Y2K deadline.
My field is learning technology standardisation. And I would not be a standards man if I did not have an acronym for it. We call it LET standardisation (LET for Learning, Education and Training). For years I have been vice chair of CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies, also acting as a national expert in the ISO committee working on LET standards (SC36). For more than a year now I have been working on a European project looking into standards used for competency-based learning, in order to come up with a Reference Model, picking and choosing form the best of LET standards and specifications.
LET is an emerging domain. Everything technological is in flux. And then we have standards that are supposed to be stable. It sounds strange, and as a matter of fact, it does not make sense. In the European project I am meeting a strong respect for what is classified as a standard (related to formal standard setting bodies). And I observe a less strong respect for what is classified as specifications (often related to user communities). Having been part of the process of producing standards I know too well that you cannot analyse standards by reputation of the organisation behind it.
European eGovernment initiatives give standards boards a prominent role in the governance of standards, also LET standards. One of the instruments of governance is a standards catalogue, which is intended to guide users towards appropriate standards to implement. Again, it goes without saying. Formal standards are more likely to end up in standards catalogues than community based standards.
Together with Paul Hollins of the UK Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards I have analysed the standards catalogue approach against a horizon scan report of current standardisation projects in the sector. First, given the emergent nature of the LET domain, we are not sure that the right candidates for recommendation are put forward. Second, we also question if bad decisions or obsolete recommendations would be withdrawn from the catalogue. The process models behind these initiatives have weak feedback mechanisms, and point more or less in one direction: towards the registry. There is a growing awareness in the LET standards community that we are not good at dispensing some of our earlier, less strong ideas, i.e., putting some of our standards into the bin.
However, what is more important is the effect the standards catalogues will have on what we would call the standards discourse. There is a growing awareness in standards bodies, e.g., demonstrated recently through a number of work method seminars organised prior to standardisation meetings in CENWS-LT, of the need for a meta level discussion on “the way we do standards”. The standards catalogue approach may steer discussions in the direction of the standards that are on the list, and what level of mandation these standards are assigned.
Therefore, we suggest that eGovernment standards boards should focus on semantic, organisational, cultural, political and legal interoperability, in preference to attempting to stabilise practice around a limited number of technical interoperability standards.
In conclusion, “unstable standards” might be more in line what the LET stakeholders need than stifled standards that are not serving innovation in the domain. Then we have just to talk about standards – and give up the hidden quality denotation in keeping up the categorisation of standards vs. specifications.
Technical standards will invariably be articulated in an eGovernment strategy; but typically such standards won’t impede a government’s successful pursuit of an eGovernment strategy because useful standards are both widely available and known (and therefore generally not a challenge) and ever-evolving (and therefore not well suited to rigid lists or mandates). However, without organizational interoperability, an eGovernment strategy may become mere words on a page and a lot of money spent. Organizational interoperability means the organizational structures, business processes and personnel enable enterprise-wide and cross-enterprise information sharing, cooperation and collaboration.
Interoperability between ICT systems in the public sector is an important policy objective for the European Union. It is regarded an important means to solve conventional issues relating to digital communications between independent organizations and entities and enable seamless and cost-effective delivery of public services. Hopes are that is should also facilitate cross-border mobility. It is thus at the heart of the EU policy to create an integrated market and better European public services.
In 2002 the US Senate approved the eGovernment Act. A special Committee was assigned to work out the most feasible and efficient solutions to improve citizen, intergovernmental and business access to information and services by supporting interoperability between federal, state and local government agencies. The objective is to make public information accessible by everyone – at all times. An official federal portal has been set up at USA.gov