ERCIM News No.48, January 2002 [contents]

E-Government and Municipal Transformation: Some Experiences

by Eevi Beck

A research project carried out at the University of Oslo during 1996-2001 has been studying how a Swedish municipality is creating an 'IT Society'. Asking what is shaping this introduction of ‘IT Society’, and why, provides practical experience highly relevant for e-government projects.

E-government has become a popular term, as governmental organisations in numerous countries wish to capitalise on the potential of increased reliance on information technologies (ITs) in their service provision. The promise of the twin benefits of quality information for citizens and cost savings for governments has proved evocative. However, what e-government is to mean remains elusive. In particular, issues remain in the breadth of reach of such efforts, as substantial problems are still unresolved in how to ensure equal or equivalent provision of services to all citizens. This is an issue that goes to the heart of the ideal of democratic society and government as the mediator of services for all.

This article presents a research project on IT and governance, focussing on a long-term effort by a local government to transform itself and its citizens into an ‘IT society’. This started before the word e-government arrived on anyone’s lips, yet brings up issues and experiences of great relevance for e-government planners. The research project studying developments in Ronneby has aimed to explore ‘IT society’ as an idea and a reality through practical (empirical) studies. It started in 1996, and will last until early 2002. Its prime aim is to understand and explain concerns that shape the policy-led introduction of an ‘information society’.

The Ronneby Case
Ronneby is a rural municipality of approximately 30,000 inhabitants in Blekinge, Sweden. In 1993, the municipal authorities adopted a policy statement to the effect that Ronneby was to become an ‘IT society’ by 2003. A ten-year project was initiated, led by municipal civil servants and organised as an umbrella project. The ‘2003’ project encompassed any activity to do with IT in the municipality. Over the years a substantial number of sub-projects have been carried out, largely externally funded (national and EU research moneys). Current plans include efforts towards e-government as part of the general vision.

The research has comprised repeated interviews with the ‘2003’ project management over six years, in-depth field research in one area of municipal services (the Home Help Service) over the same period, and supplementary interviews with managers of specific (short term) sub-projects and with library and school managers. The municipal web pages as well as other material have been studied. This has allowed tracing of changes over time in the orientation of the ‘2003’ project and in the home help service. Findings within each are summarised next, while a general conclusion for policy makers follows below.

The ‘2003’ project management had as their starting document a ‘Vision 2003’ which centrally included broad participation in the transformation of the municipality. Ronneby was to be known as a place where the citizens know IT. Specific measures were to be taken to counteract exclusion of groups of citizens. The former has largely been successful, while the latter has not. This poses difficulties for the usage of IT by the municipality and its services, as despite their efforts, large numbers of citizens do not use IT such that they could access services online.
Individual projects have covered numerous topics in schools, libraries, for tourist development, etc, and have met with international interest. Despite this, however, broad participation has been difficult to achieve.

The Home Help Service
While clearly defined projects with a limited time span have facilitated focus and experimentation in the ‘2003’ project, the home helper study has demonstrated the magnitude of the difficulties in implementing anything ‘e’lectronic in the daily management of this essential service. Although IT research usually is oriented towards technical novelty and experimentation, the present research project finds the observed obstacles to increased IT use interesting precisely because of their ordinary, rather mundane character. It turns out that precisely the ‘non-research’ character of the difficulties makes them hard to address as a topic for the ‘2003’ project management: external money is not available, and internally, the Home Help Services are already stretched to meet the much-publicised increasing demand on their services. Thus, while experiments have been initiated in the HHS to save resources through increased use of ICT, the pressures of everyday running have not allowed the time for resolving the obstacles encountered. In summary, the service is busy doing their work and, while managers are using networked computers and might conceivably contribute to an e-government effort in the Home Help Services, the home help workers – who are closest to the users of the service – are not. The service would require a concerted effort focussing on IT use to remedy these problems.

Learning from Ronneby, a local authority wishing to embark on e-governance would need to ask of itself whether it is prepared for the considerable effort of building up new kinds of infrastructures of knowledge among its most ‘ordinary’ employees. Thus, issues at the heart of the possibilities of e-governance include: how will ‘all’ staff be trained? Will a technical support network that understands their specific needs and concerns be easily available for them?

Concluding findings for policy makers: Introducing an ‘Information-,’ ‘IT-’, or ‘Knowledge Society’ is an elusive endeavour. The popular terms cover a range of possibilities; even more clearly as Ronneby and others are trying to implement them. Broad coverage among citizens is particularly difficult to achieve. A reason seems to be that research funding and the project as a form of organising are well suited for exploring new possibilities, but poorly for implementing these broadly. Another reason is lack of inclusion of citizens in shaping such efforts, meaning existing differences may be preserved or magnified. Thus, if EU or national agencies wish to promote changes towards greater understanding and usage of ‘information’, ‘IT’, or ‘knowledge’, the focus should be placed on citizen and employee involvment, evaluation and broad scale implementation of previous experimentation.

This post-doctoral research project formally ends 24 January 2002. Documen-tation of the research will continue after this date; a book is expected in 2002-2003. The project is funded by the Norwegian Research Council. The project has had regular contacts with Blekinge Tekniska Høgskola and with other researchers mostly in the UK, Norway and Sweden.

Information on Ronneby:

Please contact:
Eevi E. Beck, University of Oslo, Norway
Tel: +47 2228 4408