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 anyones 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
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.
The Home Help Service
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.