The February 16th issue has a feature on e-government headlined "The electronic bureaucrat." I've just got through it. First, kudos to Jeremy Gould for being marked out as a guy with an excellent blog - and, whilst it doesn't say it directly, one of the few on the payroll civil servants with any kind of a blog let alone an excellent one.
I thought there were some great threads to pull out and, cheekily, I've followed some of the bullets with slides from my collection of moderate hits, 2000-2004:
1. Inevitably e-government doesn't exist by itself. It must merge and conform to the physical word. The example is for those looking to get a visa for America: you apply online, pay money online, get an email confirmation, print it and then take it to the embassy in London (or doubtless elsewhere) where they check the barcode, allow you access, and let you collect your visa. A brilliant melding of a process that needs you to be there but doesn't need you to be there the whole time.
4. i-government is the most prevalent form of e-government. That is, putting everything you possibly can online is still very common. In the early days of the web this was called shovelware or brochureware. And it is still depressingly common. It's better than not having it online, but it doesn't deal with the massive and inevitable duplication, the confusion that entails when different pages (let alone different sites) appear to contradict each other and, as The Economist says, it doesn't mean that when you do eventually interact, your service will be any better.
6. The digital have-nots number in the billions. My late and very dear friend, Angela Vivian, campaigned tirelessly (ok, so she tired everyone else out, but she was, herself, tireless) on this very topic for years. Whilst internet access has increased in the UK it flattened out in the high 50s percent (nudging 60% now, but only just), as it has in other developed countries. In less developed countries, it hasn't even got to the high 5s or 10s. The Economist refer to a Southern Indian State, Andhra Pradesh, that appears to have achieved enormous things with a project called "e-seva" - essentially, public service offices where Internet access is available and transactions can be completed (paying bills such as electricity and telephone, where the service is still doubtless nationalised and so part of government - just like banks in the UK). It's an impressive looking set of services and with only 119 centres they see 110,000 transactions a day. The population of this state is over 75,000,000 - not very much bigger than the UK, and certainly economically different. I believe that this total of transactions is greater than that carried out in the UK at present, assuming they're all carried online in India (and I suspect they're electronic at source - like a cheque process in a bank: the customer gives the paper, which is immediately rendered electronically and from then on the transaction is 100% online).
7. Proving. No scratch that. Defining the benefits remains hard. The UK is rightly given praise for trying to figure out a model for what an e-government project brings to the party. Whilst I was around when that was being done, it was nothing to do with me; but it needed to be done and was done pretty well. Other countries have tried (e.g. Australia) and found similar things - there's a general sense of e-government is better but if you try and pin down whether the public sector is smaller or the economy has benefited, well, you're going to struggle. Some of that is because figuring out the true transactional costs offline is already hard; and quantifying the saving and putting pound notes on it is even harder.
9. e-Government is only the beginning. There is so much left undone from the original vision - join up, citizen focused, simple government, direct access government. It doesn't matter which party conjured up the words, the intent was always the same. Make government more accessible to the citizen - in both directions.
It's a great article overall. It distills several years of learning into 16 easy to read pages. It has examples drawn from all over the world, although those from the UK tend not to be the most positive. Did we really need another story about the NHS and are ID cards and the NHS spine - not a £12.4 billion project by itself fact-checkers - as if it were the only global example of data aggregation?
That said, it's a backward look, i.e. mostly a catalogue of what people have done rather than what they could do. But by highlighting some real bright spots - the folks in DC for instance - the writers tantalise us with what we could do, if we got it together, crashed through the barricades and made it happen.