Electronic government or as it is popularly known e-government is defined as the use of information technologies such as the Internet, mobile communications, social media, online data analysis and cloud computing to: deliver public services, assist in administration of government operations, provide information and allow the public to interact directly with government organizations and individuals. Through e-government, state authorities can upgrade the quality of services they provide by streamlining the delivery of those services as well as making those services more responsive, efficient, cost-effective, interactive and timely. While a large number of nations have already implemented or begun to develop e-government policies (UN Survey, 2014, p. 15) as the world increasingly goes online the demands for the provision of e-government services will only grow.
Offline Services (pre e-government)
In 1998 if you were an American citizen arriving back from a trip abroad, you would be required to: fill out a declaration card; wait in line for an immigration/customs officer to inspect your passport and travel documents, ask you a few questions to verify your identity and, if the officer was suspicious, you would have to wait for the officer to manually check your name against a paper watch list document. If you were lucky, the whole process would take a few minutes, on the other hand if the lines were long, you might spend a considerable amount of time waiting before you got to go home. This was how life was like before e-government.
Still, there are a number of benefits offline government services. First, offline services limit digital divide issues. The digital divide describes the gap in opportunity and access between those who have access to information technologies and those who do not. Offline services offer those without access to a computer or mobile device, the ability to still make use of/have access to government services and information. Second, offline services provide security. To be sure, while one 350 GB hard drive can hold the personally identifiable information of millions of people, a hard copy of that same information would fill hundreds of books thus making it highly unlikely that someone could easily steal or sell that information without being noticed. Furthermore, offline services provide a certain level of privacy in that there are only a limited number of people who have access to your private information; moreover their ability to disseminate that information would be limited to a fairly small group of people (those that can actually see the hard copy personally) rather than having the ability to instantaneously disseminate information across the world that online services could allow. Third, there would be no need to spend money to build an infrastructure. Offline service have been around for the last century, the infrastructure for offline services is deeply in place and staffed by thousands of government workers that know and are comfortable working with the offline system. Accordingly, there is no need for retraining staff or installing new computers and networks. To be sure, the longevity of offline service proves that that system works.
Online Services (post e-government)
Today, if you were a citizen arriving back to Seattle Airport from a trip abroad to China, there would be no need to wait in line for customs inspection. Indeed, using your passport at an automated passport control kiosk, all you would need to do is answer the questions asked by the computer, scan your passport, take the printout and give it to the customs officer as you exit. This is how life is changing with e-government and the benefits of e-government service are not just available to travelers.
Despite its many benefits however, e-government is not without its problems. Three of the more daunting challenges that threaten the further development of e-government efforts are cybercrime, complexity and issues with privacy/confidentiality. As governments, private industry and the public make greater use of information technology, the risk that their online activities will be subject to a cybercriminal act also rise. Current news is full of attempted and successful cybercriminal acts against e-government services perhaps the most notable being the large-scale distributed denial of service attack that the Estonian government suffered in 2008 (Herzog, 2011). Accordingly, governments must take into account the fact that the provision of e-government services comes with the risk that those same services will be subject to cybercriminal attacks.
Second, the sheer diversity of government services makes an implementation of those services extremely complex. This includes installing cybersecurity features that protect sites from malicious attacks. Accordingly, governments must be sure that they have the technical know-how and support to handle issues of scale, breakdowns, outages and attacks in an effective and timely manner. Failing to accomplish this may affect future support for e-government services.
Finally, with so much information available online subject to cyber-attack and/or unauthorized access, privacy is a critical issue facing the further implementation of e-government services. This is especially pertinent following the disclosures of National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden on the ability of governments to access a person’s or company’s most intimate and private information. Unless, assurances can be made that privacy will be protected, the public may refrain from fully taking part in e-government services for fear that they will reveal too much.
The usefulness of e-government is without question. If properly designed, funded and administered, e-government has a number of potential benefits including: improvement in the type of government services available to the public as well as in the delivery of those services; the expansion of government oversight as well as simplifying compliance with government regulations; decreased in costs that government is required to provide its services and they transfer of those savings to the people; increases in government transparency as well as decreases in citizens confusion; increases in the level of citizen participation in government and, perhaps most importantly, strengthening of public trust and confidence in the integrity of the government. Still, e-government is difficult to get right and there are a number of challenges that will affect a successful implementation and must be considered carefully.
Executive Office of the President of the United States. (n.d.). Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People. Retrieved on June 26, 2014, from http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/egov/digital-government/digital-government.html
Herzog, S. (2011) Revisiting the Estonian cyber-attacks: Digital threats and multinational responses. Retrieved on June 25, 2014, from http://scholarscommns.esf.edu/jss/vol4/iss2/4
Kundra, V. (2010, December 9). 25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology. Retrieved on June 26, 2014, from https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/digital-strategy/25-point-implementation-plan-to-reform-federal-it.pdf
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United Nations Public Administration Network (2014). E-government Survey 2014. Retrieved on June 26, 2014, from http://unpan3.un.org/egovkb/Portals/egovkb/Documents/un/2014-Survey/E-Gov_Complete_Survey-2014.pdf