Despite occasional setbacks, digital government projects now appear firmly on the road to fulfilling their promise of making civil and political processes more accessible than ever.
Digital government or—following current technolinguistic conventions, e-government—can be defined as the civil and political conduct of government, including service provision, using information and communication technologies (ICT). Although the term represents and reflects only part of the long technological transformation most sectors in society have undergone, the government domain is unique with respect to ICT.
Government transcends all sectors in a society. It provides not only the legal, political, and economic infrastructure to support other sectors, but also exerts significant influence on the social factors that contribute to their development. Digital government, as a result, has the potential to profoundly transform citizens' conceptions of civil and political interactions with their governments. Unlike commercial service offerings, digital government services must—in most societies—be made accessible to all.
Further, the implementation of a public service often requires the integration of intragovernment ICT. Consequently, human factors, geography, organization, ontologies, security, data quality, and other issues must all be dealt with in ways possibly more complex than other application domains require.
Holistic visions of digital government have emerged over the past two decades. Simon Nora and Alain Minc, perhaps the most influential early progenitors of a comprehensive vision of digital government, advanced the notion of télématique
, the synthesis of telecommunications and computing. Their 1978 report, 1 The Computerization of Society
, to then-president of France, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, defined a vision for an industrial policy that would restructure civil and political society via télématique. 2
The report also identified roadblocks to implementing such a policy.
Enormously influential, the Minc and Nora report spurred deployment of the Télétel/Minitel videotext system by the French government in 1979. By 1995, Minitel provided more than 26,000 government services. 3
The current vision of digital government, however, is—like most other IT areas—dominated by the Web. Commercial Web services have clearly raised citizens' expectations of the service level that government agencies' Web-based offerings must provide. 4
Digital government systems can generally be characterized along two dimensions:
• the architectural relationship they have with their clients, and
• the type of service they can provide to their clients.
Architectures include intranets to support intragovernmental processes, public network access to facilitate government-citizen interactions, and extranets for supporting interactions between the government and nongovernmental organizations.
Generally, current digital government system designs provide one of four service levels: 5
• First-level services provide one-way communication for displaying information about a given agency or aspect of government.
• Second-level services provide simple two-way communication capabilities, usually for uncomplicated types of data collection such as registering comments.
• Third-level services facilitate complex transactions that may involve intragovernmental workflows and legally binding procedures. Examples of such services include voter and motor vehicle registration.
• Fourth-level services seek to integrate a wide range of services across a whole government administration, as characterized by the many emerging government portals. The eCitizen portal, developed by the government of Singapore, offers a prime example of this system type.
The progress made thus far in providing online access to government has received mixed reviews. As shown in the " Selected Links
" sidebar, in the US, unprecedented levels of citizen interaction with government agencies now take place over the Web. Citizens can easily retrieve congressional records, information about agency activities, forms, statutes, and regulations from government Web sites. Digital government also facilitates two-way communication and more complicated processes. Several US government agencies now let citizens file comments online about proposed regulations. The US Department of Agriculture, for example, received more than 100,000 electronically filed comments in 1998 for its proposed organic foods regulations. Citizens in Scotland can now create and file online petitions with their parliament.
Broadly speaking, however, digital government initiatives still need better solutions. Many problems—such as data integration or security interoperability—are ultimately technical in nature, but remain most apparent at developmental and functional levels. Todd Ramsey, IBM's head of worldwide government services, noted recently 5
that "[a]bout 85 percent of all public-sector IT projects are deemed to be failures."
Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions recently released the results of a detailed study of more than 1,800 state and federal Web sites in the US. 6
These results point to some major functional shortcomings of Web-based digital government. The study found that, overall, the "e-government revolution has fallen short of its potential." According to this report, areas that need improvement include disability access, the use of security and privacy policies, foreign-language translation, and consistency and standardization of Web site designs across government organizations.
Richard Heeks's sidebar, " Understanding Digital Government Project Failures
," underscores the complexity of the developmental factors affecting success and failure in digital government projects.
Development of a distinct digital-government research area has been accelerating during the past decade. Several major research centers have been established, including the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the State University of New York, Albany; the Digital Government Research Center (DGRC), jointly operated by Columbia University and the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute; and the International Teledemocracy Centre at Napier University in Scotland.
Major governmental initiatives have also been undertaken. The Italian government established the Authority for IT in the Public Administration (AIPA), an independent body charged with planning, promoting, and monitoring IT in the public sector. In 1991, Singapore's government commissioned its IT2000 master plan for research and development of a comprehensive e-government. In the " Electronic Petitions and the Scottish Parliament
" sidebar, Ann Macintosh writes about the e-petitioner system the new Scottish Parliament is using.
Several critical conferences and funding sources have emerged as well. In 1997, the Ford Foundation funded an invitational workshop on digital government hosted by the CTG and attended by researchers from Europe and North America. The US National Science Foundation started its digital government program in 1997, held interdisciplinary workshops on digital government in May 1997 and October 1998, and issued a major report by the participants of the latter workshop in March 1999.
Digital Government Research
This special issue contains an international spectrum of reports from the evolving area of digital government research.
Systems integration has been a major hurdle in implementing broad and comprehensive digital government infrastructures. In "Enabling Italian E-Government through a Cooperative Architecture," Massimo Mecella and Carlo Batini discuss a government-wide effort in Italy to address this issue. Related hurdles include combining systems and ontological integration with workflow support. The DGRC's contribution, "Simplifying Data Access: The Energy Data Collection Project," presents solutions to government-wide ontological integration. In "Managing Government Databases," Athman Bouguettaya and colleagues address the development of digital services that aid citizens in receiving services that require interactions with multiple agencies.
Security and privacy are critical and constant issues that arise in digital government. In "Digital Government Security Infrastructure Design Challenges," Arif Ghafoor and colleagues present a survey of issues and models being used to address security in a governmental context.
Two sidebars further illuminate the challenges and successes digital government projects have met with worldwide. In " Disseminating Information but Protecting Confidentiality
," Alan Karr and colleagues write about the development of statistical security techniques to protect citizens' privacy in digital government data systems. The sidebar by Joaquim Pinto and colleagues, " Portuguese Parliamentary Records Digital Library
," describes a new digital library system being developed to provide access to the Portuguese Parliament's records.
This work is supported by the National Science Foundation under grants 9972883-EIA, 9983249-EIA, and 9974255-IIS; ARO/EPRI under grant WO8333-02; a State of Indiana 21st Century Research and Development fund grant; and grants from HP, IBM, Intel, NCR, Telcordia, and Walmart.
Ahmed K. Elmagarmid
is a professor of computer sciences at Purdue University. His research interests include digital government, data quality, and video databases and multidatabases and their applications in telemedicine. He received a PhD in computer science from Ohio State University. He is a senior member of the IEEE. Contact him at email@example.com.
William J. McIver Jr.
is a senior scientist in the Scholarly Technology Group at Brown University. His research interests include social informatics, digital government, telemedicine, and advanced database applications. He received a PhD in computer science from the University of Colorado. He is a member of the IEEE Computer Society, the IEEE, the ACM, and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.