October 4, 2016
The new eGovernment Benchmark 2016: A Turning Point For eGovernment in Europe? was published this week. Although many countries show progress toward the goals, the transformation is not happening as quickly as expected. Public services are increasingly accessible, with 81% available online. However, one area that disappoints is user-centricity. While business-related services have improved significantly, citizen-related services lag particularly in ease and speed of use. Results, however, differ by geography as delineated by a “digital diagonal” running from south-west to north-east. Those countries running diagonally through the middle of Europe seem to be digitizing more effectively. (See the figure to the right). Not all countries are transforming at the same pace – and not surprisingly.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “e-government” and “digital government” these days, and one thing bugs me: the push for online services. Yes, I like the convenience of being able to get things done online: renewing driver’s licenses, requesting permits, paying fines. But I also recognize that there are some things that might be better done in person. Yet not everyone has easy access to a government office. My own regional administration is over an hour away by car, and I certainly don’t want to have to go there to get things done. Therein lays a tension that isn’t necessarily solved by “digital services” but that can be addressed by “digital government.”
The recent EU report concludes that “key technological enablers… are not used to their full potential” but goes on to promote the use of mobile internet to facilitate citizen access. However, that’s not the only way governments can embrace new technologies. Governments around the world have been taking services out to the people throughout history, using the technology of the day. Post Offices used to deliver mail via Pony Express. When I was a kid we checked out books from the Bookmobile (and my parents still do). And, that practice is common across geographies with the means of transportation most appropriate to the country: motolibraries in India, bibliomulas in Venezuela, camel libraries in Mongolia and Kenya and more. These practices aren’t just anachronisms. With better cellular and wi-fi connectivity, these in-person service delivery mechanisms can be brought online. And, the model can be used for a wide range of other government services.
In fact, that’s what Boston does with their City Hall To Go. The initiative started with City Hall To Go Truck. Inspired by food trucks, the bright and friendly mobile City Hall truck serves city residents where they live, work and play – taking city services to the citizens rather than expecting the citizens to come to them. You can pay a parking ticket or your real estate taxes, get a copy of a marriage or birth certificate, request a permit for an event, apply for or renew a dog license or just inquire about any number of services. You can follow the truck on Twitter @CityHallToGo to find out when it’s coming to a neighborhood near you, or track it in real-time on the GIS-enable website. Following the success of the mobile City Hall, the city now plans to open Neighborhood Hubs where community liaisons will host office hours. Both On The Go initiatives leverage digital technologies to improve access to city services, but neither requires a citizen to go online. These programs reflect digital government – one that is digitally enabled but not necessarily digitally delivered.