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The Blurring of Government

Transformation is coming from all directions, particularly in technology. It's posing fundamental questions about the future of government.


Andrea Di Maio

Andrea Di Maio was a GOVERNING contributor. He is a vice president in Gartner Research, where he focuses on the public sector, with particular reference to e-government strategies.


Commented July 17, 2009

From: Lawrence Rosier Management Consultant Government Reform 573 364 8789 Subject: Advice on how to...

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At the end of this decade, governments worldwide are facing an unprecedented amount of pressure due to the combination of financial crisis and economic downturn, demographic and technology changes and some "e-government fatigue."

The deteriorating economic conditions are having a double impact on government authorities. On the one hand, scarce financial resources and tighter budgets are accelerating cost cutting. On the other hand, political priorities are rapidly shifting toward sustaining entire industry sectors, coping with mounting unemployment and stimulating the economy. This is creating unprecedented stress on several processes, such as public procurement, auditing and performance management.

Demographic changes introduce several challenges at both ends of the age range spectrum. Baby boomers are approaching retirement, which both carries a major stress to the social security and health care systems in developed countries and leads to significant changes in both the government workforce and the "customer" base. Generation-Yers are entering their productive lives, and their different set of values and expectations will impact governments both as service delivery organizations and as employers. In particular, social networking behaviors and the greater demand for transparency clash with the traditional top-down hierarchical and one-way style of interaction that is typical of government organizations.

Also, technology is impacting governments from different perspectives. It helps change individual behaviors, with increasing demand for personalization, reliance on the "wisdom of the crowd" and new ways to leverage public information. But it also challenges many of the assumptions that have driven government IT investments in the past decade, with the realization that government agencies do not need necessarily to run their own infrastructures or manage their own applications and data, but that they can rely on shared, centralized or external services as well as consider the adoption of consumer solutions in areas like collaboration, a trend that will be accelerated as generation-Yers enter the workforce. This is what Gartner calls the "commoditization" of government IT.

Finally, there is undoubtedly some form of e-government fatigue after more than 10 years of such initiatives around the world. A few years ago, it looked like the very term "e-government" would disappear, assuming that e-services and other e-government-specific achievements would become business as usual. However this has not happened and - although using different names (such as government transformation by technology or citizen-centric government), these programs have continued until now. While there have been many successes, few have achieved all the objectives set at the beginning. A good example is the i2010 initiative in Europe, which succeeded a previous eEurope program that had established a tight link between IT investments and economic growth and employment. The current state of the European economy indicates that the strategy did not succeed.

Our contention is that these drivers are creating a perfect storm for government IT leaders and e-government strategists in particular. As many e-government leaders are currently involved in developing strategies and plans for the next five years (2010-2015), those plans cannot just be a natural evolution of current programs but must constitute a significant discontinuity for governments to be able to weather this storm. Early strategies seem to recognize some of these elements, but none so far is looking at the deeper implications of the forces above. In particular, as the severity of the economic downturn has taken many by surprise, there has been insufficient articulation of the longer-term impact of the emergency measures that governments are taking to contain that impact.

The best way to describe changes happening in government is that all boundaries are blurring.

Jurisdictions are blurring, with globalized economic interests, migrant workers and the dematerialization of products that make their production, delivery and consumption happen across different jurisdictions and even nations and regions.

Government channels are blurring. The single point of contact that entire governments, as well as large agencies, have developed during the past few years will be complemented or gradually replaced by alternative entry points, including private-sector intermediaries, voluntary organizations and, more and more, communities enabled by social software. In some instances, these alternative intermediaries will not limit themselves to act as a value-added conduit to government vertical services but may start replacing government services, starting with informational ones.

The boundaries between service delivery organizations and their clients are blurring. Traditional government processes that operate within an agency boundary or through carefully determined interactions between different agencies (still a major challenge for many) will be gradually replaced by the composition of processes, some of still will bel managed by government, while others will be managed by third parties or communities. This implies that accountability changes, with government employees engaging with external social networks, and the decision making process for both service delivery and policy development and enforcement are being increasingly influenced by external non-government information.

As a consequence, boundaries among individual government employees, the citizens they serve, the suppliers they buy from and the public at large will blur. While the ideal workplace of today's case manager is centered around a decent case management tool, tomorrow the ability to actively participate in external networks as well as to collaborate informally with colleagues across different agencies and tiers of government will become far more important. Teachers will collaborate among themselves to develop courseware, but also with students who perform their home assignments and their parents who want to keep them engaged. Procurement officers will crowdsource solutions to problems and engage more closely with a much broader range of prospective suppliers, as opposed to drafting calls for tenders and evaluating responses.

Boundaries between the role of government as a data custodian and as a data owner are blurring. Traditionally, government organizations interpret their role of custodian of personal data as if they actually owned those data. But what if one changes the perspective and assumes that data could stay under their owner's control? What if it would be government that must ask permission to access those data? This was first explored by Ireland in its early e-government initiative and, more recently, with Google's and Microsoft's moves in the patient record space.

The boundaries of horizontal business processes - such as financial management, HR and procurement - are blurring, as they are subject to increased sharing and consolidation across agencies and jurisdictions, resulting in government organizations no longer owning or controlling them but being clients to other organizations, either inside or outside the public sector.

Last but not least, technology boundaries blur, with shared and consolidated solutions (which were already blurring the lines of IT management across agencies) evolving toward the adoption of commoditized infrastructure and applications as a service; with new identity and data management solutions that are under the direct control of citizens; and with increased collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries on the development of vertical applications.

The blurring of all these boundaries will pose fundamental questions about the future of government, its role in economy and society, the role of individual employees, and the way to ensure regulatory compliance and accountability.

Government business and IT leaders must start developing plausible scenarios of service delivery and process transformation in their own domains based on the emerging role of social networks. They also need to assess the adequacy of their current and planned government workplace for these transformation scenarios and start exploring the link between socialization of information and commoditization of government IT.

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