For most of us, the idea of “government” is linked to a particular place. We associate government with a town hall, state house, or capital city and with the laws and policies that apply to the people and organizations located within a specific piece of political geography. Your local government provides fire protection, your state issues professional licenses, the national government defines what it means to be a citizen of your country. At the same time, we recognize that governmental jurisdictions and programs often overlap within a single country. Think about taxation structures, emergency services, transportation networks, and schools as just a few examples.
This pattern of overlapping governmental policies and activities increasingly goes beyond national borders. For example, any global business that collects personal information from customers must comply with the privacy laws of multiple countries. If you live and work in one country but are a citizen of another, all sorts of special international tax agreements apply to your income. The RFID chip or bar code in your passport will soon be checked by immigration officials all over the world. Government managers negotiating contracts with private sector companies are often not only outsourcing work but also “off shoring” it, along with associated accountability, to people and subcontractors subject to different laws in other countries. International law enforcement, intellectual property rights, and global trade and finance all operate simultaneously under the rules, practices, and cultures of different nations. Broad socio-demographic trends like migration of jobs and workers, global health concerns such as avian influenza and AIDS, and the environmental impacts of human activity are all concerns for governments on every continent. And all these international activities involve the collection, use, and management of information.
Decades ago, scientists at the Tavistock Institute in London coined the term “socio-technical system” to describe work processes that have equally important human and technical dimensions. Today, that idea has come to be applied in a much broader way to all kinds of systems. In the examples above, human, organizational, and institutional—in other words, social—considerations exist in a mutually influential relationship with networks, software, computers, and other devices—the technical element. Together, they make up the processes and artifacts of our world. The global phenomenon of “e-government” or “digital government”—a term coined by the US National Science Foundation (NSF)—embodies these concepts of complex and dynamic socio-technical systems that are only partly subject to prediction and control.
One response to the international importance of the e-government phenomenon is the emergence of a global network of professional digital government societies, established in 2006 in North America and Europe, with an Asian society to be launched in 2007. Across these organizations, digital government is seen as the use of information and technology to support and improve public policies and government operations, engage citizens, and provide comprehensive and timely government services. Accordingly, digital government research attempts to illuminate and explain this phenomenon by focusing on the intersection of computer and information sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and government challenges and needs.
European eGovernment Society
Today, digital government research is going on all over the world, but so far it has been confined mostly to work that can be done within the geographic and political context of a single country. However, given the growing influence and interaction of truly global economic, social, and political forces, the questions, risks, and opportunities embedded in digital government research are also expanding to international dimensions.
These investigations typically fall into five categories:
The Center for Technology in Government (CTG) has been involved in international digital government research since the mid-1990s when we joined a Quebec-US-Belgian partnership to study and compare 15 new service delivery collaborations among public, private, and nonprofit organizations in North America and Western Europe. Since then, we have participated in bi-lateral workshops, prepared a variety of international case studies, and collaborated on an effort to understand the global future of e-government. Our most ambitious international work is being carried out under a four-year grant from NSF that includes a reconnaissance study of current research, support for four international working groups, and an annual residential institute for doctoral students. To date, this work has most often involved partners in Europe, but we are now beginning to forge working partnerships in China and Latin America, as well as with global organizations like the UN.
These varied experiences are beginning to produce a set of methodologies for pursuing comparative and transnational digital government research that address difficult challenges related to the design, execution, language, culture, and context of any research effort that crosses national boundaries. Moreover, we are beginning to accumulate baseline findings about how trust, leadership, risk management, and communication and coordination play out in different cultures. The dynamics of organizational relationships, information and resource flows, and business processes—and ways to model them in universally useful ways—are high on our future international agenda.
All of these opportunities bring with them the rare chance to think globally and locally at the same time. While our research in the US is well-established, our links to partners in other parts of world inevitably add rich new dimensions and broader context to our work. In return, our research methods and results often have value to researchers who are tackling similar questions in other places. Most importantly, these ventures are helping to build a set of long-lasting mutually beneficial relationships that are laying the foundation for what we hope will be a sustainable international digital government community.
European Commission—eGovernment Good Practice FrameworkOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—e-Government Project, Country Reviews
UN Millenium Project—Task Force Report on Innovation: Applying Knowledge in Development
Sharon S. Dawes, Director, Center for Technology in Government