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Never mind the service delivery, feel the citizen engagement

By Martin Stewart-Weeks - posted Thursday, 24 May 2007

The e-government project, broadly defined as the use of information and communications technology to improve the work of government, has been with us for a little over a decade. In that time, we’ve seen some steady progress, a few outstanding successes and some dispiriting failures. From that patchy track record emerge three insights.

The first is that the real challenge to make e-government successful is not technical, but cultural and organisational. Not surprisingly, we’ve worked out that realising the promise of new communication and collaboration technologies in government is much more about the people than it is about the machines and networks. Technology, it seems, we can pretty much do, give or take the occasional glitch. People and change, on the other hand, we find a lot harder.

The second insight is that e-government only becomes compelling when it become invisible, an integral part of the larger endeavours of public sector reform, democratic renewal, and the changing role of government in the knowledge economy.


And the third insight is that governments have been more motivated to embrace the potential of technology to lift the reach, convenience and quality of services than they have been to embrace the potential of the same technology to lift the reach, convenience and quality of the basic relationship citizens enjoy, or endure, with their governments.

Although the vision of “e-democracy” was at the heart of the e-government rhetoric from the beginning, the reality has been much less impressive. It’s worth briefly considering why that has happened.

I think there are three reasons. The first is that, as with the impact of these same technologies in the corporate sector, affording your customers (or citizens) more opportunity to participate in the processes of policy and government decision-making means a dramatic shift in the locus of power and authority.

The second is that, although technology creates opportunities for a much more equal and conversational relationship between governments and citizens, it can’t on its own shift deep-seated cultures of distance and disinterest which pervade much of what we experience as policy making and government.

And third, the technologies themselves have not, until recently, offered a relatively simple, accessible and reliable platform on which to fashion a whole new practice of open and collaborative policy making.

With the advent of new technologies of communication and collaboration, however, often grouped under the convenient, if mildly ambiguous title of “Web 2.0” this is beginning to change. Even if you are not all that familiar with these technologies - think Skype, wikis, podcasting, blogging, social networking sites like MySpace and Flickr and Wikipedia for example - you only need to know that their cumulative, and it seems irreversible effect, is to make it easier to harness the collective intelligence of massively dispersed communities of people and interests and their diverse experience and expertise.


These rapid changes and bewildering opportunities are conspiring to confuse the world of politicians and public sector managers. A new book, Electronic Engagement: A Guide for Public Sector Managers (ANU E-Press, 2007) by leading Australian e-democracy researcher and analyst Peter Chen, has arrived at just the right time, reducing a complex and evolving topic to a more manageable set of concepts and practices.

The aim of the book is to “equip public sector managers to assess the value that new communications and computing technology may bring to their interactions with a range of potential stakeholders. It is written for managers who have an interest in expanding their approach to public engagement, rather than information technology professionals.”

It sets out a typology of engagement consisting of three distinct activities - active listening, cultivating and steering.

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About the Author

Martin Stewart-Weeks lives in Sydney. Previously, Martin held positions with the Liberal Party of Australia, the NSW Cabinet Office and was Chief of Staff to a Minister in the Fraser Government.

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