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e-government: Amazon or Wikipedia?

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Back when there was such a thing as e-commerce, before shopping online became invisible through its banality there was a related concept:e-government. The idea of e-government was that governments or more accurately the State could interact with citizens online. The benefits e-government champions hoped for were convenience for the citizen and reduction of costs for the state.

What happened to e-government? Tom Steinberg of My Society tells us that governments don’t have websites governments are websites. Tom writes “Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website. What else am I supposed to picture? Governments no longer just ‘own‘ websites, they are websites.”

Tom is quick to acknowledge that even in developed countries such as Britain many people don’t have online access, or that many encounter the State through physical infrastructure, prison for instance. (You can read and resist the rest of his post for yourself.) But if the State is not quite yet a website for many millions of people it seems at least likely that it soon will be. if so then what kind of website do we want it to be?

Think about the experience of buying something from an online retailer like You run a search for a product and are presented instantly with an number of options. You can obtain a rapid price comparison. For each option you can can get information on the technical specifications, the marketers description of the product (even though the importance of this is fading), information on distribution, and most intriguing you can get information from other consumers. In turn you can not only contribute information to other consumers but also rate the utility of their comments. Once you purchase something you get an email confirming your order, and logistical information from the supplier.

While it is providing all this information to you the online retailer is also obtaining information about you. Its software can observe not only what you buy and what you pay but also what products you showed interest in, what items you searched for and how you rate what you purchase. It uses this information in the aggregate, but it also uses it to communicate more with you, to make recommendations based on your buying patterns, and customize your future interactions. Your interactions are information rich characterized by rapid collection and processing of information. The retailer probably doesn’t manufacture or even stock the goods that it sells you, instead it operates a complex feedback mechanism.

Now consider the best experiences you’ve had with government websites. In my best experiences of government websites the websites conveyed up to date, accurate, relevant information. Some enabled me to fill in forms online and a few even allowed me to submit the forms online, although these invariably involved the mule-stubborn user-hostile pdf. format, and a nerve racking submission process. And then think about the worst experiences of government websites you’ve had; out of date, irrelevant, clogged with high resolution pictures of the previous Minister, and often marred by hopelessly inaccurate information such as the laughable claim to copyright in official documents on the South African Reserve Bank website.

On even the best sites there is no feedback loop, there is no interaction with other citizens and there is no opportunity for the user to give the government information beyond the precise personal details needed to process a particular transaction. Even websites that provide slick services interfaces are not places where democracy is happening.

I would like better service interfaces or in some cases any service interface at all. But I don’t think that is enough. I’ve mentioned for a reason. The site doesn’t just enable me to find and buy a book quickly, it also enables a conversation with others about the book.  So even a website designed to maximise profits can support conversations, dare I say democratic conversations.

But do we want our experiences of  government to begin with the assumption that users are consumers or do we want them to begin with the premise that users are citizens? If we want the latter then we may question whether the design of government websites should set out to emulate Amazon or to emulate Wikipedia? I’ve pointed out some advantages that Amazon has the most governments websites lack. But I question whether that is as important as enabling citizens to pool knowledge and to hammer out agreements.

* Yes there are a few notable exceptions and you are welcome to link to them in the comments. But notice how exceptional they are.