Features: February 25th, 2003

The Role of Information in eGovernment Implementation

By Thomas B Riley, Executive Director and Chair, Commonwealth Centre for Electronic Governance

This article was first published in eGov Monitor Weekly http://www.egovmonitor.com/newsletter/signup.asp

The role of information in all areas of the private sector and in government is now paramount for continued growth and stability in our societies. Information has become the lynchpin in the way we think, act and operate as a society. The necessity of citizen participation in the evolving eGovernment infrastructure will be accentuated as governments take their services more and more online. Citizen engagement, effective abilities to access government information, and to use information as a tool in all aspects of one’s life, is important.

Recent research into eGovernment practices, applications, and successes and failures of government websites illustrates six basic principles:

  • citizen participation in the process of eGovernment will be inevitable if programs are to succeed
  • eDemocracy is a growing trend amongst outside groups but most governments are still very much struggling with the concept
  • eGovernance is changing the ways in which government does business with the public and, in the process, is creating demand for some form of participation from the citizen. This gives some credence to the ongoing thinking that eGovernance will eventually incorporate some form of eDemocracy.
  • eDemocracy movements are founded on information precepts and engage in the sharing and developing of knowledge.
  • to influence government policy, programs or policy evolution the creation and sharing of knowledge by governments to the public is going to become mandatory
  • information and knowledge sharing are now essential in an age that is creating worldwide change and spurring us into a new Renaissance.

However, for any of these premises to take full hold in society it is increasingly important for governments to have practical, effective, easily accessible and useable websites and other ICT applications that give citizens access to the vast resources of information that public sector organizations own. Information, in all its manifestations and usages, is becoming the lifeblood of our societies and our working and personal lives.

This new era of information evolution is now part of three important fields:

  • information Management
  • knowledge Management
  • change Management.

Information management

Information can now be distributed, exchanged, formalized, used, and networked at speeds never before known. While arguments might be made that much information is chaff and really of no consequence or use, the fact is there are many using it in a multitude of disciplines and in their daily lives. Receiving daily spams into our email boxes creates cynicism and disillusion about the potentiality of our new technologies. Colleagues and friends sending us papers, articles, interesting urls, news clips, discussions, and on and on, creates frustration in many and a sense of overwhelming incomprehension as to how to channel all this information.

Yet, as information escalates and appears to be getting out of hand, due to the sheer enormity of it all, hundreds of software tools are emerging to better take control of the deluge. Online columnists, people who run their own blogs, information management specialists, knowledge management prophets, touting the organizing of information into knowledge, are not simply random and chaotic changes but rather a symptom of the change itself. We have moved from the Information Age to a new age we have yet to fully define. This coming age is making it difficult for eGovernment specialists and government officials who have to implement it, because there is not enough understanding yet of the nature of information and the impact it is having, as a new future and a new culture are being created.

There is a potentiality for change at work, which we have not witnessed since the emergence of printing in the 15th century. The creation of the printing press resulted in the spreading of information and knowledge, which led to a Renaissance of ideas about society, eventually resulting in the demise of the divine rights of kings, the leap into the Industrial Age, saw the emergence of enlightened democracy, and then the evolution of human rights, accountability, and transparency mechanisms in many countries of the world.

Looked at from the perspective of history it is easy to understand that this evolution occurred over the past four centuries. Part of the reason for this slow evolution was the distances in the past. Ideas traveled, but they did so slowly for many reasons, one of which was the distances to transport people, information, knowledge and ideas. As transportation improved and the time between distances was shortened, ideas and creativity escalated. The twentieth century was, in many respects, the age of transportation because it brought globalization (which in terms of trade emerged in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries) to a new phase. Mass transportation of the late twentieth century connected the world, spread ideas faster and farther, and has assisted in the spread of civil societies. The economic and social issues of poverty have not subsided but certainly the spread of knowledge has increased.

Now information is shared instantaneously for those who have the means to take part in this transfer. Now with new technologies we are facing another phenomenon. Speed. This escalation of the sharing of information globally in a constant movement of information and within short bursts of time and distance is creating a new potentiality – the acceleration of the expectations of the mind and the potential to create new pools of knowledge in instantaneous and real time environments. Many scientific labs, research organizations in corporations, academics, and government officials, share on a continuous basis, and not simply by the attaching of documents by email, sending emails or engaging in online chats. More, much more, than this is occurring.

Research and idea development are proceeding in continuous and instantaneous flows. Networks of communities of interest allow non-stop flows of work and generation of discussions, research and conclusions. For example, someone at Harvard, in a chemistry lab, could be working on a formula that has been created as a 3D image. This could be sent to a colleague in Japan who would look at it, do an analysis and make comments (while the colleague in America is out of the lab or sleeping). When the colleague in America comes back to the lab he continues the work from the new point onwards. Thus research such as this is now going on all over the planet and never stops. This allows the acceleration of research findings and creates knowledge faster, which has an overall benefit for society. There are thousands of examples of this happening in the network of communities of the world.

Engagement is at all levels of society from the profound to the trivial (and who’s to say which is which?) We live amidst a non-stop invisible current of change. It is the phenomenon of the new technologies that is creating an environment which was not possible even a few short years ago.

Knowledge management

We are now into a new Renaissance. This is the Renaissance that is bringing new forms of thinking and acting. We are creating a connected world of information, knowledge and ideas. People of the world are now engaged, through cyberspace, in ways never before envisioned. Dialogue, whether it be about politics, about entertainment, about a particular group’s interest, about family, or any issue of the day are non-stop. One might argue that this is simply a new “elephant” labouring to produce the proverbial “mouse”. In fact, what is being created are new potentialities of the mind. Change is always difficult to perceive as so many of us think through ideologies of the past (in this case, the past is literally two minutes after you read this, as the rate of change is accelerating so rapidly) or through preconceived notions that we evolve as we pass through our lives.

As our world was so different from a mere 25 years ago, we will not recognize it 25 years from now. We are on the brink of a new world. If the 15th and 16th centuries were about the exploring and opening up of the planet, the late 20th and early 21st centuries are about the exploration of the new terra incognita of the mind and the shift that is taking place in the mind.

Change management

It is this impulse of universal change that makes Information Management, Knowledge Management and Change Management so important. eGovernment is running into glitches and problems of implementation around the world. The success rate varies from country to country. It is important that any government, at whatever economic or political level, takes cognizance of the fact that we are in a period of a seismic change. It is a worldwide phenomenon.

This is all about acceleration of the mind – the joining up of information and knowledge faster than the speed of light. This creates exponential growth, sets the climate for originality and the birth of new ideas. This time-distance and potentiality is, literally, an acceleration of the way we think – it is the literal adaptation of our minds into a new frontier. We, in this time, are experiencing not only a new Renaissance but a leap in evolution of the human species. Evidence is all around us when we look, even in a shallow way, at the rate of change that has occurred in the past three decades in politics (much cynicism, while at the same time the growth of an eDemocracy movement), the sciences, medicine (the development of a host of new drugs, the retardation of some diseases, discoveries in DNA, stem cell research and now, possibly, cloning), entertainment which has evolved into pirating of music and movies as an acceptable way of life, and the multitude of other changes that apply to all aspects of society and our lives.

It is difficult to be in government today facing all these changes. Traditional approaches to politics and public administration continue to work at many levels of government and society. But the nature of information has changed and it is now important that governments around the world, at whatever level, begin to change their attitudes and practices in regards to their information resources.

Governments have always been considered to be the largest library in any jurisdiction because of the enormity of their information holdings. Perhaps the Internet is now the largest library in the world given the billions of web pages, joined up chat rooms, newsgroups, listservers, etc. Many innovative individuals and creative groups are seeking to create pathways to knowledge and understanding through the use of new technologies and the Internet. It now behooves government to develop tools to use their information resources, lying in the nooks and crannies of their agencies, to contribute to, and reinforce, the rapid evolution of knowledge that is taking place at this point in our history.

Information and knowledge are the lynchpins of successful eGovernments. The significance of the growth of ICTs, new technologies, the Internet and the rapid deployment of information and creation of information is the “potential” for change these phenomena are creating. The importance of these developments, and the potential for change they bring, make it necessary for us to be on guard about the incursions on our information and privacy rights that are now occurring. The heat of the moment is creating the potential for society to step back. Strong information rights, enshrined or improved in law, is the essential for the full potential of progress and change to be met.

A one-day seminar and training session will be held in Ottawa on April 11, 2003, on Change Management and Information Democracy, where these issues will be further discussed and explored. For full details click here.

Thomas Riley is the co-Founder, Chair of the Board and Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Centre for Electronic Governance, a think-tank set up under a Commonwealth Secretariat programme in London. He is also the President of Riley Information Services, a consultant and advisor specialising in national and international IT policy development, and a Visiting Professor of Law and Technology at the University of Glasgow. For further information he can be contacted at Tom@Rileyis.com

Other articles by Thomas Riley

Change Management and the Relationship to eGovernment

Privacy Trends: Meeting New Demands

eDemocracy in a Changing World

Thomas Riley’s independent opinion appears courtesy of Prospect – a recruitment consultancy committed to ‘enabling better futures’ and sourcing the people to drive eGovernment. For further information go to http://www.prospectmsl.com/ or email info@prospectmsl.com