woman using sidewalk info kiosk

E-gov vs digital gov: What's the difference?

E-government, electronic government, internet governance, digital government, online government, connected government –- what's the difference? And does it even matter?

“One of the challenges of this era since we began is labeling, frankly” said Theresa Pardo, director of the Center for Technology in Government, launched in 1993 to help government leaders explore and experiment with "technical, organizational and institutional innovation.”

Over the last 24 years, CTG liked to use the phrase “digital government,” Pardo said. “But lots of folks have invested mightily in other labels, one of them being ‘e-government; another one is ‘e-governance.’”

To certain people in the academic and international communities, “e-government” has been something very specific and quite narrow in my view, which is “public-facing, transactional service-oriented kinds of capabilities,” she said.

“At CTG we have and continue to think of 'digital government' as kind of all of the above,” Pardo said, adding that the labels have been both helpful as well as a distraction. "We were talking to people about e-government or digital government from a CTG perspective, for example,” but the clients' understanding may not have been the same.

“A lot of folks have been doing digital government for a very long time in the sense that they’re thinking not just about public technologies to support public-facing websites, but they are in fact doing all kinds of interesting innovative things through a wide range of different technologies,” she said.

“With lots of changes around the world, we’re seeing more and more of this,” Pardo said. We’re also starting to see it more in Europe where people are ‘letting go’ of a lot these previous labels because they were too narrow, too confusing, or they set up debate unnecessarily.”

But whether if it's called e-governance or digital government, getting the information and communications technology to line up with a locality's social and institutional character is often easier said than done.

“We’ve seen governments too often struggle to apply a popular strategy, policy, or technological solution to their local context to no productive end,” according to an essay by Pardo.

 “We’ve also seen large central government agencies install multimillion dollar systems that fail for lack of consideration of the culture and capabilities of the intended user community. “We’ve seen small municipalities spend $50,000 on systems because they work for their peers only to discover too late that the system doesn’t work for them because of inherent differences in capability, structure, or management," Pardo wrote.

‘With no money left to make it work, their staff still do time cards by hand or collect data on clipboards, systems lay dormant and processes remain slow and mystifying for frustrated and underserved citizens and communities.”

CTG cited three lessons for innovators who want to use information and technology to improve government and serve society:

Pay attention to "phase zero." Make critical decisions and understandings explicit “before the beginning,” before a project team is fully established, before a timeline is set up, and before a budget is allocated or any technology decisions are made. Unspoken assumptions at the outset almost guarantee unnecessary delay.

Understand that capability is multidimensional. Technical advances make many innovations possible, but technical expertise is not enough. Assess different capabilities when approaching an innovation, including leadership, readiness, governance, data assets and technical capabilities.

Learn to work across boundaries. Information sharing is the foundation of complex inter-organizational networks of public, private, and non-profit entities. The challenges increase proportionally with the number of boundaries crossed, the number and types of information sources to be shared and the number of technical and organizational processes to be changed or integrated.

About the Author

Paul McCloskey is senior editor of GCN. A former editor-in-chief of both GCN and FCW, McCloskey was part of Federal Computer Week's founding editorial staff.

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