Improving access to Government through better use of the Web

Seventeeth months ago, the W3C Team started to look into a somewhat new area for W3C, eGovernment. You know, the way in which government agencies, departments and the like are using technology (mainly the Web) to develop services and communicate with their citizenry, the industry and between themselves.

Why? Well, the massive use of Web technology to develop and deploy those services already made the Web a crucial tool for eGovernment.

We have learned quite a number of things so far. Services are getting more and more sophisticated. It’s not just that you can get information online or download a form, fill it and walk to a government office in person to give it to a public servant. You can do the whole process online. What is more, in some cases, the “paper” service is even disappearing and users are faced with just its online incarnation.

At this moment in time, is more important than ever to do things well, and Web standards are in the heart of it. In the rest of this post, I review some of the most important challenges we found so far, and what we are proposing to tackle them.

Governments are spending huge amounts of money in building those services but their usage (especially of those availables for citizens) is low. Originally, governments were putting services out there in the same way they’ve been doing for years. You, as a potential user, need to know what government agency is in charge of a given service in order to be able to find it and use it. This was not working well. Citizens are not aware of the government internal structure. Fortunately, things are changing and governments are putting strong effort in building a citizen-centric experience. This means that they put themselves in the role of their users and try to build what the users expect. Part of this effort are the so called “one-stop stops”, government portals where, no matter what agency or department is in charge of a given service, are built in terms a user can understand and make available the whole offer of government services on the Web.

Governments are finding benefits in using open standards, so many W3C standards are used to build those portals and services, and the Web Accessibility Content Guidelines (closer to turn 2.0) are among the most widely known and used. What is more, many are building their own National Guidelines for Public Sector Websites or, more generally, their Open Standards policies on their own.

Going back to the portals. Do you know what the one of your government is? Don’t be afraid if not. Most don’t. And most of the times the number of services available there are in the several hundreds or well over a thousand ones… Anyway, you try going to a search engine and many times you find the information you are looking for somewhere else or don’t find it at all.

Governments are recently putting much effort in engaging users in the use of these online services. The portals are a step in the right direction and another is to put the information where the users are looking for it, on the Web sites they use regularly to find videos, photos, information. This requires more resources and new expertise and new challenges arise. For example, if a government agency puts up a blog and get comments, what should it do with them? What if those comments could eventually improve the information that the government already had about the information exposed? How do the new information compare to the authoritative one that the agency already had in its systems? All good questions, most still unsolved.

This increasing effort in getting the users participating more is also accompanied by a increasing one in getting the most information out there for them, also not without challenges. It’s usually very difficult to discriminate from the information the government already has, which one can be made public a which one cannot. In case of doubt, government tends not to release information. It’s too risky.

There is a clear need to improve information systems. They need to evolve into smarter ones. On one hand, it’s important to annotate the provenance of the data archived there somehow, so other systems could query it and learn for what purpose that data was collected and if it’s reusable or not and until what extent. On the other, it’s about time to end with information silos and achieve a seamless integration of data. Semantic Web is here to help and there is an increasing number of successful use cases already. And once you are there, why not open your data? I’m sure you are aware of the usefulness of many application mashups, can you imagine what new possibilities government data mashups can open? Maybe the Open Government Data Principles could give you a hint on why this would be a good idea.

Is this all? Of course, it’s not. There are other eGovernment challenges out there (identity, security, integrity…) and some are not just government specific but would need a solution somewhere else (e.g. other technical Activities at W3C), but we believe we need to start simple and somewhere, and these are the most important and the ones that came up more often during the exploratory work so far.

We believe that the challenges described here are common to governments all over the World and that a collaborative effort between governments, industry, citizens, academia and other civil societies would have a strong beneficial impact in addressing them.

If you find this interesting, you are welcome to join us in the W3C Australia eGovernment Tour 2008, four talks in three cities in seven days, coming soon to a city nearby (if you are in Australia, that is) and take a look at what we proposed as a next step at W3C and comment on it, the sooner the better.

3 thoughts on “Improving access to Government through better use of the Web

  1. Sorry I can’t get to Austrlia, I’m on the other side of the world in Scotland, but I agree that Governments are advancing in terms of their willingness to eGovernment. In the UK, the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) – a piece of legislation whereby any UK citizen should be able to accss any public document including Government, Universities, public records (births, deaths, marriages etc.) – in my opinion, has started the trend in the UK national and local goverment to embrace the web as the ideal place to deal with any FOI enquiries, as any request of information from a public body must receive a reply in 28 days or you can sue them! This has promted more and more data to be web-based so the public body can just refer you to the website, rather than physically mail you a policy or procedural document.

    My local government council have even went further. They publish almost every document that is available in print on their website and you can pay taxes and charges (such as parking tickets)etc. all in their website, whereas I know that even some university websites, students can’t even enrol online. You can even order/replace your rubbish bin (for those of you outwith the UK, that’s your trash can!).

    Not sure what’s happening elsewhere in the world, but this UK FOI government policy has really frightened local Government in the UK and now almost every public organisation has a FOI Officer or Manager to deal with requests – although I suspect the majority of requests are from journalists looking for filth on public figures!

  2. More than 10 years ago I was involved in the first attempt by the Victorian Government to provide a unifying place on the web for government services. We now call these places portals. Focus group research at the time told us loudly that citizens wanted information set out the way they thought about government services not in departmental groupings more familiar and comfortable for the public service.

    In 2002 we had a chance to refine our ideas and worked with the Victorian Government to develop the current Victoria Online portal. In both these projects there was an underlying desire to build online experiences that over time enhanced the relationship between government and citizen. We took good ideas such as “life events” and over used them which resulted in artifical constructs that did not overly improve the user experience.

    10 years later things are getting much more exciting because citizens are using Facebook, Myspace and Skype everyday to build relationships with their families, friends and work colleagues. Government sites can introduce these Web 2.0 facilities knowing their audience are familiar with the concepts and if valuable connections, information and services are provided significant economic and social value will result.

    At the 2020 Summit the Healthbook idea received great publicity and many of my colleagues recognised the value in solving the perplexing universal health record challenge may have just got easier. Instead of joining up government (which we know by bitter experience is very hard) this Healthbook idea intends to provide the citizen with their own secure “Facebook” like site to collect their own health data and they will be able to provide access to that data to health professional who they choose to provide access.

    We need to turn many of our standard web approaches on their head just like this and look at empowering the citizen with their systems and tools to achieve our eGov agenda. In this way the challenge becomes not to build the universal destination but rather to empower the citizen to navigate the omnipotent web renduring its enormous resources to “easy to use” solutions for service provision.

    This is an impossible task for any government but a task that may be achievable by all governments through incremental tools and applications built to robust standards.

  3. how can we use icts(information communication technologies) on service delivery in african countries basically african countries are lagging behind b’se most are ignorant about the use of icts how bets can we teach people really on how they can use them in developing countriess like in africa

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