Improving access to Government through better use of the Web

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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.

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