E-government has become one of those words that is used frequently and has a wide range of references—just like e-democracy, e-voting, or e-commerce. It is the “electronic” aspect of the term that is the key variable in improving both the democratic systems of government and the lives of citizens. Yet caution should also be taken because an expansion of e-government has the potential to cause a reduction in individual privacy due to expanded opportunities and tools to conduct surveillance. In this entry, background information, including the definition, concept, and early history of e-government, is presented, followed by a review of how various scholars view the increase of technology within a government. The entry concludes with a look at the potential ramifications of e-government.
An analysis of what e-government is should be considered in the broader context of governments’ changes and the “reinventing-government” processes that began in the United States in the 1970s—and then affected Europe as well—to reform the public sector in response to the rising crisis that involved many nations. This phenomenon was written about in Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler in 1992. The goal was the decentralization of the key functions of internal decision making for government decisions. With the introduction of information technologies, the long process of reinventing was strengthened. There was an awareness that information technologies could create four main benefits for the reform process: (1) economic benefits (producing the same results at a lower cost), (2) increasing production (more outcome at the same cost), (3) fast productivity (more outcome at equal cost and less time), and (4) improved results.
In this framework, new technologies and the Internet make government reform cheaper, faster, and better but bring about issues such as redesigning government structures and processes, all of which encompass e-government.
Initially, e-government was used like a modern expression or a buzz word, and different definitions of the concept emerged. People started to apply the attribute “electronic” to different fields of new technologies and politics, causing confusion and a lack of any real rigor, as well as adding very little to the sense of what was added by this new electronic factor.
In this way, e-government has frequently been seen as an administrative experiment rather than as a lasting part of the complex governmental process. This is not the only way, but it is a restrictive way to define e-government. E-government is a dynamic process that calls into question the very form of government and affects the institutional innovation as a whole. Any attempt to reduce this phenomenon to the online public administration is an understatement.
With the emergence of a new virtual space, the arenas of government power extend from the international and supranational levels to the virtual world. The new frontier of the Internet changes not only the structures but also the processes of government. The innovations, in fact, slowly slip into the bureaucratic logics that underlie the modern state. These promote the effectiveness and efficiency of government action, reducing the discretion of the government bureaucracy.
Scholars such as Andrew L. Shapiro, Peter Drucker, and Don Tapscott identified the increased use of digital technologies with the emergence of a technological revolution that can overthrow the old paradigm of the vertical distribution of power in favor of a greater democratization of society. In the 1970s, Kenneth Laudon, in his “vision of citizen technology,” imagined a citizen that, thanks to modern technologies, is aware that he has the power and tools to relate to the institutions that surround him.
On the other side, however, are those like Joseph S. Nye, who looks at the “soft power” of information technology as a tool of great seduction or coercion, or someone like David Lyon, who is concerned about the “electronic eye” and the greater power of control that the states—as well as the private sector—can obtain through the use of technology.
One of the most worrisome dimensions of e-government is one that envisages that behind the e-government’s tale is hiding an enormous power of control and surveillance by governments that could be called “e-eye” for their ability to monitor endless items. In the name of e-government—and, from the beginning of this millennium, also in the name of national security—is increasing the government’s demand for sophisticated technological solutions for encryption, security, information sharing, and interactive communication. But this progress would bring with it the specter of the “Big Brother.” The sophisticated technology would allow governments (as well as potentially other organizations) total control over their citizens’ behavior, resulting in a growing exasperation of the logic of surveillance. Decisions that affect citizens will be less and less dependent on direct contact and increasingly based on digital information stored in huge databases. Thus, a new type of society is gradually evolving—the surveillance society.
Gradually, over the centuries, we have moved toward a “policed society,” as stated by Gary T. Marx, in which the state and the market seek to exercise control over increasingly large geographical areas. Today, with the growth of national and international economies, and the welfare state, and with the extension of the Internet, surveillance expansion enables collection of personal information. This information can be used to boost trade or create uniformity to the point that it is worth asking whether we are heading toward an open society with an open government—which offers free access to all—or to ward a secret society, more and more closed, which uses information technology to monitor and control.
See also Governmentality ; Gramsci, Antonio ; Kafka, Franz ; Marx, Gary T.
Drucker, Peter. “The Next Information Revolution.” Forbes ASAP, v.8 (1998).
Laudon, Kenneth C. Dossier Society. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Lyon, David. The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1994.
Marx, Gary T. “The Surveillance Society: The Threat of the 1984-Style Techniques.” The Futurist, v.6 (1985).
Nye, Joseph, Jr., et al. Why People Don’t Trust Government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Osborne, David and Ted Gaebler. Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Books, 1992.
Shapiro, Andrew L. The Control Revolution: How the Internet Is Putting Individual in Charge and Changing the World We Know. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 1999.
Tapscott, Don. Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1998.