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Interview with Prof. Jane Fountain about the future of e-government

Our editor R.Erdem Erkul spoke to Prof. Jane Fountain about the future of e- government. Jane E. Fountain is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Previously, she served for 16 years on the faculty of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Professor Fountain is the founder and Director of the National Center for Digital Government , based at UMass Amherst, which was established with support from the National Science Foundation to build research and infrastructure for the emerging field of research on technology and governance. The National Center has sponsored research workshops, seminars, doctoral fellowships and visiting researchers from around the world in addition to its active research programs. more...

What should we understand from the term e- government in the most general sense?

In the most general sense, e-government is like e-commerce, in that it refers very broadly to the use of the Internet, other networks, digital tools, applications and architectures to improve governance. By governance, we mean carrying out the functions and responsibilities of government working in partnership with private sector firms and nonprofit organizations or NGOs. In many countries, m-government, the use of mobile phones for online information processing and transactions is a variant of e-government. What we have tried to do in developing the National Center for Digital Government is deepen and broaden the research base to build understanding of challenges that lie at the intersection of social and information sciences in the areas of governance and democracy. This was the purpose of the U.S. National Science Foundation when they sponsored the National Center for Digital Government.

Is e- government an effective tool in public service provision? For which services?

It is now clear after nearly 15 years of experience in many countries that e-government is a highly effective tool for public service provision. We can divide services broadly into G2C, government to citizen, and G2B, government to business, to encompass services to citizens and services to business. Within government information transfer, G2G, or government to government, is important as well, and often serves to improve public service production and delivery.

E-government is highly effective for information-intensive services such as record keeping, updating records, and standardized transactions of many kinds. These cross the boundaries of several policy domains. Forms, requests, transactions, records are effectively handled through e-government. These services include social services -- for example, pension benefits, medical payments and records, student loans and education records; transportation services, for example, licensing and registrations for drivers and vehicles; and business services, for example, building certificates, licensing, registrations, trademarks and patenting. These are simply a small subset of the many services that are available “anytime, anywhere” online.

For the past two years, I have been part of the World Economic Forum Global Advisory Committee on the Future of Government. As we have developed topics for discussion at the annual meeting in Davos, we are moving beyond a focus on services to a deeper meaning for e-government.

What are the novelties e - government brought into the public administration in terms of its theory and practice?

The field of public administration is of fundamental importance because this field encodes the principles of good government and the roles and functions of civil servants in the development and protection of good government. Yet public administration has been catching up with the rapid pace of change due to technological innovations in government. Three novelties that have been central to public administration include, first, networked government; second, privacy; and, third, the role of civil servants as knowledge and information specialists.

Networked governance refers to the shift from vertical bureaucracies that are separated from one another by strict adherence to bureaucratic jurisdiction to cross-boundary and collaborative relationships across bureaucracies. The issue of privacy is central to democracies and public administrators play a key role in protecting the privacy of citizens in a digital age. As governments build their role as central information gathering, processing and sharing entities, the role of civil servants in making knowledge and information available to improve society and the economy also is growing.

Should the social media tools be related to e- govenment? If yes, how?

As you know the presidential campaign of Barack Obama was notable for its use of information and communication technologies and, specifically, its use of social media or Web 2.0, tools. These tools have encouraged deliberation, knowledge sharing, public participation and innovation. The current Obama administration is experimenting with the use of social media inside the government as well as across the boundary between the formal institutions of government and its citizens. A few of the ways that social media is related to e-government include opportunities for citizens to make their voices heard, that is, to increase the level and depth of public participation. Moreover, the U.S. and other countries are experimenting with “distributed knowledge,” the use of many individuals and groups to solve complex challenges. For example, citizens might help the government solve problems through their input and ideas. Crowdsourcing and similar methods bring the knowledge of thousands to bear on complex challenges. Here are two simple, but powerful, examples that move us beyond the traditional views of e-government to more recent examples that involve crowdsourcing and other forms of what we are calling computational social science. Volunteer bird watchers work with eBird, a major project of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, the largest laboratory of its kind in the world. Thousands of citizen scientists track migratory patterns across North America for hundreds of species of birds. The detailed micro level information gathered by individuals is synthesized by the laboratory. It could not be collected without “many hands.” It is one of many projects at the lab’s Citizen Science Central at Similarly, the Galaxy Zoo project at Oxford University organizes the work of more than 150,000 people who are combining their observations of the galaxies and how they work. (See

What do you think about will be in term of e- participation and e- democracy?Is it possible to achieve them by today's e- government practices?

There are two views of public participation in the digital age. In one view, those who have not been active as citizens are likely to remain inactive. But in a different view, the low cost of public participation online may bring many more citizens to become active in public affairs. Local neighborhood groups might form to track and evaluation education, traffic, environmental issues, stray cats and other challenges.

The immediacy and local importance of some of these possibilities for participation might motivate more citizens to become involved. The key will be whether citizens fear that their government or politicians will track their participation and activities on the web.

One of the central benefits of social media and e-government is the focus on active participation of many. Earlier models of e-government treated the citizen as a consumer who would passively receive more and better services from the government. This is an unbalanced view of democracy. Active, informed citizens are at the core of democracy.

You travel to many countries for conferences. What are the factors effecting the level of e- government penetration? What are reasons for differentiation between countries in terms of using ICTs?

As a political scientist, the variation in country responses to the Internet and digital technologies is fascinating and important to understand. The starting point for e-government in most countries is the status quo in the country in terms of technology, economy, culture and society and the country’s vision for the future. For some countries, e-government is viewed as a means to make government smaller and more efficient. In other countries, e-government is viewed as a catalyst for a variety of government reforms that might include greater transparency, less corruption, more openness and public participation – in short, a deepening of democracy.

It must be said that in still other countries, a primary goal of e-government is increased control and surveillance. So, in each case, the fundamental perspectives on the appropriate role of the state and of the relationship between state and society is the key driver in e-government priorities and strategies.

We see that you use the term "virtual state" more than you use "e-government". What is the relationship between the two concepts?

In political science many scholars typically focus on the structure and role of the state. We have streams of research on the imperial state, the administrative state, and so on. My goal in using the term “virtual state” was to emphasize a connection with streams of theory and research on the nation state.

The popularity and use of the book, Building the Virtual State: Information Technology and Institutional Change, and its translation into several languages conveys, I believe, the interest of scholars and government leaders in political and institutional development of the state. Much of the attention in e-government studies has been highly applied and practical. While these perspectives are important, they ignore major questions about the nature, structure and behavior of the state in a digital age.

Some have misinterpreted my use of the term to imply that I believe the state is going away or becoming less important. I don’t believe that at all. But I do think that the Internet and digital tools and applications have an important effect on the institutional forms and arrangements by which we govern.

What do you see in the future of e- government?

I see great promise and transformation on several fronts as part of the future of e-government. But here I want to call attention to some of the dangers of e-government. At a presentation I made at Princeton University in May 2009, I drew attention to three important issues. First, there are grave problems with the security of the Internet and content on it. During the past few years, we have experienced growth in cyberattacks between countries and, within countries, control of the Internet to repress free speech. In Burma, web-based communications were “shut down” during the Saffron Revolution. It is claimed that Russia closed down web-based communications in the Republic of Georgia before the conflicts there. These are two of many examples.

Second, although the Internet is currently a global network governed by ICANN, the future of this governance structure is not assured. It will be imperative to maintain secure, stable governance of the Internet in the future. Moreover, the Internet must serve all countries. How will it grow to handle increased traffic?

A third challenge is what has been called loss of “the Commons.” Increasingly, information that should be free on the Internet is becoming monetized. The increasingly marketization of information and knowledge, including government information, is deeply troubling and carries important implications for societies.

To conclude, e-government brings great promise for economic savings, knowledge sharing, faster transactions and more. But at the same time, there are a host of fundamental governance challenges that must be addressed as societies move forward.


R. Erdem ERKUL ; Thank you so much Prof. Fountain...



* This interview was made to be published in the Informatics Magazine of Turkish Informatics Association. ( ( in Turkish )

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