FEB 7 2011

Separating the information from the medium – An inconvenient truth about e-government

by in E-Government 1 Comment

Nothing about the concept of e-government has really changed ever since the idea was conceived in the 1990s, if we are to be honest about it. The reason for that is, that the underlying logic of bureaucracy on which the concept is based on, has hardly changed. Only the technologies helping us implement that logic more efficiently, more effectively and in a more user-friendly way, look different today than they did many years ago.

Every day, the public sector has to deal traceably with an almost unimaginable and rapidly growing quantity of paperwork and is often legally mandated to archive these piles of “red tape” for many years. Before the age of information technology, knowledge (i.e. information in the shape of numbers, names, sums, permits, decisions, etc.) consisted of ink on paper. The only way to transport or archive this information was to transport or archive the paper. We need to take a couragous step back in our thinking in order to really comprehend how redundant our paper-based bureaucratic processes really are. It is hard to justify the enormous costs incurring from communication via (and the storage of information on) paper-based documents.

What we want e-government to help us with is in managing our modern societies electronically, by using ICTs to make the administrative process electronic. Ultimately, we do not want to store paper, but the knowledge contained on it, because it is the information we need, not the medium our ancestors created to transport it. This also means that we do not need to recreate the format of paper digitally.

Why are billions of documents today being stored digitally that visually look exactly like paper letters? Just in case we need to print them out again? It has to be enough to store the contained raw information and required meta-data (the actual content) in order to reproduce a letter at any time on-demand (and on the fly). E-government will only evolve into the actual electronic administration we want it to be, once the actual information is electronical managed, processed and used, instead of the digitized copies of paper files, as it is the reality today. It just does not make any sense.

In order to reach a stage of government where we have the ability to capture, analyze, exchange, process and publish information (in real time, with open interfaces) so we can provide our society with state-of-the-art services (open data, open government, government 2.0, interactive platforms, e-participation, e-services, etc.), we need the raw information – the data – not the documents. Imagine a skyscraper full of paperwork, and then the storage space that only the therin actually contained raw information would require.

Bureaucracies today treat the medium (paper) and the format (document layouts) as if it were part of the information, but it is not! Information is the oil of the 21st century, it is often said, but our bureaucrats seem to care more about barrels, pipes and cans rather than the liquid. It is only when we have managed to fully separate the information from the medium, that e-government can live up to its name – and potential.

In another blog post we will discuss why physical signatures are not the tiniest bit secure in comparison to electronic signatures, certificates and two-factor authentication – and pose the question where the commonly held belief comes from that a document with an ink signature should be any more legal than something consisting of bits and bytes.

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