Leapfrogging e-government

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Looking back at this post on E-government - another chance to leapfrog?, I now realize I may have gotten it wrong. The real opportunity for some governments is not to develop more participatory and easy-to-use websites. Whatever solutions a government comes up with - even one as cool as Estonia's TOM that allows citizens to comment on laws and propose new legislation - will quickly become outdated by the development of new and better internet tools. Why not get the public sector out of the business of creating end-user internet solutions and instead get the private sector to do it?

At least, that's the proposal offered in a new paper in the Yale Journal of Law and Technology called Government Data and the Invisible Hand (Hat tip: Giulio Quaggiotto). While David Robinson et al. focus on e-government in the US, a lot of what they say could apply with some caveats to a lot of developing countries. Here's the heart of their argument: 

In order for public data to benefit from the same innovation and dynamism that characterize private parties’ use of the Internet, the federal government must reimagine its role as an information provider. Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, it should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that “exposes” the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data.

I think the crux of the issue is that even if a government makes its data publicly available through a website, the sheer volume or poor organization of the data can make it utterly unusuable for the average citizen. That's where the private sector comes in. And Robinson et al. already point to a number of interesting examples in the US (I'll just point to just two of them):

  • Govtrack.us: Created by a graduate student in his spare time, this site aggregates information from multiple government sources to provide portraits of Congressmen, Congressional committees, and the like.

  • Maplight.org: Similar to govtrack.us, but this site brings together information on voting records and campaign contributions.

So how could any of this apply to developing countries? I see one particular challenge and one potential benefit. Robinson et al. rely heavily on the assumption that there are already many private sector providers who would be ready to jump into this niche if given the chance. Depending on the particular country, this may or may not be the case.

On the plus side, though, there is at least one potentially large benefit. One of the challenges of utilizing technology in developing countries is creating solutions that fit the particular circumstances - for example, wide accessibility of pretty basic mobile phones. My bet is that a combination of for-profit companies and NGOs are going to do a better job than the government itself of figuring out just how to take government information and make it useful for a large swathe of the population. A newspaper campaign in Uganda proved effective at reducing corruption in the school system. Perhaps an NGO, at probably much less of the cost, could send out text messages about school budgets to concerned parents? I don't know for sure if this is possible, but I'll let Robinson et al. have the last word:

This collective learning process - and the improvements it creates - is the key advantage of our approach. Nobody knows what is best, so we should let people try different approaches and see which one wins out.    


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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