Improving access to Government through better use of the Web
"The eGovernment achievements so far demonstrate the value to governments of providing information and services over the Web, but there is a lot of room for improvement" believes the author as he highlights challenges and what W3C are doing to tackle them
This year again, the same tendency prevails: the number of citizens that interact with the government in person decreases, while the ones that use the Web increase. Same tendency all over the World. The massive use of Web technology to develop and deploy eGovernment services already made the Web a crucial tool for governments.
eGovernment services (eServices) are getting increasingly sophisticated. It's not just that a citizen 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. The whole process can be fulfilled online. What is more, in some cases, the old paper service is even disappearing and users are faced with just its online incarnation. An OECD study recently highlighted by The Economist shows that increasing sophistication leads to more benefits both for governments and citizens.
At this moment in time, is more important than ever to do things well, and Web standards are at the heart of it.
In the rest of this article, I review some of the most important challenges we have identified so far, and how the eGovernment Activity that we've just launched at W3C intends to tackle them.
Governments are spending huge amounts of money in building those services but their usage (especially of those available 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; many W3C standards are used to build those portals and services, and the Web Accessibility Content Guidelines (WCAG) (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. Unfortunately, even ten years after WCAG were published, and made their way to laws and regulations in many countries there are still many accessibility issues out there, and reports of government Web sites failing to pass the Web accessibility tests are common. And it's not only about accessibility: URIs that don't work or are unmaintainable in the long term, broken inks, disappearing documents... there are a number of things that need to be fixed.
Even when those portals and services are perfectly built, it is very difficult for users to find them and use them. Citizens use the Web like you and me. They usually go to search engine, input some keywords, get some results, and go to most promising ones. In most cases, they find the information they are looking for somewhere else than at the one-stop shop or don't find it at all, even when the number of services available there are in the several hundreds or well over a thousand ones. This is a known problem.
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, which one cannot. In case of doubt, governments tend 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.
There are other eGovernment challenges out there (identity, security, integrity...) and some are not just government specific but would need a solution at other technical Activities at W3C. The eGovernment Activity is also intended as an umbrella to those activities and liaisons with them an other international bodies working on eGovernment will be also established. We expect to be able to re-use existing standards as much as possible and also reaching out to those activities about government specific requirements in the benefit of both.
The eGovernment achievements so far demonstrate the value to governments of providing information and services over the Web, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Exposure to the rapid evolution of services and functionality on the public Web has led citizens to expect and ask for improvements ranging from basic provisioning services to more advanced solutions, and cooperation between the commercial and public sectors.
The new eGovernment Interest Group at W3C (eGov IG) will identify and describe at an appropriate level of generality the challenges, the technical and administrative approaches used so far by governments to address them, and the needs of best practices, guidelines or new technologies to be developed in order to tackle them. The eGov IG is designed as a forum to support researchers, developers, solution providers, and users of government services that use the Web as the delivery channel and enable broader collaboration across eGov practitioners. Participation is open to the public, and I want to take the opportunity to encourage eGovernment practitioners to join this forum and improve access to government through better use of the Web.