B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N


of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 31, No. 3    February/March 2005

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E-Government II

Being Good and Doing Well: Organizational Openness and Government Effectiveness on the World Wide Web

by Todd M. La Porte

Todd M. La Porte is associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University . He can be reached by email at tlaporte@gmu.edu; by phone at 703-993-3351.

For several years advocates have argued that digital systems in public organizations have considerable promise to improve a wide range of government functions, both in the developed and in the developing worlds. Many countries are grappling with how best to realize that promise.

At the same time, in the wake of these new technologies, new ideas about governance have emerged, stressing collaborative relationships, network-like arrangements and hybrid public-private partnerships between various agencies and organizations that enable more effective problem solving and greater citizen participation in public affairs than in the past.

After nearly a decade of use of the Web in governments around the world, we believe we have sufficient data to evaluate these systems’ impact on government effectiveness and their contribution to increased public participation. In particular, we believe that important attributes of governance may be captured by tracking and evaluating the use of networked information systems in public organizations, both internally, in terms of bureaucratic structure and function, and externally, in terms of service delivery and citizen contact. Concepts that can bridge the various converging domains of information technologies, public administration and public sector management, comparative political studies and democratic theory are needed to begin to span the conceptual divide between democracy and bureaucracy that has bedeviled public administrationists and political scientists for decades.

In nearly all countries, to some degree, there are three principal threads of e-government reform:

a)      development of bureaucratic processes to provide greater administrative convenience, transparency, interactivity and openness;

b)      efforts to improve management processes to achieve cost savings and efficiencies; and

c)      development of means to increase public participation in both electoral and regulatory processes to respond better to expressions of popular will and increase government legitimacy and support.

We contend that bureaucratic openness, administrative efficiency and increased public participation are separate but potentially linked aspects of increasing reliance on electronic networked information systems, principally the Internet.

This paper reports on a systematic long-running research program supported by the National Science Foundation to survey and analyze these trends, focusing on the diffusion and use of networked information technologies around the world in national level governments. We have analyzed the effects of these digital government efforts and relate them to several government performance measures, including standard economic growth rates, recently published data from the World Bank's Government Performance Project (Kaufmann, Kraay & Zoido-Lobatón, 1999, 2002) and data collected by the Integrated Network for Societal Conflict Research Program (INSCR) on the development of democratic institutions, the degree of political competition and the stability of regimes. These data include indicators measuring government effectiveness, political stability, voice and accountability, regulatory quality, rule of law and control of corruption. Our data and analysis show that there is a reasonably strong causal relationship between the deployment of networked information systems in organizations and later increases in organizational and administrative effectiveness.

Openness As an Administrative Attribute

For all organizations, accountability is the authoritative exercise of oversight, either by elected officials through the activities of the bureaucracy or by the citizenry exercising oversight of the legislature through regular elections. To study this attribute of organizations in a networked environment we developed the notion of openness, which may be considered an allied but conceptually distinct element of accountability in that citizens through their everyday interactions can continuously assess an open government agency.

Openness is an important enabling condition for the exercise of oversight. Over time, the classic distinction between political decisions taken by elected officials in a deliberative process and administrative execution of those decisions by a disinterested civil service has become less useful. At the same time, these processes are difficult to study systematically. The new reality of bureaucratic power is in many respects the underlying cause of the embrace of the notion of governance, as a separate phenomenon from government.

Elsewhere we have argued that the World Wide Web is a useful vehicle to evaluate public organizations’ openness (Demchak, Friis & La Porte, 2000; La Porte , Demchak, & de Jong, 2002). This utility is now even more the case than in the past. The Web is a growing facet of the public face of government, and it increasingly instigates and reflects internal structural and procedural dimensions of organizations’ non-electronic existence. Websites are increasingly the authoritative organs of information dissemination in both the public and private spheres. It is not the only means by which public and quasi-public institutions reach their stakeholders, but it is increasingly the preferred option for reasons of relatively low cost and rapid turnaround.

Studying Openness in a Networked World

Annually since 1995 the Cyberspace Policy Research Group (CyPRG), based at George Mason University and the University of Arizona, has surveyed all national government Web operations worldwide to assess how extensively the Web has been adopted by government organizations. Since 1997 CyPRG has also assessed how Web technologies have been implemented in each organization and country. In order to do this assessment, the research team has measured the degree of website transparency and website interactivity, two main components of organizational openness. The third main component of openness, used in performing international comparisons, is website density, the percentage of a government's ministries that have a Web presence.

Our measurement method, dubbed the Website Attribute Evaluation System (WAES), is based theoretically on suggestions from the social science literature that openness is the extent to which an organization provides comprehensive information about its attributes and maintains timely communications with its various publics. Citizen concerns are at the core of this measure.  What would a citizen want to know about a government agency's activities or services, and what would a citizen want to do with an agency to respond or initiate actions desired or required under the law?

WAES permits the evaluation of any website by coding for the presence or absence of a number of specific attributes, described below. There are 31 to 45 criteria in all, depending on the year; updates to the measurement instrument have been made to keep up with rapid Web developments.

Transparency

Transparency refers to the availability of information for navigating a large-scale social system. It constitutes a layperson's basic map of the organization as depicted in the information on the site. The five elements making up WAES are briefly as follows:

§         Ownership tests for evidence of how involved the agency is with the site. The aim is to ascertain whether the agency itself is tailoring the material for the site or has shunted these content decisions to someone else, such as a central government bureau. Agencies that own their own Web operations are more likely to consider it a key part of their organization compared with those that leave the development of their website to others.

§         Contacts and reachability assesses the website visitor’s ability to contact individuals or positions inside the organization. This attribute indicates the agency’s willingness to permit outsiders to reach inside the organization beyond the webmaster gateway, and thereby to see inside the organization in a more detailed way. Agencies vary greatly in their approaches to contact with outsiders, with some willing to provide detailed contact information, while others prefer to centralize it by providing a one-stop-shop point of contract.

§         Organizational information assesses how well information is provided about an organization’s operations and its connection with related organizations or information. The criterion tests for indications of where an organization is headed and how it is structured. This is in part revealed by use of vision and mission statements and organizational charts.

§         Issue information assesses how well an organization informs users about the issues for which it is responsible and measures the ease of access to reports, government data, archives and government information policies. Here the agency also indicates its understanding of the scope of its operating and policy environment by including links to other agencies or non-governmental organizations relevant to its own work and therefore to the public at large. By charting this subset of attributes, we can study the evolution of governmental Web-based networks.

§         Citizen consequences and responses assesses what an organization requires of a citizen to comply with regulations or laws, to take advantage of programs or to use government services and to provide recourse when disagreements arise. For example, putting official forms on the site or explaining how to initiate a dispute resolution process or contact an ombudsman demonstrate that an agency is anticipating citizens' needs and is willing to respond to problems. This set of criteria relates to the effort that an agency makes to present information and services to citizens most directly. Doing so generally takes considerable organizational resources.

Interactivity

Interactivity is a measure of the level of convenience or degree of immediate feedback, which is the second component of openness. The more interactive the site is across the first four transparency attributes, the greater is the demonstrated level of agency concern for the convenience of the citizen and the speed of communications between the agency and its clients. Interactivity assesses the extent to which elements of transparency are “clickable” for a site visitor. The greater the “click value” the more convenient it is to acquire data or interact with the agency and thus the more the agency encourages the client to make use of the site and the agency itself. Interactivity questions roughly parallel those for transparency.

§         Security and privacy checks the extent to which a site both ensures that users' personal information is not compromised while using the website (use of secure servers, passwords, especially for transactions) and that citizens can use the site without providing too much personal information as a condition of use (use of “cookies,” or requiring extensive identifying information).

§         Contacts and reachability focuses on the extent the organization permits the client to electronically reach inside the agency with clickable dialog boxes or hotlinks, for example whether senior officials are listed with active hotlinked email addresses. It also tests the extent to which the agency prescribes the form of contact through use of structured dialog boxes and the like, rather than simple email.

§         Organizational information measures how easily a user can navigate inside the organizational structure or wider issue community via the site. This criterion tests the extent to which the agency begins to demonstrate sophistication in both its concept of citizen involvement in the agency’s operations and in the scale of investment in technical sophistication to achieve openness.

§         Issue information is the clickable correlate to transparency’s “issue information” element. It assesses the ease with which citizens can contact other policy-domain organizations via hypertext links on the site.

§         Citizen consequences and responses is the clickable correlate to transparency’s “citizen consequences” element. It assesses the extent to which citizens can easily review and input or receive responses to these consequences and tests for efforts to accommodate users with disabilities and who may not read or speak the national or dominant language of the country. This section is the most challenging in terms of technical sophistication and in willingness of the agency to accept input from external sources. One criterion tests for a particularly courageous level of openness. It asks if the agency has made a citizen’s appeal process open to online submission. A relatively unconstrained online appeal process with automatic agency-reply deadlines requires substantial changes to internal processes and budgets to accommodate these demands. This feature indicates unprecedented agency support for both openness and for the new technology.

The level of openness of a government is computed by taking the average of transparency and interactivity scores for all evaluated organizations, adding them and multiplying this result by the percentage of ministries in the government with a website. This yields a single numerical country score that captures all three dimensions: transparency, interactivity and Web density.

CyPRG data can be used to examine individual organizations, to make comparisons with other organizations or aggregates or to make systematic assessments or benchmarks of national digital government performance. In the 2001 census, CyPRG found that there were 171 countries  (of a total of 193 countries worldwide) with at least one national ministry level website. Table 1 shows the diffusion of the Web into countries and ministries worldwide: at the conclusion of the 2001 CyPRG census of national-level Web presence, 51 percent of all ministries had a website.

As the Web has spread, governments have become more adept at using its features to provide information and services. This improvement can be seen in global median transparency and interactivity levels, which have steadily increased from 1997 to 2001, though individual countries' trajectories vary. Table 2 shows these overall trends. Note that transparency levels (0.51) are almost double interactivity levels (0.31); this ratio reflects the much greater organizational effort associated with enabling transactions as opposed to static information presentation. Organizations find that it is easier to make information available than to make it convenient for external stakeholders to acquire. Electronic interactivity is likely to be much more difficult to organize, in terms of back office operations, reorganized workflows and sharing needs than simply providing for basic electronic access.

These results are largely supportive of other work that finds that existing government implementation of network technologies focuses on information dissemination and simple transactions and has yet to address issues of organizational redesign and citizen participation (West, 2000; Ho, 2002; Moon, 2002). Openness has also steadily increased, from 0.11 in 1997 to 0.35 in 2001.

Our earlier efforts to isolate the correlates of openness yielded meager results. We did not find that our measure of openness was the result of any systematic characteristic of countries. In particular we were surprised not to find a relationship between democracy and openness: countries with long democratic traditions were not more likely to have more open websites, on the whole, than any other countries. Our analyses found that national income was only weakly related to openness. Other hypotheses, such as amount of trade, type of legal system, size of central government and the like were found not to be significant in explaining openness levels. Therefore, we concluded that openness might be an independent variable tapping aspects of administrative behavior as yet under-characterized.

Yet while openness may be an interesting phenomenon in and of itself, it bears little more than passing academic interest if it is unrelated to any outcomes we care about. We propose that openness has direct implications for the quality of governance, both theoretically and practically. We contend that greater government openness is likely to lead to improved government performance. Organizations with well-developed Web operations are likely to be seen as more effective administratively than organizations with relatively weak Web operations. Public pressure for better service is hard to resist for long, and over time, such pressure leads to increased sophistication of the technical features incorporated into websites and increased transparency and interactivity, which are reflected in our coding of their websites and of their overall operations.

Government Performance Indicators

Our early research was stymied in making serious arguments about governmental effectiveness, since data on effectiveness simply did not exist. Recently, however, a team of researchers at the World Bank published new data on government performance (Kaufmann, Kraay & Zoido-Lobatón, 2002). These indicators are summarized briefly in tables 3 and 4. Having data that systematically describe government performance in other than economic terms is critical to test the contribution to governance of openness and networked information systems.

The World Bank's government effectiveness measure is of particular interest because it focuses on the administrative apparatus of the state most closely tied to Web operations. With it, we are able to relate openness data we have collected to government or administrative effectiveness data from the World Bank to show that Web openness has an independent effect on administrative performance. Using structural equations to control for reciprocal effects, our results suggest that openness has a direct impact on administrative effectiveness, but that administrative effectiveness does not affect openness.

In other words, improvement in effectiveness is caused by more openness in Web operations, but not the reverse. Even a poorly run agency can develop a high-quality online presence once it has experience with the Internet. Subsequently, Web presence seems to motivate the agency, possibly through increased expectations on the part of its constituents or by identification of new modes of operation, to operate more effectively. In short, organizational Web operations appear to be creating a virtuous cycle of opportunities, demands and expectations, and administrative responses.

Acknowledgements

This work was supported by National Science Foundation Grant No. SES9907996 and was undertaken with Chris Demchak, University of Arizona, and Chris Weare, University of Southern California.

For Further Reading

Demchak, C. C., Friis, C., & La Porte , T. M. (2000). Webbing governance: National differences in constructing the public face. In G. D. Garson (Ed.), Handbook of public information systems. New York : Marcel Dekker Publishers.

Friis, C., Demchak, C. C., & La Porte, T. M. (1998). Configuring public agencies in cyberspace: A conceptual investigation. In I. Th. M. Snellen, & W.B. H. J. van de Donk (Eds.) Public administration in an information age: A handbook. Amsterdam: IOS Press.

Ho, A. T.-K. (2002). Reinventing local governments and the e-government initiative. Public Administration Review. 62, 434.

Kaufmann, D., Kraay, A. & Zoido-Lobatón, P. (1999). Governance matters. Retrieved December 15, 2004, from http://econ.worldbank.org/docs/919.pdf .

Kaufmann, D., Kraay, A. & Zoido-Lobatón, P. (2002). Governance matters II: Updated indicators for 2000/01. Retrieved December 15, 2004, from http://econ.worldbank.org/files/11783_wps2772.pdf

La Porte, T. M., Demchak, C. C. & de Jong, M. (2002). Democracy and bureaucracy in the age of the Web: Empirical findings and theoretical speculations. Administration & Society, 34(3), 411-446.

Moon, M. J. (2002). The evolution of e-government among municipalities: Rhetoric or reality? Public Administration Review 62, 424.

Vigoda, E. (2000). Are you being served? The responsiveness of public administration to citizens’ demands: An empirical examination in Israel. Public administration, 78, 165-191.

Weare, C., Musso, J. & Hale, M. L. (1999). Electronic democracy and the diffusion of municipal web pages in California. Administration & Society, 31, 3-27.

West, D. M. (2002). State and federal e-government in the United States, 2002. Providence, RI: Taubman Center for Public Policy, Brown University.


Table 1. Diffusion of the Web in National-level Ministries, 1997-2001

Year

 

Countries with ministry websites

Ministries with
websites, worldwide

Percentage of ministries with
websites, worldwide

1997

63

468

0.14

1998

96

748

0.22

1999

103

856

0.25

2000

154

1411

0.42

2001

173

1731

0.51

Total possible

193

3384

100

   

Table 2. Transparency, Interactivity, Openness Worldwide, 1997-2001  

 

Median Transparency

Median Interactivity

Median Openness

1997

0.38

0.12

0.11

1998

0.42

0.15

0.19

1999

0.52

0.18

0.26

2000

0.53

0.24

0.30

2001

0.51

0.31

0.35

 


Table 3. World Bank Governance Indicators

Voice and accountability

Extent to which citizens can participate in choosing of governments, measures of media independence

Political stability

Perceptions of likelihood that the government will be destabilized, insecurity will affect citizens' selection of governments

Government effectiveness

Perceptions of the quality of public service provision, bureaucracy, competence, independence from political pressure, and credibility of government commitments: inputs to policy process

Regulatory quality

Incidence of market-unfriendly policies, controls or supervision, perception of regulatory burden

Rule of law

Extent to which citizens have confidence in and abide by societal rules, perceptions of crime, effectiveness of judiciary, enforceability of contracts

Control of corruption

Perceptions of corruption, measured in variety of ways: payments to get things done, corruption of political leaders, state capture

Source: Kaufmann, Kraay and Zoido-Lobatón, 2002, pp. 5-6.


Table 4. Data Categories for World Bank Government Effectiveness Indicators
 

Representative sources

Non-representative sources

Government policy (pro-business)

Government and administration: decentralization and transparency

Government/Institutional efficacy

Competence of public sector personnel relative to private sector

Red tape / bureaucracy

Wasteful government expenditure

Institutional failure: institutional rigidities that hinder bureaucratic efficiency

Government commitments are honored by new governments

Government ineffectiveness: quality of the government’s personnel

Management time spent with bureaucracy

Government instability: high turnover that lowers the quality of the government’s personnel

Public service vulnerability to political pressure

Government stability: its ability to carry out programs

Competence of public sector personnel relative to private sector

Bureaucratic quality: civil service’s institutional strength, free from political influences

Wasteful government expenditure

Likelihood that when a government official acts against the rules, one can go to another official or a superior and get correct treatment

Strength and expertise of the civil service to avoid drastic interruptions in government services in times of political instability

Management time spent with bureaucrats

Effective implementation of government decisions

Efficiency customs

Bureaucracy as an obstacle to business development

General condition of roads you use

Exposure of public service to political interference

Efficiency of mail delivery

 

Quality of public health care provision

 

Government efficiency in delivering services

 

Predictability of changes in rules and laws

 

Credibility of government's commitment to policies

 

 Source: Kaufmann, Kraay and Zoido-Lobatón, 2002, pp. 55


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