The four ages of e-governance

12.12.2019 | Federico Plantera


Public sectors are not immobile subjects whose ways and processes are set in stone. Indexes and rankings help us portray a state-of-the-art situation but, sometimes, we need to zoom out. Is it possible to identify general macro-trends in the past thirty years of governmental digital transformation? And what do they tell us about foreseeable improvements?

Linnar Viik is one of the founders of e-Governance Academy, with a long-standing experience advising governments on digital transformation that speaks for himself. Together, we take a look at past and future trajectories of e-governance development. Four ages for four decades, the most exciting of which is just about to start.

Trends and opportunities at the turn of the century

First, let’s take a step back to the beginning of the 1990s. A time of truly disruptive changes for Western societies, with developing countries to start catching-up shortly afterwards.

Several phenomena already under way had reached their culprit by then, shifting the social foundations of the post-industrial era. Globalisation led to the affirmation of a world market for trade and labour, as well as the emergence of multinational corporations. Meanwhile, the booming service sector swiftly reshaped the request for skills and jobs within and across borders. Fast-paced technological development was making history, playing a key role in enabling these trends with Internet and early-stage modern ICTs.

Under such external pressure and growing expectations among citizens, public administrators needed to develop a vision to modernise governments as social and economic change progressed. The combined effect of demand-side claims (people/users) and the opportunities offered by new technologies naturally called for governments to become digital forerunners.

Stages of growth and early models of e-government

Since then, research in e-governance and process management detected several roadmaps for public sectors to effectively implement ICTs. A seminal paper by Layne and Lee (2001) was among the first to systematically outline four stages of growth for a fully functional e-government. They are presented as an evolutionary phenomenon, from baby steps in increasing online presence to full-fledged interoperability. Citizens require electronic transactions to fulfil administrative duties, resulting in deepening integration across layers and functions of government for purposes of service provision.

Years ahead, new models have emerged, others have been revised – including this first, pioneering one. Our understanding of e-government evolution is now comprehensive of consultancy reports, practical projects, policy papers from international organisations. “However, we still lack an analytical, historical view on over thirty years of development. Only with that in mind we can develop an understanding of how governments contribute to the digital transformation of society as a whole,” Linnar Viik observes.

Four ages of digital transformation in government

The deployment of ICTs in the public sector and the affirmation of e-government have dramatically changed the internal organisation of public agencies and their relations with citizens and businesses. “In the past three decades of development, and the one yet to come, we can clearly define the trends that have dominated – and will influence – the new shape of our digital governments,” Viik highlights.


1990s – Digital consciousness and first steps

Emerging ICTs characterised a decade of sudden changes and abrupt new needs for adaptation. While Estonia was regaining its independence, the era of digital consciousness was just starting. “It was a beneficial conjunction for us, and a call to action for governments worldwide. At this stage, public sectors were focusing on digitising specific ministries or agencies, one institution at a time. Efforts were directed at internal capacity building, creating the prerequisites for the next levels of e-government,” Viik explains.


2000s – Cross-institutional connectivity

Once single agencies increase their digital presence and the use of ICTs, times are ripe for connecting the dots. “The focus shifts then to the government as a whole, making it digital and interconnected in a holistic way. Linking different ministries and information systems to the same digital platform had a paramount value in streamlining the work of public administrations,” Viik says. Despite being an age of mostly inward development, e-government manifests here crucial gains in back-office efficiency of working procedures. Estonia’s data exchange layer X-Road embodies a good example of such evolution, where connectivity between all actors in public service provision prepares the ground for an efficient interaction with citizens.


2010s – Interoperability enables citizen-centric services

It is such degree of interoperability to pave the way for the ultimately outward-looking tasks and duties of governments. Seamless service provision takes shape, responding to citizens’ claims for high-quality communications with the state. “The increasing expansion of internet connectivity and digital skills in society increased business’ and citizens’ demands for efficient services. With core enablers in place, governments are now ready to become customer-centred service platforms. They can proactively assist citizens when declaring taxes, registering a business, changing place of residence, reserving places in kindergartens for kids,” Viik explains.


2020s – Models for digital transformation in society and the economy

At the end of a decade notable for the fast development of e-governance globally, public authorities and decision-makers should now fully become subjects of innovation. “The next trends in e-governance are likely to affect the society as a whole. How can public sectors increase the distributed returns from digitalisation? From G2C and G2B, governments need to now work for citizens and for businesses. By enabling and fostering digital development in sectors of the economy, as well as literacy and trust among people, public authorities will enhance e-governance in a truly digital society,” Viik outlines.

Not all countries present the same levels of digital maturity, but the stepping stones to achieve e-governance are there. With this historical perspective, observers and policy makers can keep track of their development roadmaps without losing sight of the context. Connectivity matched with key components, such as digital identity and core registries, empower to reach milestones in e-government. But it is the next stage that will mark the coming decade – committing to the role of subject of innovation in the economy and society at large.