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European thinking about e-government has changed since the heady days when the priority was to e-enable existing services as quickly as possible. “There was a bit of hype during that period,” says Manuel Baptista, a consultant working on the European Commission’s eGovernment Observatory. “It was a new frontier. There was a big policy objective that we would move to a new era of e-government.”

A more “mature” vision has now replaced the pioneer mentality, according to Baptista. “We’re getting back to earth. Some services failed because there was no demand. Government had to stop looking at things the way they wanted them to be and instead look at reality.”

New projects are now subject to careful consideration, with administrations building detailed business cases. The ‘e’ factor is seen as just part of the mix, with back office reorganisation taking a higher priority.

As a consequence, attention is switching to developing the tools that make it possible to accurately measure the impacts of service modernisation. This is often expressed in terms of achieving more with less through efficiency and cost cutting. Belgium, for instance, says it has saved EUR 233 million over two years through the ‘Kafka’ initiative, named after the Czech writer who described a nightmare world of oppressive bureaucracy. This scheme, designed to eradicate some of Belgium’s famous nonsensical administrative overload, uses the online channel – the website – to collect feedback from businesses and citizens, but cutting red tape often takes place offline.

For example, when bidding for a public contract in Belgium, a company previously had to provide a certificate – also obtained from government – showing that its social security obligations had been met. This certification process is now dealt with in the government back office.

The Belgian federal authorities estimate that initiatives such as these have saved businesses EUR 101 million. This calculation is based on the number of instances when the obligation had to be met, multiplied by the time lost in each case by businesses in meeting the obligation.

Dutch methods

The Netherlands uses a similar methodology to measure the overall impact of its egovernment and modernisation programme. The Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations calculated that administrative burdens cost the country EUR 17 billion per year in lost competitiveness – time and money spent fulfilling obligations which would otherwise be spent adding to the gross national product. By taking a systematic case-by-case approach, the Dutch government set out to reduce this burden by 25 percent by the end of 2007.

‘Administrative burden’ was defined in the Netherlands using the Standard Cost Model, T x Q x F x P, where T is time spent on the administrative obligation; Q is the number of businesses or citizens affected by the obligation; F is the annual frequency; and P is the tariff per hour applied by businesses. This methodology is applied equally to proposed new regulation and to existing processes requiring simplification.

According to Kees Keuzenkamp from the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, a 17 percent saving on the cost of administrative burdens in the Netherlands had already been achieved by the beginning of 2005. Speaking at a European Commission conference in February 2005, Keuzenkamp noted ICT is not the main factor in making savings. “Building cooperation and analysis is the starting point,” he said.

Other countries in the vanguard of developing e-government impact measurement methodologies are Denmark, France, Germany and the UK. In France, the government agency responsible for modernising the administration has started to evaluate its projects using the Mareva methodology, which combines experience of return on investment calculations for large public projects with comparable private sector approaches.

The Mareva value analysis is based on five elements: quantifiable return on investment for the state (including savings achieved by implementing the project); benefits of the project for public sector services and their employees; benefits for citizens and businesses in terms of saved money, time and other measurements; necessity of the project in terms of its contribution to overall goals and regulatory obligations; and an assessment of the risk inherent in the project. The ‘Mareva label’ is awarded to projects that pass muster.

eGov economics

The European Commission is also seeking to play its part, and has sponsored a number of initiatives examining the e-government return on investment issue. The most comprehensive of these is the eGovernment Economics Project (eGEP)1, which started in January 2005.

Cristiano Codagnone of Italian contractors RSO, who are executing the project on behalf of the European Commission, explains that the objective is to deliver a general measurement framework methodology, a template of measurement indicators and an implementation methodology.

The measurement framework aims to build on national initiatives and to address intangible as well as tangible factors. “We think that currently the strictly financial measure of e-government tends to underestimate the intangibles,” says Codagnone. “We are trying to measure not just cutting and saving but also gained resources that can be used in other areas, as well as improved working conditions and other qualitative measures.”

The European Commission’s objective in supporting eGEP is to develop a framework that can be adapted and applied across the European Union, but for some the benefits of this approach are not obvious.

One European e-government specialist said, “I’m not sure it is possible at this stage to design an overall framework, or that e-government professionals demand such a framework. The European Commission wants a magic tool that can be applied everywhere, but EU Member States have different priorities. Some are clearly focused on economic impacts, whilst others are less interested in that. Where government believes it needs to act it will identify how it can deliver value in the context of its own society.

“There is a need for a thorough study into what has been done so far, and for direction and coordination,” the source concludes, “but there is a risk that an overall framework won’t be used.”

By Stephen Gardner

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