E-Government 'undemocratic' says LSE

Telecoms experts from Nortel say e-Government can provide citizens with a five-star service, but a leading academic argues that those most in need of support will miss out

E-government services have been slammed as "undemocratic" by an information systems expert from the London School of Economics.

Speaking at a Nortel event on Tuesday, Professor Ian Angell did not criticise the technology behind e-government, but rather the expectation that the general public would be able to take full advantage of the technology.

"The functionality may be five-star, but 20 percent of the population are functionally illiterate," Professor Angell told ZDNet UK. "The idea that education brings everybody up is fatuous."

By putting public services online, the government should be able to cut the number of people employed to deal with the public face-to-face.

Angell argued that this drive towards economy would disenfranchise a section of the population that required interaction with front office staff to access services.

"What is pushing government? It is trying to save money by cutting front office personnel — but people who can't access the technology need front office staff to interact with. The technology is undemocratic because it gives the advantage to more functionally literate people. It is not democratic — quite the opposite."

Telecoms equipment vendor Nortel takes an opposing view. The company maintained that governments will be able to provide "five-star" citizenship services, such as letting the public renew passports or access the NHS online, through e-Government.

"We're talking about the same concepts for commercial organisations and joined-up e-government," said Peter Kelly, Nortel Enterprise's European president. "A joined-up approach to siloed government departments, with centralised databases, enables more information to flow, in a more accessible fashion," Kelly added.

Nortel said it appreciated that security is a concern, and that security needed to be built into e-Government systems from the beginning. "The information needs to be accessible to the right people in the right places," said Kelly.

Kelly also acknowledged that government systems and procedures would have to be harmonised to function properly.

"The technological capabilities of the private sector can be applied to government sectors, but this requires government functions to agree on functionality and procedure," Kelly told ZDNet UK.

But Professor Angell sharply disagreed that commercial organisations and governments could operate using the same business model, due to fundamental differences in aims and objectives.

"The citizen is not a customer, and the relationship between citizen and state is different. It's problematic to build the relationship as if it is commercial," said Angell.

"Guardians and commercial organisations have different sets of ethics which are not necessarily compatible. What concerns me is that the commercialisation of government will lead to systemic corruption — corruption through the system," Angell told ZDNet UK.

"If we introduce targets for police arrest figures, the police will arrest more people. We'll have the same situation as traffic wardens, and speed cameras," said Angell. "If you look at what governments are delivering, it's surveillance and interference."