Keil Hubert: Why, in my book, E stands for exasperating

I want to believe in the future of E-government. I really do. Unfortunately, my experience with government services delivered over the web has been mixed, and I don’t see how they’re likely to get any better, and I think we’re demanding more than government agencies can realistically deliver.

Page 9 KeilI have seen successes. I adore what my local Tollway Authority has done with its integrated account management solution. When I drive to Dallas on one of its pay-per-trip motorways, a scanner reads the tag on my car and silently bills my account. My phone has instant access to my toll charges, and politely alerts me when it’s time to top off my account. Simple, efficient, accurate, and stress-free. Kudos, NTTA.

My veteran’s healthcare, on the other hand, has been a dispiriting mess. When I retired from the military, I made a complete copy of my medical records and hand-carried them to my nearest Veteran Affairs clinic. It took me three days of queuing to turn in my records to a disability evaluation counsellor. We entered all of my service-related injuries into a central tracking system. “Rest assured,” he advised, “we’ll have this sorted in 90 days, and you’ll be able to track your progress on the web.”

That didn’t happen. Instead, seven months after I completed my application, I received an old-fashioned letter informing me that I needed to log into their “new” eBenefits application to update my case. Once I got access, I discovered an entry saying that the VA had lost all 500 pages’ worth of my medical records and were going to drop me from the system. I wasted a week uploading files at an hour per page submitted. In the end, I had to send another photocopy of my medical records via certified post – and I have no confidence that my case will be processed correctly.

This is the core problem with E-government: a small and narrowly focused application (like the tollway account management app) can be reliable and successful. The smaller and simpler the service is, the fewer bugs there are, and the fewer interfaces are required. When you attempt massive solutions (like the veterans’ benefits case manager app), the overwhelming complexity of the project’s components eventually dooms the effort.

This isn’t just a problem for developers. Even when programmers get the core application running correctly, the sheer number of access options that are expected makes it nearly impossible to keep it running. For perspective, we expect commercial businesses to do business with us via dozens of different browser versions and platform-specific apps, and in dozens of language-specific versions each.

You want to check your bank balance from an iPhone running the Cyrillic version of Safari for iOS? You probably can – because your bank can afford to hire the best programmers on the market to make that possible.

Governments simply can’t match the private sector when competing for technical talent. That’s why so many E-government services only function on a traditional PC, and often only run right on one obsolete browser version running on one obsolete operating system (usually IE6 on Windows XP).

The alternative is to contract out E-government development to the private sector, but governments rarely have the technical expertise in-house to adequately design the solutions that they need contractors to build. Last year’s fiasco is a great example.

I submit that smaller is better when it comes to E-government services: focus on solving one problem very well instead of trying to automate complex processes that normally require thousands of bureaucrats to accomplish with hundreds of paper forms.