IDC Government Insights has created a maturity model that describes the various stages a government must transcend to become a smarter government. This model studies 4 stages for citizen participation, information transparency and collaboration to deliver citizen services as displayed in the figure below.
Singapore and its government are very actively involved in a process to continuously self-improve and have proven not to shy away from being the pioneer when it comes to embracing new developments and technologies. Singapore is highly regarded in the region and often provides a case study other governments can base their strategy on. Its highly structured and efficient processes are the key strengths but also the area where the biggest improvements can be made. Such well-defined environments provide a solid base for a highly functional and facilitating government. Unfortunately, it also leaves very little room for individual decision making and dealing with unexpected scenarios and/or exceptions to the rule. As Singapore continues to seek the highest level of smart government maturity, it would benefit strongly if the government managed to keep some of the decision-making responsibilities and situation-dependent requirements at the level of the officials dealing directly with citizens. The smarter and more technologically advanced government-to-citizen processes get, the heavier it will rely on these citizen-facing government people to understand and judge the exceptions and outliers the automated process cannot capture.
Where a government conversation in the past would consist of a letter in the mail to educate the citizen, it is now a dialogue or even a collaboration to really address needs and concerns in the community. The proposed SOPA legislation in the USA is another great example. 'The internet' brought together such a large group of citizens expressing their concerns regarding this legislation, that most politicians and companies previously openly supporting the proposal changed their position to align with the view of the people they represent/ sell to. At the theoretical highest level of smart and mature governments, the government representatives and citizens would have collaborated to create a proposed legislation that achieves the goal of the government within the limits of citizen acceptation. Specifically for Singapore, it has nurtured its citizens to where they are now and is likely to see their citizens steadily asking for more responsibilities and influence to contribute to its future growth. This may well mean that there will be less rules and regulations to control citizens, as they are being replaced by the community responsibilities and the collaboration efforts between government and citizens.
The new technology evolution
A number of important government departments have created avenues for citizen feedback and dialogue. These efforts will continue to expand, embracing new technologies and means to communicate. Citizens tend to focus their newfound influence on scrutinizing the government on details that affect them personally. As long as both parties invest in this reinvented relationship there will be an evolutionary path to true citizen-directed government. Singapore has taken a number of the necessary steps to get that process started and created the right environment for that evolution to take place. So far we haven't seen much activity from the local development community in Singapore to really leverage the information shared freely by the government. In contrast, the NEA has done a great job creating its own mobile application for citizens. They deliver critically important information there, such as air quality and dengue threat areas. This application has the ability to incorporate citizen-provided information, allows feedback and shares an event calendar to enable a face-to-face dialogue. Most of the relevant department information for citizens has found its way online and is now easily accessible. A number of forms and processes have found their way to an online format as well much to the convenience of its users. It is not always clear when the online process can be used and when the traditional process still has to take place. This is one of the challenges of the transition through these stages. The biggest improvements will come when citizens find an online one-stop-shop for the process they need, even if that process involves multiple government departments. Especially the G-Cloud initiative in Singapore will have a big impact on how easily departments can collaborate.
Social media are still relatively new and there are very few best practices available to show governments how to get the most out of social media in a safe and secure fashion. In fact, the developments and learnings are still coming in at such a high pace that previous best practices might not be applicable anymore. Citizens might be satisfied initially with any attempt to embrace new media, but that sentiment turns to scrutiny very rapidly. In order to get the most out of social media in a secure fashion, there will be social environments solely created to interact between government departments. Separately, there should be a strategy for a (cautious) presence accessible to citizens where the learning curve can start, but also where damage control is relatively easy. I'd say the main challenge is to create an environment that is highly stimulating for dialogue and collaboration while avoiding undesirable consequences of that dialogue. Communicating via social media isn't always rich in context and misinterpretations or poor phrasing can go viral among citizens at a high pace to a large audience. McDonald's recently found out the hard way that it is very easy to become a worst practice. They created a Twitter hashtag to share McDonald's stories, intended to positively highlight the stories of its suppliers that contribute to their experience. Maybe McDonald's was hoping to attract people's happy messages about the restaurants at a central location, but instead they attracted the attention of animal rights activists and a wide variety of consumers sharing their worst experience. Within 2 hours they withdrew the hashtag as a damage control measure, but not before they became the worst practice example very publicly. On the bright side, they responded relatively fast to an uncontrollable tweetjacking situation. From a government CIO perspective though, if McDonald's was a government agency there would have been a lot more negative impact and perhaps permanent damage to the evolution in citizen-government collaboration.
Technology and government requirements mismatch
Unless it is an internal government tool, especially created for that purpose, the various commercial tools and apps are simply not built to facilitate the unique and specific needs of government officials. Maybe these new variations compare well to how governments handle email. There are rules and guidelines for communication, some features will be disabled to keep information and the network secure, different levels of authority with different rights have been defined. Most of these new communication means are offered as services and cannot be implemented in a customized fashion appropriate for government usage. IT leaders will be tempted to block all these new services until they have defined the behavioral guidelines and created some level of control over what individuals can and cannot do.
New technologies are high impact, but not huge change catalysts
Social media and mobile applications are a very welcome addition to e-government technologies and tools. Just like the fallback scenario of physical locations for online processes needs to co-exist for a long time, these new tools will not replace the existing scenarios. Citizens benefit significantly though, as they get more options to address their needs. Some savvy users will come to rely very heavily on these new technologies while others won't even have access to them for a long time to come.