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Volume 18, No. 1, February 2008


Table of Contents

 

Electronic Engagement: A Guide for Public Sector Managers

 

Peter Chen
Australian National University E Press, 2007, 122 pp., ISBN: 978-1921313097
This title is also available online at: http://epress.anu.edu.au/engage_citation.html

 

Review by

Dr. D. C. Misra, E-government Consultant, New Delhi, India

Electronic Engagement

 

Public Sector Managers as “Responsive Entrepreneurs”: Will they deliver in developing countries?

Web-based e-government, launched more than a decade ago, has unleashed two unique and surging phenomena in the field of democracy, which, one must hasten to add, has also varying degrees of freedom in different democratic countries worldwide. First, it has made available a set of tools to citizens to express themselves online by commenting upon the affairs of the state, particularly those that impact their lives. These include e-mails, online discussion groups, blogs, wiki, portals, etc. Secondly, it has created a new entity called electronic citizen or e-citizen, who has, within a short span of its birth, started clamouring for its e-rights and is also prepared to discharge its e-duties.[1]

Despite this revolutionary development, a vast majority of citizens remains uninvolved with the affairs of the state giving rise to poor policy formulation and implementation. This, in turn, disenchants and alienates the citizen from the affairs of the state. This vicious cycle can, however, be broken if information and communication technologies (ICTs) are used to engage citizens in the affairs of the state.

This book is thus a very timely monograph on the emerging subject of electronic engagement or e-engagement written by Dr Peter Chen, a Research Associate with the National Centre for Australian Studies, part of Faculty of Arts at Monash University. The guide aims to “equip public sector managers to assess the value that new communications and computing technology may bring to their interactions with a range of potential stakeholders” (p.xiii) and “is written for managers who have an interest in expanding their approach to public engagement, rather than information technology professionals” (p.xiii).

The five chapters of the book are organized around an introduction, definitions and approaches to e-engagement, designing the right strategy and implementing it. In the first chapter, Introduction: An Information Age Democracy?, the author defines e-engagement as “the use of Information Communication Technologies by the public sector to improve, enhance and expand the engagement of the public in policy-making processes” (p.xiii), and introduces contested concepts like public value (Moore, 1995) and social capital (Van den Hooff, de Ridder, & Aukema, 2004). He draws attention to the expanding role of the public sector manager, describes the information society and examines its implications, highlighting the fact that in the new environment public sector managers require new skills and capabilities.

In Chapter 2: Definitions, Distinctions and Approaches to eEngagement, Chen notes that there is a “wide array of competing, contested and conflicting definitions employed to describe” (p.11) e-engagement. The role of public sector managers in electronically-facilitated democracy is that of “responsive entrepreneurs.” The relationship between the development of an electronically-facilitated democracy and the role of the public sector manager has been illustrated in the context of - the nature of programmatic approach representing the expected role of government; and specificity of outcomes representing the degree to which the outcome will be focused. This gives rise to three types of managerial roles: Active Listening (passive management), Cultivating Role (capacity building), and Steering Role (high level of management and control). These three roles or managerial approaches are also related as these will depend upon the stage of the e-engagement project. In the end the author deals with digital divides, draws attention to multiple divides and indicates how these multiple divides can be bridged by a mix of information and communication technology (ICT) and traditional approaches, and conceptualizes e-engagement as a “highly effective way of motivating participation in the information economy” (p.34).

In Chapter 3: Designing the Right Approach, the author suggests asking the following six questions for project planning: i) What is the issue(s)? ii) Who are the audiences? iii) Consultation versus Collaboration? iv) What objectives do we have for this activity? v) How interactive will this process be? and vi) What is the right channel (communications technology) to use? Answers to these questions, says the author, will “provide a solid foundation for an effective implementation plan” (p.38).

In Chapter 4, Implementation, the author lays stress on stakeholder buy-in, emphasising managing upwards (commitment from seniors), managing sideways (intra- and inter-government stakeholders), managing outwards (community members) and managing inwards (staff). The chapter further deals with issues like managing technical issues, determining the software feature set, whether to outsource or develop in-house, proprietary versus open source, low tech versus high tech, generating compelling content (and this is a challenging, though often underestimated, task) versus eye candy, conventional advertising and promotional approaches, the power of social networking and its limitations, managing risk, security, and moderation.

In the concluding chapter, the author emphasizes the importance of evaluation, noting that “any project initiated in the public sector today will make provision for evaluation as a standard operating procedure” (p.79). He recommends an evaluation tool developed by Whyte and Macintosh (2003) for e-engagement activities focusing on political, technical and social aspects. He then discusses planning for the end of eEngagement process, particularly documentation of feedback and sustaining of the stakeholder community.

Though primarily written for public sector managers of Australasia, this guide would be useful for public sector managers worldwide. The Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University (ANU) needs to be congratulated for bringing out this publication on a subject whose importance is increasing day by day.

The phenomenal success of e-commerce has whetted the appetite of citizens for e-government of similar if not the same quality as e-commerce. In this scenario, traditional risk-averse precedent-quoting civil servants are under tremendous pressure to assume the new role of “responsive entrepreneurs”, indicative of a shift from “regulatory administration” to “participatory management.” Chen notes:

While the classic bureaucratic model emphasized and rewarded strict technical expertise, the modern public sector manager is expected to have a range of ‘soft’ skills around coalition formation and stakeholder management (p.4).

The days of regulatory rule-bound bureaucracy thus appear to be over. E-government has already sprouted worldwide and is fast showing signs of maturity. People are, however, not satisfied with mere e-government. They now want good e-government of which citizen engagement or e-engagement in policy formulation and implementation is an integral part (Misra, 2007). The issue, however, is not this premise which is sound. The issue is whether public sector managers, in their new role as “responsive entrepreneurs,” will deliver in developing countries?

References

  • Misra, D.C. (2007). Select Aspects of Conceptual Foundations of E-government-2: Checking some of the Foundations (unpublished).

  • Moore, Mark (1995). Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Poelmans, Matt (2007, April 10). Dutch e-Citizen Charter Promotes Citizen-Centered Government. Retrieved September 28, 2007 from http://www.govtech.com/gt/articles/104894.

  • Van den Hoof, Bart, de Ridder, Jan & Aukema, Eline (2004). Exploring the Eagerness to Share Knowledge: The Role of Social Capital and ICT in Knowledge Sharing. In Marleen Huysman & Volker Wulf (Eds), Social Capital and Information Technology (pp. 164-165). Cambridge: MIT Press.

  • Whyte, Angus and Macintosh, Ann (2003). Analysis and Evaluation of E-Consultations. e-Service Journal, 2(1). Retrieved September 27, 2007 from http://www.e-sj.org/e-SJ2.1/esj2_1_whyte_macintosh.pdf.



[1] The Dutch e-Citizen Charter, for example, consists of 10 quality requirements for a new relationship between citizen and government (Poelmans, 2007)