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Princeton University Press
Digital Government: Technology and Public Sector Performance / Edition 1

Digital Government: Technology and Public Sector Performance / Edition 1

by Darrell M. West
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Few developments have had broader consequences for the public sector than the introduction of the Internet and digital technology. In this book, Darrell West discusses how new technology is altering governmental performance, the political process, and democracy itself by improving government responsiveness and increasing information available to citizens.

Using multiple methods—case studies, content analysis of over 17,000 government Web sites, public and bureaucrat opinion survey data, an e-mail responsiveness test, budget data, and aggregate analysis—the author presents the most comprehensive study of electronic government ever undertaken. Among other topics, he looks at how much change has taken place in the public sector, what determines the speed and breadth of e-government adoption, and what the consequences of digital technology are for the public sector.

Written in a clear and analytical manner, this book outlines the variety of factors that have restricted the ability of policy makers to make effective use of new technology. Although digital government offers the potential for revolutionary change, social, political, and economic forces constrain the scope of transformation and prevent government officials from realizing the full benefits of interactive technology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691134079
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/22/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 858,670
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Darrell M. West is the John Hazen White Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University. He is the author of thirteen books, including Crosstalk: Citizens, Candidates, and the Media in a Presidential Campaign; Patrick Kennedy: The Rise to Power; Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-2000; and The Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment. His Web site,, features in-depth research on electronic government at the city, state, national, and international levels.

Read an Excerpt

Digital Government

Technology and Public Sector Performance
By Darrell M. West

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12182-6

Chapter One


THIS BOOK LOOKS at the phenomenon of electronic government, that is, public sector use of the Internet and other digital devices to deliver services, information, and democracy itself. Although personal computers have been around for several decades, recent advances in networking, video imaging, and graphics interfacing have allowed governments to develop websites that contain a variety of online materials. As more and more people take advantage of these features, digital government is supplanting traditional means of access based on personal visits, phone calls, and mail delivery.

In Indiana, for example, citizens can register their vehicles and order subscriptions to government databases online. California allows people to personalize websites depending on whether they are tourists, students, state employees, businesses, or state residents. Arizona and Michigan have been innovators in online voting. At the national level, Americans can access private companies through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website that will file tax forms for them electronically.

Governments around the world have created websites that facilitate tourism,citizen complaints, and business investment. Tourists can book hotels through the government websites of many Caribbean and Pacific island countries. In Australia, citizens can register government complaints through agency websites. Nations such as Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic are attracting overseas investors through their websites.

But despite the prevalence of these online options, there are three unanswered questions that form the heart of this research. First, how much are the Internet and other digital delivery systems transforming the public sector? Second, what determines the speed and breadth of e-government adoption? Third, what are the consequences of digital technology for public sector performance, the political process, and democracy?

One of the problems in deciphering these topics has been a bifurcation of e-government research into detailed case studies on the one hand and highly abstract theoretical treatises on the other hand. There are a variety of case study publications that focus on particular agencies or jurisdictions. These are very useful, but hard to generalize to a larger universe of cases. At the other end of the spectrum are highly theoretical treatments of e-government that either glorify technology or study it at abstract levels. With either brand of theorizing, it is a challenge for practitioners and policymakers to figure out how to use this information to improve their performance.

My goal in this book is to bridge the worlds of theory and practice. E-government is a field in which practitioners and theorists need to address one another and share their respective insights. It is vitally important that we have clear conceptual frameworks for the analysis of e-government. It also is crucial that these frameworks rest on empirical analysis that actually shows what is happening and what problems need to be addressed.

Consistent with this objective, I look at the scope, causes, and consequences of digital government. Using multiple methods (case studies, content analysis, public and bureaucrat opinion survey data, an email responsiveness test, and aggregate multivariate analysis), I present a conceptual model in which factors such as organizational setting, budget resources, group conflict, and political leadership set the parameters on the speed and breadth of technological change. I also explore the consequences of e-government for service delivery, the needs of special populations such as the disabled and non-native speakers, bureaucrat attitudes and behavior, citizen trust in government, public sector responsiveness, and overall political dynamics. With the exception of impact on bureaucrats, most of these topics have attracted little scholarly attention.

After examining a variety of data sources, I argue that e-government falls more within models of limited than transformational change. There are a variety of forces that restrict the ability of policymakers to make effective use of new technology. Although digital breakthroughs offer the potential of revolutionary change, social, political, and economic factors constrain the scope of transformation and prevent government officials from realizing the full benefits of the Internet.


The origin of the Internet dates back to 1969 when a United States Defense Department project spawned ARPANET, a digital system connecting computers in different geographical locations. These connections allowed scientists at fifteen different universities and American defense officials to exchange information and post notes at common computer spaces that could be viewed simultaneously by interested parties.

Unlike telephones, which required communicating parties to be on the line at the same time for the transmission of material, ARPANET allowed people to send information even if the other person was not at the other end to receive the transmission. Scientists could transmit emails or access bulletin boards, and thereby see ideas on which others were working without physically being in the same location. This type of asynchronous communication proved very popular with scientists and members of the defense establishment.

It was not until 1991, though, with the formation of interfaces with the World Wide Web that the Internet was created as a means of communication among the general public. The Web integrated text, images, and sound, and therefore facilitated the instantaneous communication of several modes of information. Unlike past electronic systems that required extensive technical knowledge or involved specialized programming, it was simple to use.

Within a few years, government agencies discovered that the Internet was a useful way to communicate with citizens, businesses, and other agencies. Information and services could be put online and made available to a wide variety of people. Right now, the Internet remains the most popular e-government delivery system. Eighty-one percent of federal e-government initiatives are delivered that way, with the remainder coming in the forms of kiosks, telephones, email, bulletin boards, and wireless networks.

Citizens enjoy the convenience of digital communications as a means to contact government officials with problems they are having. A July 2003 Pew Internet Survey found that of those Americans who had contacted the government in the past year, 26 percent called on the phone, 18 percent visited the government website, 12 percent went to the agency in person, 10 percent sent a letter, and 10 percent relied upon email.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, some governmental units were employing the Internet for direct democracy. When faced with a controversy over the repainting of a prominent Baltimore expressway bridge (a local artist wanted rust red-brown while the mayor preferred Kelly green), Mayor Martin O'Malley turned to an online plebiscite at the City Hall website. Voters were asked to choose which color the Howard Street Bridge should be painted. Over five thousand people cast ballots, and the mayor's choice lost on a 52 to 48 percent vote. In his concession speech, O'Malley said "I submit to the will of the people. To paraphrase Jefferson, I fear for my countrymen, that they may receive the bridge colors they deserve."

Government websites at various levels generate considerable traffic. As shown in table 1-1, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service is the most frequently visited individual site with 6.7 million monthly visitors, followed by Fed-World, a federal government portal with 4.6 million visitors, the U.S. Treasury (3.63 million), and NASA, with 3.33 million visitors.

Unlike traditional bricks-and-mortar agencies that are hierarchical, linear, and one-way in their communications style, digital delivery systems are non-hierarchical, nonlinear, interactive, and available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The nonhierarchical character of Internet delivery frees citizens to seek information at their own convenience. The interactive aspects of e-government allow both citizens and bureaucrats to send as well as receive information. Convenience is probably the strongest selling point for e-government as ordinary citizens love the ability to access public information and order services twenty-four hours a day, not just when a particular government agency happens to be open.

The fundamental nature of these advantages has led some to predict the Internet will transform government. By facilitating two-way interaction, electronic governance has been hailed as a way to improve service delivery and responsiveness to citizens. Stephen Goldsmith, President George W. Bush's Special Advisor for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, says "electronic government will not only break down boundaries and reduce transaction costs between citizens and their governments but between levels of government as well."

Jeffrey Seifert and Matthew Bonham argue digital government has the potential to transform governmental efficiency, transparency, citizen trust, and political participation in transitional democracies. Using examples from Asia and Eastern Europe, these authors suggest that with proper political leadership, the power of the Internet can be harnessed for major system change.

In making these claims, proponents suggest that the pace of Internet change is consistent with the classic model of large-scale transformation. System transformation is defined as a "complete change in character, condition," or "epochal breakthroughs." In this perspective, change is rapid and abrupt, and visible to social observers. Often spurred either by scientific breakthroughs or economic improvements that facilitate the availability of the new technology, large-scale change produces revolutions in individual behavior and organizational activities.

For example, the novel aspects of digital technology in the public sector led Reed Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to conclude "the central lesson of technology in our time is this: The Internet Changes Everything. The lesson applies to the economy, education, community, individualism, and ... democracy." Similar statements have been made about the impact of the new information age on the political process. Writers such as Dennis Thompson and Bruce Bimber have suggested some aspects of interactive technologies bring about institutional change because they weaken the factionalization that plagues democratic political systems. New technologies enhance communication by overcoming geographical distance, promoting ideological variety, opening citizens to more diverse viewpoints, and encouraging deliberation. These benefits give the Internet unusually great promise as a tool for democracy.

Others have written about the potential of the Internet to recast bureaucracy. Jane Fountain has discussed the ways in which information technology (IT) alters the capacity and control features of traditional bureaucracies. IT, she notes, has the potential "to substantially redistribute power, functional responsibilities, and control within and across federal agencies and between the public and private sectors." By encouraging bureaucrats to work together and develop cross-agency "portals," websites that integrate information and service offerings, e-government offers the prospect of considerable change in how the public sector functions. Indeed, Fountain cites estimates demonstrating "cost performance ratios to be declining at a rate of 20-30 percent a year."

Not all technological innovation, however, leads to large-scale transformation. An alternative model stresses incrementalism. First proposed in 1959 by Charles Lindblom in regard to organizational decision making, this kind of change is characterized as a "muddling through" process. In looking at how organizations make choices, Lindblom asked whether change was rational and dictated in key respects by economic trade-offs or was it rather a political process characterized by small-scale shifts constrained by budgetary and institutional processes?

In the world of government, Lindblom suggested, politics dominates and organizations are more likely to muddle through decisions and rely on small-scale change. Political dynamics affect the way in which decisions get made. It is not always the most rational decision that emerges based on costs and benefits. Rather, choices get made based on who is best organized, strongest politically, or in control of the bureaucratic structure. The political character of public sector decision making limits the speed of change and how quickly new technologies get incorporated into the governmental process.

Taking off from this insight, Aaron Wildavsky and others generalized Lindblom's process model to policy outputs. Government policies typically evolve through small-scale steps, not large-scale transformations, he argued. The best predictor of next year's budget is this year's budget. Change generally takes place in small increments, which leads to gradual change over time. Abrupt and dramatic revolutions in political behavior are rare. Evolution, not revolution, is the more common norm.

IT research in the 1970s and 1980s found considerable evidence of incremental change in government organizations. Work by Kenneth Kraemer, John King, and William Dutton demonstrated that American governments at every level were slow to adopt new technologies. Rather than being an impetus toward transformation, computer technologies were not used to produce fundamental change.

There are a number of reasons why political change tends to be small in scale and gradual. Government actions are mediated by a range of factors: institutional arrangements, budget scarcity, group conflict, cultural norms, and prevailing patterns of social and political behavior, each of which restricts the ability of technology to transform society and politics. The fact that governments are divided into competing agencies and jurisdictions limits the ability of policymakers to get bureaucrats to work together promoting technological innovation. Budget considerations prevent government offices from placing services online and using technology for democratic outreach. Cultural norms and patterns of individual behavior affect the manner in which technology is used by citizens and policymakers.

In addition, the political process is characterized by intense group conflict over resources. With systems that are open and permeable, groups organize easily and make demands on the political system. Given the fact that financial resources are limited and institutions in which decisions are made are fragmented and decentralized, it is difficult to produce large-scale changes even with the benefit of new technologies.

With many government planners emphasizing a vision of electronic governance that is technocratic and service-oriented rather than a tool for grass-roots empowerment, system-level transformation has been slow to develop. Regardless of the type of political system, many government officials are conservative when it comes to change. Rather than rushing to embrace new technology, major political and economic interests slow the pace of technical innovation until they can figure out how to make sure their own vested interests are well-protected. This keeps the danger from new technology as low as possible, and forces technology to accommodate existing power structures rather than the other way around.


Excerpted from Digital Government by Darrell M. West Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Tables ix

Preface xiii

Chapter 1: Scope, Causes, and Consequences of Electronic Government 1

Chapter 2: Bureaucratic, Fiscal, and Political Contexts 22

Chapter 3: The Content of American Government Websites 44

Chapter 4: Explaining E-Government Performance 71

Chapter 5: The Case of Online Tax Filing 82

Chapter 6: Public Outreach and Responsiveness 101

Chapter 7: Citizen Use of E-Government 114

Chapter 8: Trust and Confidence in E-Government 129

Chapter 9: Global E-Government 140

Chapter 10: Democratization and Technological Change 165

Appendix I: Coding Instructions for Government Website Content Analysis 185

Appendix II: Global E-Government Rankings 191

Appendix III: E-Government Best Practices 194

Notes 201

Index 221

What People are Saying About This

Eszter Hargittai

I've seen no other work that brings together this much empirical evidence on the general trend of government agencies' adoption of IT for their services.
Eszter Hargittai, Northwestern University.

Stuart Bretschneider

A comprehensive, detailed, survey of e-government practices, this book is a significant contribution to the field.
Stuart Bretschneider, Syracuse University

From the Publisher

"This well-written book nicely blends the diffusion theory of technical innovations with the comprehensive nature of the evolution of e-government."—M. Jae Moon, Korea University and Texas A&M University

"I've seen no other work that brings together this much empirical evidence on the general trend of government agencies' adoption of IT for their services."—Eszter Hargittai, Northwestern University.

"A comprehensive, detailed, survey of e-government practices, this book is a significant contribution to the field."—Stuart Bretschneider, Syracuse University

M. Jae Moon

This well-written book nicely blends the diffusion theory of technical innovations with the comprehensive nature of the evolution of e-government.
M. Jae Moon, Korea University and Texas A&M University

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