This week, over a thousand representatives from more than 70 countries are gathering in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana for the annual Global e-Government Forum. In Astana, VoR's Tim Walklate spoke to Dr Richard Harvey, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of East Anglia, about how e-government is used in Britain, and what dangers it can pose.
Dr Harvey told us that the strong emphasis in Britain is on cost-saving - "every third word is 'cost'" - whereas the Kazakh government's primary concern is not cost, it is much more important to them to modernise the country and show the public that the nation is a modern one.
"When I analysed the interviews we'd had with the Brits and the Kazakhs, the rights and needs of the citizen came up much more often with the Kazakhs than with the Brits," he told VoR, acknowledging that "that might just be because in Britain it's taken for granted that that's what civil servants are for."
Another big motivator for the Kazakhs is the elimination of petty corruption - bribes to smooth the path of bureaucracy don't work with an online system.
"That seems to me very pro-citizen, and actions that are pro-citizen are basically pro-democracy, it seems to me."
Petitions and taxes
Petitions are one example of how the British government is using e-government, though Dr Harvey says this is a very low-volume activity. The high-volume transactions are all related to tax: "The British appear to like paying their tax and they like paying it online! From an information architect's point of view, the petitions are pure window-dressing. Politicians look at them, but I wouldn't see them as a key plank for e-government in Britain."
So how will e-government be developing in Britain? Dr Harvey says he thinks the most likely main challenge will be how to reconcile e-government with increasing demands for privacy. He thinks that people will probably start asking more questions about their data - such as where it is stored, and how safe it is.
"And because that data is distributed around the world, these questions are not easy to give good answers to," he says. "Most of the people at this conference have a background in computer science. Yet a lot of the decisions being made at conferences like these are likely to impact very heavily on the way the public interact with the government, and on public opinion.
"So there's a possible education gap in IT, and I'm not sure how to bridge it. It's not sorted out. Is this politics? Is it information architecture?"
He says that there is even a tendency to regard all countries as 'enterprises' to be architected.
"Somebody yesterday said there's no need for ministries, but if you asked a politics student about that, they would say a ministry is not about what it does, it's about accountability, how the citizens communicate with government."
Therefore, he thinks there is a very interesting gap developing between the process-orientated view of government, and the democratic function of government.
There are major concerns over security, he says: "The fact that the National Security Agency in the United States can effectively read your data wherever it is held is a real one that needs to be addressed very smartly and quickly by implementers of e-government systems, otherwise we're going to have trouble on our hands."
Different countries are handling this at different paces - it's a major concern in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel's 'phone was hacked; the UK may be at the same stage in a year's time, and developing nations may take quite a bit longer, but they will get there.
He says that though he's not building these systems and doesn't want to diminish the work of those who are struggling with the challenges of building them, he is concerned that "we're designing systems now that are possibly not fit for the future."