The E-Government Revolution Yet to Come

Tom Worthington FACS HLM

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia

For Centre for Public Policy, Seminar, 5:30pm, Wednesday 19 November 2003, The University of Melbourne .

This document is draft version 1.1, 20 November 2003:


Information technology has not significantly changed the process of policy design or public sector management. Why haven't we seen the sort of changes evident in other industries? Tom Worthington argues that public sector managers and policy designers have only adopted the slogans from the Internet and the web without learning the on-line literacy and research skills and e-governance techniques which enable the technology. Tom will give examples from his work as a e-government public policy maker in the Federal Government and as the head of the information technology profession in Australia.


Doing things differently is hard. Back in September when I wrote the abstract for this talk it seemed like a good idea. I was going to be in Melbourne for a meeting of the National Council of the Australian Computer Society. While in Melbourne I could drop in and see what Peter Chen was doing at the Centre for Public Policy and perhaps given a talk on something. The real reason I admitted to Peter was being a fan of Walter Burley Griffin's work I wanted an excuse to stay in Newman College, which he designed. I live in one of his other works: Canberra.

Burley Griffin never got on with Canberra's bureaucracy. At the time they didn't really want to be Canberra's bureaucracy, they wanted to stay in Melbourne. The government officials resisted the move to the politically inspired capital: selected not to be too close to Sydney and Melbourne and so in the middle of nowhere.

Canberra has grown to be a reasonably sized, comfortable government city. It is still in the middle of nowhere, but has enough to be somewhere in itself. Some of Burley Griffin's plan (or the plan of his wife and architectural partner) remains, despite the efforts of the bureaucracy's to “improve” it. The central city area and the parliamentary triangle remain recognisable from the plan. The term “parliamentary triangle” derives from the plan's design of circles and triangles. This was in vogue at the time of the design, but Burley Griffin's genius was to find a way to fit the strict geometry of town planning of the day to the undulating landscape of the plains of southern New South Wales.

Other parts of the plan are obscured. I live in O'Connor on one of the other triangles. This triangle has been hidden by less sensitive building. But it remains a leafy and pleasant place to live. My part of Canberra is beside a tributary of Sullivan's Creek. The Creek flows through the ground of the grounds of the Australian National University, before entering Lake Burley Griffin. My part of the creek has been concreted to form an engineeringly efficient, but environmentally and aesthetically inadequate drain.

Volunteers and the ACT Government have been rehabilitating the Sullivan's creek catchment, building an artificial wetland at O'Connor. Shortly after I moved in they dug a hole, diverted the creek into it, planted native vegetation. Now ducks wander across the bicycle path beside the creek as I travel to the ANU and the frogs keep me awake in spring. In October the relevant ACT Minister opened a wheelchair friendly path around the wetland.

What does any of this have to do with electronic government? Not much, but let me make some connections. Canberra is still relatively isolated from the rest of Australia. Our train service is being cut back by the NSW government, who seem to be following the British model of neglect of public services, hoping they will go away. However, in other respects Canberra is well connected to the rest of Australia. Due to the presence of Government we have good telecommunications. Due to the foresight of some in the ACT Government, we have Transact and those of us who are connected have the best telecommunications in Australia.

Canberra also has a concentration of universities for its size as a city. AARnet was established in Canberra, at the ANU to provide an Internet network for Australian Universities. AARnet served as the model for introducing the Internet and later the web to the Federal Government. AARnet has moved on, but later projects could serve as both technical and administrative models for government. One minor technical example is voice over Internet. The ANU has got rid of its telephone PABXs and now uses telephones plugged into the data network.

In one respect much of the Internet technology is like AARnet carrying telephone calls: a clever technical trick which may save some money but, when working well, does not impact business activities. In other respects this makes possible new opportunities for doing business, or government, differently, but which require those doing it to be literate in the use of the technology.

From one point of view Burley Griffin drew lots of circles on a blank landscape. From another he fitted the roads and functions to the shape of the land, to make it cheaper to build roads and to collocate functions for synergy. Those now using technology in Australian Governments are mostly using the Internet the way early bureaucrats saw Burley Griffin's plan: lots of circles, rather than the underlying idea of how to construct a working entity. We need the undertaking of how to use the biotechnological possibilities to build a civil society, not build a clone of a business enterprise.

Process Matters

On 2 August over 3,000 domain names expired and were removed from the DNS for approximately 2 hours before they were renewed. auDA has requested reports from AusRegistry and NOIE. ...


Simon Grose from the Canberra Times newspaper pointed this item from the AUDA meeting minutes to me a few weeks ago. It was an amusing and harmless administrative error, but could have been worse. In theory if domain names are removed from the DNS, then those web sites and e-mail addresses are not available. In the worst case over 3,000 government agencies would be cut off. In practice the domain names are cached at several levels in the Internet, so loss of the source will not cause a problem for some days. Also the problem occurred in the early hours of the morning on a week end. However, if governments re going to use electronic technologies, then they must maintain them effectively.

E-government = E-documents

The most basic part of e-government is the electronic document. Governments run on letters, minutes, forms and reports. These have obvious electronic equivalents which can be used to make government processes more efficient, without changing them fundamentally. Hoverer, this requires the creators of those documents to have at least a minimal level of computer literacy. IT professionals are creating easier to use applications, but those doing business and government will still need an understanding of how to use the technology.

As a recent example of what not to do I receive this message (I have edited out some details to save embarrassment to the Federal agency concerned) :

From: "xxxxxx" <>
To: Tom Worthington <>
Subject: RE: xxxxx Opportunities
Date: Tue, 18 Nov 2003 09:54:19 +1100

Dear Tom,

... The seminars will ...
Attached is a revised program and registration form if you wish to attend. ...

WARNING: The remainder of this message has not been transferred.
The estimated size of this message is 4807861 bytes. ...

As you can see this was an invitation to a seminar, with a two page brochure attached. But the attachment was more than 4 Mbytes. Imagine the annoyance for a small business person who has to pay by the second or by the byte for Internet access who receives 4 Mbytes of useless material from a government agency which is supposed to be helping them. In the extreme case, if downloaded using a wireless mobile connection this would cost $160. This is the electronic equivalent of receiving an invitation in the mail written on a slab of concrete, along with a bill for postage.

Details from a high resolution coat of armsMy mail system holds large attachments in case I don't want to download them. In this case I downloaded the attachment just to see how a two page brochure could be so large. It turned out that almost all the space was taken up by a copy of the Commonwealth Arms stored at high resolution. While the image was black and white, it was stored as a in colour format. This is not uncommon and I regularly receive Commonwealth Government documents by e-mail where 90% of the space is taken up by copies of the Commonwealth Arms. This particular example was worse than usual, as as well as the arms, also the words “Australian Government” and the name of the agency were included in the image. As a result the image was taking up about one hundred times as much storage space as it needed to. It may be that this one image is wasting millions of dollars each year in storing and sending out copies.

Blurred low resolution Coat of ArmsIn June 2003 the Australian Government decided that departments and agencies would use the same version of the Coat of Arms (conventional version 3A solid), in place of agency logos. In theory this is an IT person's dream of efficiency. The centrally responsible agency could place carefully optimised versions of the arms on a central web site along with guidelines for use. All agencies could use the well designed versions, providing lower bandwidth and storage costs, as well as a better service. The opposite seems to have happened. Even the agency announcing the logo change, the PM&C Government Communications Unit, have their non-standard logo on the web page announcing this standardisation. Individuals in agencies seem to have been left to their own devices to scan in or create their own versions of the supposedly standard logo. As well as agencies using logos at too high resolution, one is using a blurry logo at too low a resolution. Logos are being used where they are not really required, such as on purchase advices, where this makes the document three times as large.

Looking for New Models of Government

In February 1995 I gave a talk to the AUUG Sixth Annual Canberra Conference on Internet in Government. In this I took the slightly cynical view that those of us who were IT practitioners working in Government should implement the Internet and then let our senior executives and ministers take credit for it retrospectively. This strategy worked perhaps a bit too well, with those at the senior level not realising that their e-Government “initiatives” were successful because they were retrospective, having already been implemented and tested. One agency which did this more openly was the Defence Department (where I worked) which had the military culture which allowed junior officers to try out bright ideas with tacit approval of their superiors.

The implementation of what is a ten year old information and governance strategy invited by academics for the Internet, translated to Australia thorough AARnet and then adopted by government has gone about as far as it can. It is time to look at what new developments have taken place in IT in the last ten years, what is being researched now for possible implementation in the next ten years and see what would be useful for government.

Oddly enough in recent weeks it is the Chinese government, at regional and national level, who have taken an interest in e-Government. In October I talked to a delegation from the Provincial Government on a visit to Canberra about Establishment and Platform for an E-government System and its Security. In November I talked to the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games in Beijing on the design for the official web site for the 2008 Olympic games. I have been invited to talk to another Chinese national government delegation about e-Government.

In these talks I suggest that some of the new developments in the Internet can be applied to Government. In particular the Access Grid. This is, in a sense, just more technology driving old fashioned government processes. However, another technology pioneered by the ACT Government and the ANU is electronic voting, which might have a significant impact on the Chinese way of government.

E for Small Government?

Web and Internet are normally thought of as tools for large national government initiatives. But one level of government which could benefit from these is ignored, these are the third and forth levels: local government and bodies corporate. The apartment boom in Australia has introduced what is essentially another level of government below local government: the body corporate. I live in an apartment block at City Edge in O'Connor in Canberra. Along with several other residents I own a park and gardens in the centre of the complex. We have to decide, and pay for, what happens with the park, the park benches, the road around it and the streetlights. Also the hot water for my building is generated centrally from solar boosted gas system, data is distributed from the basement on a corporate system. The garbage is collected centrally and taken away by a contractor.

The decisions for this are made by an elected body corporate and implemented by a salaried staff. Essentially this is our own little village council. In fact there is a little federal government as well, with individual building body corporates electing representatives to a central body to administer the shared park. All of this is run with paper meeting announcements, minutes and budgets sent to the residents in the post. Meetings are held in person. There is a commercial opportunity here for creating more efficient on-line ways to run this level of government and to integrate it with local government. This will require easy to use “government in a box” web based systems. Such systems could be developed as commercial products and then offered for sale in places, such as China.

Biographical Notes

Tom Worthington is an independent information technology consultant and Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science at ANU, where he lectures on electronic commerce and web technology. Tom is one of the architects of the Commonwealth Government's Internet strategy and was the first Web Master for the Australian Department of Defence. In 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy. Tom is also a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Association for Computing Machinery.

See Also:

Copyright © Tom Worthington 2003