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e-Government and its contribution to a more sustainable society

The myth of return on investment

It’s just plain common sense: you can’t reasonably expect a short-term return on investment from a movement that is seeking to bring societal transformation over generations.

Let’s illustrate this by looking at one of the laws of thermodynamics, which states that a system undergoing transformation will only actually change if it is supplied with the necessary energy both for its nominal operation and for its process of transformation.

It follows that as long as the transformation has yet to produce sufficient effects to reduce consumption or achieve better economic or energy yield, the system may, for a period of years, consume more and perform less well in terms of the targeted sustainability criteria. Failure to accept this obvious truth about the transformation of systems simply results in transformations being prevented, however necessary they may be

Take the French system of third-party payment [Tiers Payant] for social insurance, known as SESAM-Vitale. Whereas this has saved millions of people around two hours a month of administrative work, including by not having to go to the payment center, wait to be served, keep track of paper healthcare forms and statements at home, follow up payments, etc., what is the ecological benefit of all this if the time freed up is spent driving around in a car? If the overall behavior of citizens is not "sustainable", savings generated in one place may even be counter-productive. And there’s no way we’ll see a positive change in all the areas impacting the Sustainable Society at the same time. Nevertheless, as we start to see positive movement in more and more areas, and as promotion for changing behaviors and education take effect, in the mid-term we will find ourselves on the right path.

For the French Finance Ministry to have 80% of tax payers online and accepting e-forms and e-payment is intuitively a good thing for the State Treasury. But reminding tax payers of payment deadlines (and the ensuing 10% surcharge if not met) by SMS or e-mail, as is the case in Belgium, and thus reducing late payments by 30%, is a nice gesture in terms of transparency and democratic governance though, strictly speaking, it is not in the short-term interest of the internal revenue service.

The error in thinking that an e-Government program, with a major role to play in the emergence of a Sustainable Society, can be profitable in the short term from a budgetary point of view, when the whole undertaking is much more to do with modernization and equipping the state with necessary infrastructure for the future, is often a source of disappointment and the reason for the failure of such projects in many countries.

Fortunately there are a sufficient number of exceptions to this rule, especially in cases where simplification has brought with it considerable savings.

The history of the SESAM-Vitale program in France and its results again demonstrate what is to be gained from perseverance here.

The fact that we lack sufficient or suitable instruments for measuring progress with the construction of the Sustainable Society makes it difficult to adopt a workable policy for verifying results and providing incentives. The problem largely arises because we aren’t dealing with standard economic timeframes and no consensus has been reached on exactly what is to be measured in the course of the transformation process.

Conclusion

A national e-Government program is primarily about infrastructure planning and modernization on a national scale. Wanting to achieve irrefutable and quantifiable gains in terms of sustainable development from such a program is often a source of disappointment and the reason for the failure of many such projects.

It is also clear, through all of our interviews that the numbers are either missing or inadequately substantiated and are always debatable. The time necessary for such a transformation is simply too long for any stable analytical frame of reference to be relevant. Furthermore, a system undergoing transformation has to overcome inertia and always consumes a large amount of energy at the outset before delivering on its promises in the medium term.

Further, the difficulty in measuring progress with the construction of the Sustainable Society makes it difficult to adopt a workable policy for verifying results and providing incentives. So we will have to learn to move things forward without a wholly reliable frame of reference and put our faith in the long view.

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