Open government data emerging, trust in government declining

28 Nov 2013 by Monika Ermert on Open data

The use of open government data has declined since last year, a new study by the Initiative D21 and the Institute for Public Information Management (ipima) reported at a press conference in Berlin today. According to the fourth edition of the eGovernment Monitor, the number of users of eGovernment services in Sweden in 2013 was 53 percent, compared to 70 percent in 2012. On average, the decline was as high as 8 percent in those countries that were monitored. Numerous data breach scandals and the revelations about pervasive surveillance were obvious reasons for the heightened caution, the researchers wrote in their summary.

For the eGovernment Monitor, groups of 1000 users respectively in Austria, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US were questioned on their experiences with eGovernment open data - from the more practical online tax declaration to the still rather nascent online participatory possibilities.

With the exception of Austria, all countries according to the survey lost e-Government users. Apart from Sweden, the US (down 24 from 39) and the UK (down to 34 from 45) lost most eGovernment users. While in 2012 eGovernment use was still growing in numbers in all countries, this year’s results were alarming, Robert Wieland CEO of TNS Infratest and Vice-president of D21, an industry driven initiative for the information society and IT services, said. “We see a loss of trust in the security of eGovernance services,” he said, calling to government and administration to act upon it.

Lack of quality and ease of use

Quite obviously, users of eGovernment services ask for much higher standards, with, for example, 67 percent of German users questioning the security of data transmission to eGovernment services sites. The risk that data transferred to eGovernment sites might be stolen was said to be a big problem by 65 percent of UK (up from a mere 6 percent in 2012) and US users (up from 11 percent).

Also satisfaction with the standards of government services online in general is on the decline, according to the eGovernment Monitor-study. Users complain a lot about meagre usability, lack of seamlessness and transparency of the services. Where a service has been focussed and worked on by governments, usage numbers have grown despite the more bleak general trend, as the numbers for the German tax declaration show (plus 2 percent). The usability issues, and perhaps also the issue of security of transmission, can probably be addressed more easily than the trust problem.

Lacking the will to engage with citizens?

One more deeply rooted problem might be the lack of understanding (and interest) in many countries about how to engage with citizens online and allow to live citizenship in new ways online. The OECD in its just published study “Government at a Glance,” another bi-annual government measurement exercise, notes that only 7 of 28 countries name enhancing participation and inclusion of citizens in governance an objective of their open data strategies. Instead, the more general goals of better transparency, increased openness, better provision of public services and facilitation to create new businesses were mentioned on top.

Yet, as the OECD describes in the brief chapter on the open government strategies, “transparency does not automatically create better accountability” (or participatory engagement, one might add). Instead a government could provide a lot of open data, but still be opaque and unaccountable. Countries as different as Canada, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the US account for the highest number of available data sets according to the OECD report. Yet it is the smaller countries like Iceland (32 percent) and the Netherlands (25,5 percent) that top the numbers of citizens who have participated in online consultations or voting. The use of the fabulous ICT tools available for online consultations remain low on average throughout the European Union, the OECD report mentions.
According to the eGovernment Monitor, Switzerland ranks highest in their survey when it comes to a “yes” to use more eGovernment services in the future. A tradition in direct democracy seems to be a positive factor in engaging with your government online, perhaps.

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