Why Have An eGovernment Website?
A. What Are The Functions Of An eGovernment Website?
What can a website do for you, and for the organisation you work for?
A website is first of all a communication tool, as it provides individuals and organisations based in remote locations with a way to share and exchange information over the internet.
More specifically, and from the point of view of its owner , an e-government website can fulfil one or more of the following functions:
- it can be a publishing tool , similar to a newspaper, a magazine, a book or a radio/TV broadcast (example: a website that illustrates governmental programmes, or reports on parliamentary and agency activities);
- it can be a marketing tool , providing agencies with a way to publicise and promote their services and activities as they would by buying advertising space in the press, or producing a brochure or other promotional materials; an e-government website may be used for building or enhancing the profile and image of public institutions (example: increasing the trust of the public for a new regulatory authority), or to actually promote commercial services (example: websites that promote state library and documentation services, or the activities of a statistical office, or sites that invite investment in public bonds or other publicly-managed financial instruments);
- it can be a transactional tool , when they allow the users and the public agency to exchange all the information necessary to support a transaction of any kind (e.g. registering complaints, requesting licences, but also more complex transactions, like paying tax, or managing tenders and contracts);
- and it can be a work tool , allowing a public agency to exchange information with its employees and/or other stakeholders in the organisation, and therefore facilitate professional activity in general (e.g. a website with restricted access that provides police authorities with access to vehicle registration databases managed by transport authorities, or a site designed to make medical knowledge resources available to doctors based in remote rural locations).
Government agencies may be interested in one or more of the possible functionalities described above and, if planned and realised appropriately, a website can represent a relatively inexpensive and efficient solution if compared to other ways of communicating. But it's important to understand that having a website will not solve all the communication needs of an organisation, and that there are advantages and disadvantages to using the web as a communication tool.
A website is only one of a variety of communication tools potentially available to governmental organisations, and - like other media applications - it has its advantages and disadvantages, or consequences.
Agencies considering investing in a website should therefore first evaluate whether communicating through a website is an appropriate and sustainable way to address their communication needs.
Below are some examples of the advantages and the disadvantages of having a website.
- Cheaper: a website can be a very cost-effective way to exchange information, both for its owner and its users. From the agency's point of view, for instance, a website can reduce the number of enquiries agency staff has to deal with, by providing answers to the most common questions or queries (also known as FAQs, Frequently Asked Questions ) it normally receives, and therefore reduce the amount of staff effort and cost needed to respond to them. In general, a website makes it possible to publish extensive information on regulations, procedures and other aspects of an organisation's work, which would otherwise need to be disseminated through direct human intervention: this means an agency can dedicate less staff time to dissemination activities, allowing either for a reduction in staff numbers, or for their employment elsewhere in the agency. Websites also represent a cheaper alternative to the production and dissemination of printed materials , like leaflets, letters and so on. This said, it should always be considered that building and maintaining a website also has its costs (see Disadvantages below), so agencies planning to use a website to try to cut staff costs should always make sure that the savings obtained do offset the cost in terms of staff and money necessary to build and maintain a web application. A website can also represent a cheaper communication alternative from the users' point of view , especially if they are located in remote regions or abroad, as a phone call to an internet provider is often cheaper than a long-distance call, or a physical visit to the agency.
- Quicker: web publishing is immediate, and this enables agencies to introduce changes to their public literature easily and relatively quicker than with traditional and more costly methods depending on print. The immediacy of web publishing also allows the fast release of news and other information items to the public, which an agency may find useful to, say, respond to promptings from the media, or act in moments of crisis. In addition to this, if maintained properly a website provides information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week , and can therefore cater for the parts of the population either that find it hard to visit the agency in person (including, for instance, the disabled) or to contact it during working hours. This can extend to providing the possibility to conduct transactions (e.g. requesting a licence) outside working hours and/or without visiting government offices, which can be useful in countries or regions where travel is slow, costly or generally not easy. Conducting transactions online is also generally faster, as data can be recorded and transferred very quickly, as opposed to what happens with other, more traditional ways of handling bureaucratic procedures (e.g. paper-based forms, manual input by officials, etc.).
- Better: websites can provide better ways to manage information compared to traditional means. Hypertext enables you to provide access to complex sets of information in relatively easy and user-friendly ways (see: How Does A Website Work?) and, combined with databases, it can also provide users with ways to interact directly with the data, i.e. consult it, update it and/or send it to other destinations: in other words, a website can enable users to initiate and/or complete service transactions without recourse to human intervention. The absence of a gate-keeping role on the part of humans not only saves time and money, but it is also likely to help reduce and prevent phenomena such as corruption and bribery, a problem experienced by many governments: by potentially cutting out "middlemen", websites represent a relatively transparent way of administering services and information, in comparison to traditional means. Having a website also provides governmental bodies with an opportunity to systematically collect information about their clients and users: this includes running surveys, asking users to share their personal data in order to register for specific services (and therefore easily create and maintain a database of users of these services), and generally monitoring the behaviour of visitors to the site (e.g. through statistical analysis, which can be used to establish what information users are most interested in).
- New: a website provides a new, additional point of contact for the growing part of the population that uses the web. It is estimated that currently just over 20% of the global population has access to the internet, representing a 300%+ increase since 2008 (see: Internet World Stats). That said, it should be considered that the percentage of internet users in developing countries is very often significantly lower than in developed countries (though it will increase, albeit slowly, in the years to come). This means that agencies with international audiences (e.g. donors, international institutions, and governments of other countries) may be in a better position to exploit the potential of communicating on the web than those who deal directly with the local population. Implementing the use of e-mail and/or online forms through a website also offers a fast and efficient alternative communication method for those who prefer indirect contact to communicating in person or on the phone (for time or personal reasons). Ultimately, a website can generally introduce new ways of doing things , or new services altogether (e.g. paying your tax by credit card, which may have been too expensive via traditional channels because of the expenses connected to having card-reading machines, etc.). Finally, a website also represents an innovative tool for staff recruitment , providing agencies with a way to advertise vacancies to a wide audience relatively cheaply, and therefore enlarge the potential base of recruitment, with the added bonus that those who apply via a website are likely to be in possession of computing and web skills that could be put to good use in the organisation.
2. Disadvantages (or "Consequences")
- Websites cost. Building and maintaining governmental websites can require quite a lot of time and money. Apart from technical costs, there are also important human resource costs: any existing or new staff working on the web must be trained both on the technical and communicational aspects of the new technologies they are to use. Agencies should therefore always factor in recruitment, training and other organisational costs when budgeting for a website - all of which can be particularly expensive in developing country contexts, where local capacities and expertise may not be sufficient, and trainers, consultants and technologies have to be called in from abroad.
- Implementing the use of e-mail through an e-government website potentially leads to a new flow of enquiries from the public , through a different channel: agencies should therefore ensure their organisational structure is capable of dealing with these communications in a timely and efficient way, especially considering that web users often expect quicker reaction and communication than those who communicate with traditional methods . It is hardly acceptable to adopt e-mail as an additional, fast method of communication and then leave e-mails unanswered for long periods of time. Again, this points to the costs mentioned in the previous point.
- Web publishing usually represents an alternative and additional source of information to print publications, press releases and media broadcasts: it is essential that the entire information output by a governmental organisation is consistent and not contradictory, and adding an extra source like a website makes this even more complex, especially considering the immediacy of web publishing. This is particularly so when it comes to information with legal value (e.g. laws or contracts), where discrepancies can cause serious issues.
- Publishing information of legal value or granting access to information databases through a website can pose security dangers to governmental organisations, as malicious users (also known as hackers ) can break into website systems through the internet and access, modify or delete information (up to and including making a website inaccessible, or deleting it completely). Defending your website from the attacks of hackers should be a priority, especially if it carries or gives access to legal or confidential information. All this leads to more costs in terms of software and expertise.
- A website does not reach the entire population, but only the part of it that has access to the web (see Benefits above). This is especially a problem in developing countries, where access to the internet is still often limited to a very small part of the population. Websites should therefore be considered only as alternative means of communication, and traditional methods of exchanging information should also be offered and maintained, at least until they become redundant (as was recently the case with the telegraph).
How can government agencies reap the benefits of having a website and reduce the impact of the disadvantages outlined above? The answer lies in good planning (see: How Do I Plan An eGovernment Website? ). If web projects are planned and funded appropriately, they usually have higher chances of being a success.