User Orientation in the Provision of Online Public Services

User Orientation in the Provision of Online Public Services

K. Gareis (empirica Gesellschaft für Kommunikations—und Technologieforschung mbH, Germany)
Copyright: © 2007 |Pages: 7
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-789-8.ch244
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In the context of e-government strategies, governments typically claim that they utilize Internet technology to improve service provision and to better meet citizens’ needs. However, the development of front-office e-government applications often seems to be guided primarily by supply-side factors. Many observers criticise that in practice, technological possibilities rather than user needs determine the design and provision of most public online services. This situation contrasts sharply with the common political intention that the “user—the individual—has to be placed at the centre of future developments for an inclusive knowledge-based society for all” (CEC, 2004). At the root of this contradiction lies technological determinism: the widespread tendency to assume that certain social outcomes are in some way inherent in a technology. A determinist view implies that it is sufficient to “unleash” a certain technology in order to make its potentials for improving human life come true. It can, however, easily be shown that technological determinism is a myth and that technology, while enabling certain beneficial developments, is in no way a sufficient condition for these (Webster, 2002). Rather, society has to devise policies which effectively strive to use technology to the largest possible benefit of all. There is, thus, no reason to be complacent about the high degree of satisfaction which users show with e-government services (CEC, 2003). A lot of research has shown that users tend to be satisfied with online public services: Lassnig, Markus, and Strasser (2004b) found through representative surveys that over 90% of citizen and over 80% of business users indicate that they would use the online channel for e-government service provision again. At the same time, however, a large percentage of potential users of e-government state that they still prefer to access government services through traditional channels (mostly face to face). Thus, a positive attitude towards online government services seems to exist only among current users, while most nonusers tend to dismiss their usefulness. Such polarisation between users and “e-government refusers” points towards the need for better understanding of facilitators and barriers to uptake. The issue is of special relevance because the main services of public interest (which, of course, need to be defined) must be accessible to every citizen. Additionally, for many services there exists a public interest to have as many users as possible (e.g., education, civil participation). It become clear, therefore, that user orientation must go beyond mere accessibility and also fully address questions of motivation. Recent evidence, from the UK especially (Curthoys & Crabtree, 2003), suggests that online availability of a core set of public services alone is unlikely to lead to strong increases in take-up of e-government. The UK government has set a target of getting all public services online by 2005, but this contrasts with low usage rates: About 70% of services were online, but many of these services were hardly being used at all. Curthoys and Crabtree (2003) suggest that encouraging more citizens to use online services should be made the “unequivocal top priority” by the government in its e-government strategy, even if this means downgrading quantitative targets. What, then, must be done to better cope with the diversity of user needs and preferences in the development of online public services? This article outlines the main challenges related to user orientation of end-user e-government services. Disparities between citizens in the areas of access, competence and motivation appear to be of special relevance in this regard. Against this background, the article suggests a conceptualisation of user orientation of online public services which takes account of all main stages of the service delivery process. This framework may help providers of e-government services in the ex-ante assessment of online services to be developed. The final section includes some conclusions and a brief look into upcoming trends and challenges in the area.

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