Source: OGP Annual Summit London 2013

E-governance is in the spotlight, but how do we create e-citizens?

Three necessary conditions that e-government tools must have in order to attract citizens’ engagement

By Carolina Morais Araujo and Gerry Botchoukova-Farkova

The use of technology by governments is currently a trendy topic in the public sector. The hope, pointed out by O’Reilly, is that Internet technologies will enable citizens to build the kind of participatory government where they will be actively engaged not only periodically, such as on election day, but every day (2010: 12).

The evolution of e-government in the last few years shows an effort by governments around the world to bridge the existing gap between citizens and public sector administrations. Since 2014, and for the first time ever, all 193 member states of the United Nations have launched national websites. Moreover, the number of national administrations that use social media is increasing: 118 countries use these tools for citizens’ consultations, and 70, to publicize government’s actions. Between 2012 and 2014, the number of countries that were offering mobile apps or had websites doubled to almost 50 (UNPAN, 2014: 5–8).

Nevertheless, despite the heavy and expensive investments in technology, a significant portion of e-government initiatives is simply unsuccessful. Limited Internet access persists as a serious connectivity issue, especially in developing countries. Furthermore, technologies that are usually developed without citizens’ participation have resulted in tools that are difficult to use or do not receive any attention from their intended users.

The US illustrates this point. Most government agencies release their data on the Internet, but much of the information is presented in a non-user-friendly manner. This lowers the application’s practicality to the end user and leaves the government with the technology maintenance bill. One example is USAspending.gov, which releases data about US government spending in CSV, XML, TSV or ATOM files, with hundreds of columns and thousands of lines. As a result, although government spending is a topic that could generate interest among taxpayers, the difficulty of the format does little to foster active engagement among the public.

The central point concerning e-government should not be the technology itself, but the citizens’ use of it. The primary question that governments should answer is how to encourage citizens to use e-government tools in order to have a more effective interaction with the institutions that serve them. Since e-governments are already a reality, the next step is to ask: how do we create e-citizens?

The objective of this paper is to discuss what are the conditions through which it is possible to increase citizens’ awareness and participation in e-government activities. The analysis will be divided into three parts. First, we will review recent literature about the use of technology for government-to-citizen engagement. Second, we will propose three conditions necessary for the success of e-government tools. Third, we will present five examples of e-government initiatives around the world and why they were successful or not. Fourth, we will make recommendations about how to ensure usability and effectiveness of e-government tools and guarantee strong citizens’ participation.

The aim is not to provide a comprehensive study, which is challenging due to the limited availability of documentation on e-government initiatives around the world, but to use positive and negative examples as a starting point to draw commonalities among successful cases. Through this exercise, the objective is to develop conditions that governments should take into consideration when designing and implementing e-government tools.

Why E-governance and E-citizens Matter?

Widely used, the term e-government often lacks a precise definition. The United Nations defines e-government as “the use of ICT and its application by the government for the provision of information and public services to the people” (UNPAN, 2014: 2). More broadly, the term refers to the application of technologies in public administrations to integrate processes, manage data, improve public services or reduce the communication gap between citizens and the government in order to increase its accountability. The increasing centrality of e-government in the public policy debate is closely tied to the development and popularization of the Internet, a simple and relatively inexpensive tool for sharing more data than ever possible before. In this context, open data has become a crucial aspect of open government, and sometimes the two concepts are used as synonyms.

Nonetheless, government is more than simply disclosing a huge amount of data: technology in government also enables new communication and information-sharing tools to promote political and collective action in civil society (Noveck in O’Reilly, 2010: 53). Tappscott (2010) identified two phases of e-government innovation to achieve this objective. The first wave of digitally enabled e-government strategies allow citizens to access government information and services while creating administrative and operational efficiencies in existing processes — for example, offering existing government services in an online platform. The disruption, however, happen in the second wave of innovation, as it will redesign how governments operate and interact with their citizens. At the end of the process, governments around the world will “redefine their role in society and help launch a new era of participatory government” (2010: XVII — XIX).

According to the United Nations Public Administration Network, participatory government means to provide citizens with “access not only to information, but also to decision-making and power to influence public choices, (…) recognizing that protection of the public interest is a responsibility not only of the government and the political process, but also of civil society and the private sector” (UN, 2007: 3) Thus, the use of technologies by government entities, meant to bridge the gap between citizens and institutional administrations, is certainly a powerful way to enhance participatory governance.

Only technology, however, is not enough to spark innovation in government. As posed by Wichowski, tools are important because they enable action, but as important is “to examine the people who use the tools: the agents of action” (2015: 54). In this analysis, the focus is on two critical action drivers: the citizens’ openness to the use of e-government tools and the public administrations’ institutional capacity to respond to citizens’ e-government requests.

Citizens are still largely neglected by e-government efforts. Many public sector technology tools are developed without citizens’ participation or with extremely short testing phase. As a result, many costly initiatives are hardly used or often ignored by the population. What governments should concentrate their efforts on in order to increase citizens’ participation is not only the development of new tools, but more importantly, the provision of conditions that nurture the creation of e-citizens.

E-citizens are engaged in the use of technologies for the purpose of participating in governance affairs. Lips (2006) identifies four phases in the relationship between governments and citizens in the digital era. In the first one, the “information” stage, the main attempt of public administrations is to make information available online. The second phase is the “communication”, in which more interactive features to governments’ websites are developed, such as e-mail, which enables them to communicate with citizens. In the third stage, governments employ “online transaction facilities” in their relationships with citizens, including the provision of online services. Lastly, the current phase is “personalization”, defined as “new and more complex ways of categorizing, segmenting and grouping citizens that enable different modes, levels and paces of service provision to be implement” (2006: 3–5).

Public administrations around the world exhibit each one of these different stages of fostering e-citizenship. Although since 2014 all 193 United Nations members have established national websites, there is still an underutilization of the potential of tools such as Short Message Services (SMS), mobile apps, and social media networks. Moreover, the digital divide, defined as the inequality in access to the Internet and technology infrastructure, is still a big challenge that limits e-government reach. The UN E-government Survey 2014 raises the concern about the increasing gap between citizens as more government services are moved online, which may deny the access to public services such as education, healthcare, or employment to part of the population (UNPAN, 2014: 9–10).

Even in developed countries, where the digital divide is a far less prominent issue, the use of e-government tools to promote participation and well-being has resulted in different levels of success. In OECD countries, for example, the average of e-government usage is around 50%, according to the UN. However, even in countries such as Italy, e-government usage is far below this average and less than 20% of its population is actively engaged (UNPAN, 2014: 142).

E-government tools usage among OECD countries. Source: UN E-government Survey 2014

Three Conditions for Active E-citizenship

In order to be successful, e-government initiatives must promote effective usage. To guarantee usability of e-government tools, governments must assure three conditions: 1) e-government tools must be perceived as useful for citizens; 2) citizens have to believe that tools are easy to use; 3) public administrations will uptake citizens’ participation and provide adequate and timely responses to them.

The two first conditions are borrowed from the Technology Acceptance Model, which was originally created to understand how users adopt new technologies. According to Jaeger and Mattson, “perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use of a technology combine to create an attitude about this technology, influencing decisions of whether to adopt it” (2009: 88–89). The adoption of the two conditions of the Technology Acceptance Model would prevent the development of technological tools that are hardly used or ignored by citizens. The “ease of use” requirement urges policymakers to think of ways to incorporate their constituents’ existing technical knowledge and habits.

One successful example is the use of Whatsapp accounts as a communication channel between citizens and city administrations in Brazil. The smartphone application has more than 45 million Brazilian users and is among the five most popular apps in the country. This is largely due to the fact that Brazilian mobile companies charge high rates for SMS, which makes WhatsApp an attractive alternative in a country with more than 283.4 million active mobile plans, according to the National Agency of Telecommunications.

In the last few months, the high popularity of Whatsapp has prompted dozens of Brazilian cities’ administrations, including some of the largest cities in the country, to create exclusive Whatsapp accounts to receive complaints and public service requests. For instance, in Rio de Janeiro, Whatsapp can be used to request and schedule building inspections. In Salvador, citizens could use the app during Carnival celebrations to send complaints and evaluate taxi drivers. These two cases fulfill the two first conditions for e-government tools’ usage: both are perceived as useful and do not require new skills to be acquired by citizens in order to use them. In Salvador, in the first three days of last Carnival, in February, the city government received more than 500 Whatsapp messages about taxis and required that 57 drivers report to city hall to provide explanations about unsatisfactory service practices.

The third condition for usage of e-government tools is the perception that administrations have the capacity to adequately provide responses to citizens. This is closely related to the level of trust between citizens and government, as well as the extent to which governments “effectively seek citizens’ feedback, monitor, track and analyze usage trends, prioritize service digitalization and integrate relevant data into policy” (UNPAN, 2014: 161). E-government can serve as a trust-builder by improving daily interaction between administration and citizens. However, if the perception of responsiveness weakens, even useful and easy to use e-government tools most often fail to attract any attention.

Tolbert and Mossberger (2006) identify six benefits of e-government that can lead to an upsurge in trust in government. Effective e-government tools enhance: 1) responsiveness, by improving communication with citizens that are convenient and quick; 2) accessibility, since electronic tools have the potential to make information and services available to citizens 24 hours per day, seven days per week; 3) transparency, through the posting of data, policies, laws, meeting schedules and contacts; 4) responsibility, by releasing privacy and security statements and policies; 5) efficiency and effectiveness, through the use of technologies to automate process, improve service delivery, save resources and time; 6) participation, through engagement in town meetings, chat rooms and deliberative processes online (2006: 357–358).

In this context, an idea that has been increasingly adopted to respond to the demands of e-governance is the human-centered design approach. As posed by a piece released by the Governance Lab of the New York University, this is “a structured process that helps public servants understand the needs of the people and the communities they are designing for, create innovative approaches to respond to these needs and deliver solutions and services designed to address the specific contexts of users”. Human-centered design has been implemented in the public sector, especially with the purpose of improving delivery of services. It aims to close the gap between policy makers and citizens and provide solutions “with people, rather than for them”.

The three conditions described above — e-government tools are perceived as useful, easy to use, and credible to the extent that citizens believe in the government’s capacity to respond to their demands — are true for any level of government that is engaged in building electronic tools. Successful e-government tools can increase interactions among citizens and enable innovation. Conversely, low government capacity and failure of putting the citizen in the center of e-government initiatives can undermine these same tools. As a result, e-citizens cannot be nurtured in an environment of low engagement and low trust in government.

In the next section, three successful e-government initiatives that fulfill the three conditions for e-citizens development in three different cities, Seoul (South Korea), San Luis (Argentina) and Tel-Aviv (Israel), will be presented. In addition we will also examine two unsuccessful cases of e-governance that illustrate the many pitfalls that a well-intended initiative can fall victim to if it does not consider them from the very beginning. The two examples that we chose to highlight were implemented on the national level in the United States and Kenya.

Case Studies

The objective of presenting case studies is to identify key elements that lead to high citizen engagement and e-citizenship. In the analysis of these cases, the focus is to understand the drivers behind users’ interest and active interaction with e-governance tools.

Case study #1: Sharing City, Seoul

With a population of more than 10.5 million people, but limited territorial space and resources, Seoul launched in 2013 the “Sharing City Seoul”, a public-private partnership between the city’s government and its startup community. The initiative has an e-government component called ShareHub, which connect users with sharing services. By installing apps on smartphones, citizens can be part of services such as share of space in parking lots, living spaces, children’s clothes and cars.

List of services offered by Sharing City Seoul. Source: http://english.sharehub.kr/services-infographics/

Why it was successful: The Sharing City was developed and implemented with the aim to tackle some of the city’s biggest challenges. It employed existing mobile technology and cultural adeptness for sharing to successfully engage a significant portion of its population in subscribing to the services. Also, the program has an educational component, ShareHub, which instructs citizens on how to use the Sharing City. “ShareHub is like an intermediate bridge that spreads Sharing City, Seoul policies to citizens, companies, organizations and institutions. By translating government officials’ language into citizen-friendly soft language, we encourage people to be a part of the policy execution” (Johnson). The usefulness and easiness of use are two conditions that increase the chances of adoption and success of the project.

The most popular sharing service is Nanum-Car, a car-sharing program that has been used over 500,000 times in less than two years. Moreover, the share of children’s clothes also enjoyed success, recording 120% growth in just one year. Lastly, the shared living space service linking seniors and youth is proactively helping solve the housing shortage affecting young people in the city, while promoting the welfare of seniors who live alone (Thorpe).

Case study #2: DigiTel, Tel Aviv, Israel

Launched in 2013, DigiTel is composed by a smartphone app and a card that allow Tel Aviv’s residents to more effectively interact with their municipality. Through the app, residents can pay municipal bills, order parking permits and send photos of potholes or broken park benches to the municipal complaint line. While many of these services were already available on the municipality’s website, the app offers more by providing residents with location-based information on nearby bike lanes, parking lots and restaurants.

The other component of the DigiTel initiative is the resident’s card, an example of the “personalization” phase of e-government tools described by Lipps (2006). Instead of a traditional ID card, the city created a smart card that provides discounts on concerts and cultural events. In order to obtain the card, one needs to visit a municipal DigiTel service station with a Valid ID card, driver’s license or passport and complete the online subscription. Once this is done, the card arrives in the mail ready to offer personalized discounts of the city’s cultural program to its new owner.

Tel Aviv Resident’s card. Source: http://www.tel-aviv.gov.il/eng/residents/Pages/ResidentCard.aspx?tm=1&sm=47

Why it was successful: DigiTel encourages citizens to be proactive and engaged with their city. Also, the app and the card allow citizens to access personalized services according to the area of the city they lived and their preferences. Moreover, the project was launched and implemented gradually, which provided the necessary acceptance and adoption environment — make it easy to use. Two years after its launch, DigiTel is enjoying sizable popularity — around 100,000 people hold smart cards and 30,000 use the smartphone app in a city with 410,000 inhabitants[1]. Also, a year after the launch of DigiTel, Tel Aviv won the “Best Smart City of 2014” award at the Smart City Expo Conference in Barcelona.

Ultimately, DigiTel aims to change the public’s negative perception of the local government. This point was recently explained by Zohar Sharon, Chief Knowledge Officer at the Tel Aviv Municipality: “We wanted to change our public image, from that of yet another problematic public body to a more friendly organization”.

Case study #3: Barrios Activos (Active Neighborhoods) San Luis, Argentina

Barrios Activos (“Active Neighborhoods”) is an online platform launched by the city of San Luis (Argentina) that actively engages citizens in the infrastructural improvement of their city. In essence, an interactive map collects citizens’ proposals, signals and complaints about any public works projects affecting their neighborhoods. Residents can submit reports with photos of hazardous conditions, vote in support of someone else’s complaint or share anyone’s report via social media. The government has a limited time to give a response about the issue. The easy to use interactive map keeps track of the location and status of the reported complaint and alerts the public when the issue has been resolved (“BARRIOS ACTIVOS: Nueva Plataforma Virtual Para Recibir Reclamos De Los Vecinos”). In addition to the website, users can also download the Barrios Activos app on their mobile devices.

Barrios Activos’ interactive map with demands of citizens in San Luis. Source: http://sanluisactiva.com/

Why it was successful: There are two main reasons for the success of the Barrios Activos initiative: 1) it employed familiar and easy to use technology such as pictures, mobile devices, interactive website and social media, in particular Twitter and Facebook, to solve basic problems of the city; 2) it gained the citizens’ trust through its transparency feature and the prompt responses of the government so far. The continuously updated information strengthens confidence within residents that they are able to influence positive change within their city.

Barrios Activos was launched to modernize municipal management and build a stronger and more engaged local society. Through its easy to use technology, the project managed to nurture the development of active e-citizens who provide effective control of public projects in their city. Since the start of the initiative, hundreds of reports have been submitted and resolved.

Case study #4: Initial launch of the HealthCare.gov website (Obamacare)

In 2010, the United States Congress passed the Affordable Care Act that aimed to empower consumers to take charge of their healthcare coverage. Under the law, the need for a fast, easy and reliable enrollment process arose. The solution seemed simple: HealthCare.gov, a federal government website linked to the states health care insurance market, known as exchanges, where Americans could compare and purchase health insurance. The aim was for consumers to be able to make better-informed decisions about healthcare coverage, by comparing all of the options available to them and their families. Once they have made their selection, consumers could make the purchase directly online after setting up a simple account. The technological tool that they chose was a website with an online shopping cart. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the initiative did not translate into a smooth implementation and left much to be desired.

Why it was unsuccessful: During the initial launch of HealthCare.gov, the healthcare selection and purchase ran into trouble. Technical errors that were identified, but not resolved due to a time crunch during the testing phase, greatly diminished the usefulness and user friendliness of the tool. Some of the myriad errors that the site served after the launch included “preventing users from creating accounts, failing to recognize users who do have accounts, putting users in inescapable loops, and miscalculating healthcare subsidies” (Jeffries). Design failures, such as inadequate capacity to handle a large number of users, further exacerbated the situation.

Error message displayed at the HealthCare.org website on October 2 2013. Source: FoxNews

US chief technology officer Todd Park told USA Today in an interview that “the healthcare exchanges that launched last week was designed for 50,000 to 60,000 concurrent users, but got 250,000” (Jeffries). In the end, even with the technical difficulties and glitches, “some 5.4 million people picked plans for 2014 via the site, which served 36 states, and 2.6 million did so through state-run exchanges” (Ante et. al). The bumpy start prompted the federal administration to re-evaluate the technical components of the system and to increase its usefulness by improving its user friendliness. “Among the changes in the new version of HealthCare.gov is a revamp of the site’s consumer-facing portion, including the application for coverage most people will use, as well as the comparison tool that lets them shop for plans” (Ante et. al).

Case study #5: Kenya Open Data

Kenya Open Data is a national open data portal that aims to “make core government developmental, demographic, statistical and expenditure data available in a useful digital format for researchers, policymakers, ICT developers and the general public” (Kenya Open Data). The initiative’s goal is to foster a more transparent, accountable, and effective government. However, after its initial launch in 2011, the beacon of open data in Africa and the e-governance tool that was supposed to inspire new and creative solutions to long standing problems saw stagnant traffic and ran into some trouble of its own.

Why it was unsuccessful: Lack of up to date information, limited government buy-in and a weak legal framework were the main reasons why the Kenya Open Data initiative lost its luster early on. “Despite the excitement that surrounded its launch in July 2011, the portal has not been updated in eight months, has seen stagnant traffic, and is quickly losing its status as the symbolic leader of open government in Africa”[1].

A challenging institutional environment that prevented government officials from quickly adapting to a new way of work and continued to foster a culture of information secrecy set the initiative for failure from the very start. The portal was starved of vital data, as ministries were reluctant to release any information, especially in a political environment in which a still new and unfamiliar constitutional framework was operating. As often is the case with e-governance initiatives, miscalculating the context in which they are launched could be just as damaging to their success as their technical implementation and performance. An open data portal with outdated information can hardly be of any use to anyone for that matter.

After encountering challenges early on, the Kenya Open Data portal managed to overcome them. As updated information started filling the initiative’s web page, the lost citizens’ trust, evident by the stagnant levels of viewership traffic, started to improve. Currently, the portal boasts over 58 million page views, 744 total datasets, 272 total charts and 90 total maps (Kenya Open Data).

Kenya Open Data Portal. Source: Source: https://opendata.go.ke/

The initiative in Kenya has already inspired other African countries, such as Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda, to move into the same direction, and the country has been considered a regional benchmark on open data.

Why these cases?

The cases selection was guided by the desire to present examples of both successful and unsuccessful e-governance initiatives across a wide geographical and technological spectrum. In selecting projects from different regions (Africa, Asia, Latin America, Middle East and North America), the objective is to show that e-governance is not only feasible and successful in developed countries, but could also thrive in developing ones. As the research shows, the presented e-governance initiative from the United States was quite unsuccessful in creating easy to use and useful tools, while the ones from Argentina and Israel are managing to nurture the inception of e-citizens.

A second motive was the diversity of the actual technology that each one of the tools employed in order to engage citizens. From websites to apps, interactive maps and digital cards loaded with personalized data, the variety of instruments showed that e-governance can have many shapes and levels of involvement. In essence, what this means is that as long as e-governance tools are designed with their intended users’ needs, technical skills, habits and interests in mind, the actual form of service delivery or interaction is of little importance.

Third, the idea of presenting cases was to draw commonalities between them and identify key drivers for e-governance success. After analyzing five initiatives, it seems that the three conditions proposed to guarantee citizens’ engagement are relevant. E-government tools must be perceived as useful and easy to use, as proposed by the Technology Acceptance Model, in order to be accepted and adopted by the public — the examples of Seoul and Tel-Aviv are particularly sensitive to these two conditions. In addition, governments must demonstrate capacity to respond to citizens’ demands in order to engage them in e-government initiatives — the municipality of San Luis has been surprisingly successful in this point.

Conclusion

As the literature review and the case studies indicate, the use of technology by governments has the potential to revolutionize the interaction between citizens and the administrative bodies that serve them — and, therefore, create true e-citizens. From purely informative to transactional and even personalized interactions, e-governance systems offer a wide range of ways for the population to be actively engaged in government matters.

Without active citizens’ participation, even the most brilliant e-governance initiative is doomed to fail. Nonetheless, creating e-citizens is not an easy task. It requires a thorough understanding of the context, culture and technology adeptness of the population. Therefore, any government looking to create and implement a successful e-governance initiative has to have an in depth knowledge and understanding of the environment in which it aims to operate. The Kenya Open Data portal failed initially precisely for this reason — it was launched without taking into consideration the political culture of the government officials.

In addition to a good evaluation of the context, a successful e-governance initiative also requires useful and easy to use technology tools. Thus, the second recommendation to engaging e-citizens is to incorporate familiar and popular tools that citizens already understand and are comfortable using. Especially in big projects, in which governments expect to reach citizens with different levels of education and in different regions, new tools require training or at least a longer period of time to become familiar, which can limit their effectiveness and usage in the short and medium terms.

Lastly, in order to succeed in fostering e-citizenship among their populations, city governments should assess and clearly understand their own capacity of designing and implementing e-governance initiatives, as well as responding to citizens’ participation. Encouraging citizens’ participation may not be enough if the government cannot respond to these demands in an acceptable timeframe. Therefore, technology will not be enough if governments do not optimize their capacity to meet citizens’ priorities. This recommendation is of utmost importance, because if it is overlooked administrations run the risk of loosing people’s trust and interest in future e-governance endeavors.

The central takeaway from this analysis was best summarized by Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general, in a lecture at the Journalist School of Columbia University in November. Responding to a student’s question on the role of technology in global governance, Annan said: “So you need this [technology tools], but you also need leadership. In terms of keeping people together, sharing information, it is an incredible tool, but it does require enlightened leadership and people to understand that it is a tool and alone it cannot solve the problems”.

Paper presented by Carolina Morais Araujo and Gerry Botchoukova-Farkova at the Global Public Policy Network Conference 2015 on December 4 2015 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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Carolina Morais Araujo

Written by

Brazilian citizen, Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University, in New York.

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