City portals: How e-government evolves into e-participation

As part of the Smart Cities Project I have been working with Mark Deakin on a report to provide a context the development of e-government portals by cities.

Basically it provides a simple four-phase model to describe their customisation of service provision. Of course, there are many other models of the evolution of e-government!

The model is kept simple here because our aim is to point out the need for city administrations to be clear about the extent, scale and scope of e-government developments and challenges posed by the transition from phase three (transaction support) to four (citizen participation), in terms the democratic and organisational impact of the shift towards user-centric service provision

You can download a longer (Word) version of the paper here.


City portals provide online access to a growing number of e-government services. As such they have been successful in exploiting the opportunities technology offers to make local and regional government services available over the web. Today in the North Sea Region, almost all larger and ‘small-to-medium’ sized cities have portals offering varying levels of online access to services.

As electronically-enhanced services they are seen as valuable alternatives to traditional modes of provision as governments can now use digital technologies to deliver customized products, readily available online and via multiple channels. These changes are taking place in the context of the ongoing development and take-up of social networking services and Web 2.0 technologies, and ongoing pressures for increases in delivery efficiency and improvements in service levels.

The evolution of city portals

City portals are core to this modernization of government and they are understood to have undergone development in a number of phases. Here, a four phased model is outlined:

  1. Information provision: where websites provide information about available (offline) services
  2. Interaction with data: where portals allow users to engage with the material hosted online and to interact with it
  3. Transaction support: where portals offer web-based service transactions increasingly customised to meet user requirements for multi-channel access
  4. Participation: where portals enable citizens to participate in decisions taken about further online service development.

Evolution of e-government as series of learning curves

In moving between these phases, portals are said to undergo a process of transformation. The early models and phases of portal development are often influenced by ‘New Public Management’ approaches, where citizens are generally treated as passive customers.

The transformation from simply putting government online (phase one and two) to e-government (phase three) can be illustrated as a two S-shaped learning curves. The diagram also shows the interoperability needs of the transformation as preceding those of data processing and knowledge management, and serves to highlight the level of maturity required for e-government service developments to be classified as ‘smart’.

For comparison, Accenture has a five-stage model of trans­formation of e-government:

  1. Online presence
  2. Basic capability
  3. Service availability
  4. Mature delivery
  5. Service transformation

Note that their representation stops before citizen participation is reached

As the breadth and depth of portals increase, it is inevitable that different cities and the departments within them will be at different stages in this development process. For our purposes, the fourfold classification is useful as it identifies the processes underlying the development of city portals, and allows us to track their progression from youthful experiments in tele-presence to mature exercises in the deployment of digital technologies as platforms for extending web services and as part of an attempt to democratise decisions taken about future levels of provision.

We argue that the last phase, towards participation, is a major step-change in the development of e-government services, at the core of which is the integration of online consultation and deliberation over proposed service changes and the participation of users as citizens in the democratisation of decisions taken about future levels of provision.

Bringing citizens to the fore

It is with the transformation of service provision from phase three (transactional) to four (participatory) that citizenship surfaces as a key agent of change. Current research suggests that this transition rests on the following:

  • Firstly the development of front-line services dealing with citizen enquiries as customers, capable of being dealt with through automated service responses and the use of avatars to complete transactions: the ‘contact centre’ approach to the transformation. This can be viewed as the culmination of phase three.
  • Secondly, the development of post-transactional services and those not representing citizens as customers, but as partners in the consultations and deliberations they, government and business are engage when considering and subsequently agreeing future levels of provision.

The challenge city portals have faced as they mature has been that of matching the diversity of user community expectations with the digital platforms which are needed to meet their personal and corporate organisational requirements. Whether this is being achieved by user or political/strategic pull, or through technology push can vary between organisations with significant impacts on outcomes.

These fourth stage city portals have a diverse community of users whose data needs to be personalised and information customised so that they can browse, enquire, query, comment on and even challenge the content and services offered. This is because citizens now have a long reach into service provision and cut deep into matters concerning data supply and information exchange, so much so that citizens have now become a major driving force behind the development of fourth phase portal developments and key to their future.

A framework for progress

It is evident that we need to benchmark a city portal, so it can be located in the development path, allowing an appropriate strategy to be devised: it is only appropriate to plan for a phase transition once the portal has successfully reached the previous phase.

Any transformation should be underpinned with the organisational learning needed and knowledge management systems required to institutionalise the new working practices such a collaborative platform for the delivery of services develops. This process of systems integration is not without risk, and issues of intellectual property rights, privacy, personal data security, identity theft and commercial sensitivity need to be addressed. Any actions taken to develop city portals should, therefore recognise and take steps to mitigate these risks.


This framework is useful because it can be used to position e-government development proposals against the backdrop of other similar actions taking place elsewhere and plan this transformation to guide the process from one stage to another, remembering it is important to identify and manage the risks that are associated with portal development.

Under the fourth (citizen participation) phase of portal development, the service platform is wide ranging and deep, personal, corporate, organisational, sector-based and thematic, set within government frameworks and built on open standards which allow platforms of this type to exploit the opportunities the internet provides to work collectively, sharing data and services between organisations, subject to appropriate controls over confidential and private data.

With this transformation of service provision it is citizens who come to the fore. It is here where the developments undergo the transition from phase three to four, and citizenship becomes a key agent of the change in the process of service provision. We suggest the changes are two-fold, with a ‘call centre’ approach to the transformation being needed before the development of post-transactional services and seeing citizens not as customers, but partners in the development of user-centric services. For transformation to be sustained, it is necessary for the user community to be able to reflexively double back on itself and discover the point where the vested interests of government, business and citizens strategically align with one another and coalesce around the transition from the notion of customers to that of partners.

Related reading

  1. Davison, R,.R., Wagner, C., Ma, L.C.K., (2005) From government to e-government: a transition model, in Information Technoloygy and People Vol 18 No 3 (2005) 280-299
  2. Dawes, S.S., Préfontaine, L. (2003) Understanding new models of collaboration for delivering government services. Communications of the ACM January 2003/Vol 46 No 1
  3. Deakin, M and Allwinkle, S. (2006) The IntelCities community of practice: the e-learning platform, knowledge management system and digital library for semantically-interoperable e-governance services, International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management, 6, (3):155-162.
  4. Deakin, M. (2009) The IntelCities Community of Practice: the eGov services model for socially-inclusive and participatory urban regeneration programmes, in Riddeck, C. ed., Research Strategies for eGovernment Service Adoption, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey.
  5. Deakin, M. and Allwinkle, S. (2007) Urban regeneration and sustainable communities: the role of networks, innovation and creativity in building successful partnerships, Journal of Urban Technology, 14, (1): 77-91.
  6. Deakin, M., Allwinkle, S. and Campbell, F. (2006) The IntelCities e-Learning platform, knowledge management system and digital library for semantically rich e-governance services, International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, 2, (8): 31-38.
  7. Deakin, M., Allwinkle, S. and Campbell, F. (2007) The IntelCities Community of Practice: the eGov Services for Socially-inclusive and Participatory Urban Regeneration Programmes, in Cunningham, P ed. Innovation and the Knowledge Economy: Issues, Applications and Case Studies, ISO Press, Washington DC.
  8. Lombardi, P., Cooper, I., Paskaleva, K. and Deakin, M. (2009) The challenge of designing user-centric e-services: European dimensions, in Riddeck, C. ed. Research Strategies for eGovernment Service Adoption, Idea Group Publishing, Hershey
  9. Reddick, C.G. (2009). Handbook of Research on Strategies for Local E-Government Adoption and Implementation: Comparative Studies (2 Volumes). (Editor). (Hershey, PA: IGI Global). ISBN-13: 9781605662824
  10. Torres,L., Pina, V. and Acerete, B. (2005) E-government developments on delivering public services among EU cities, in Government Information Quarterly: 22 (2005) 217-238
  11. Van Wamelen, J., de Kool, D. (2008) Web 2.0: A basis for the second society? ICEGOC2008, ACM

About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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One Response to City portals: How e-government evolves into e-participation

  1. I think the system of urban planning an development would run much smoother with a good implementation of electronic consultation systems. Being an environmental lawyer, I can see the problems that result from a system of governence that is not quick, democratic, or adaptive to the communities that it plans for. I think digital consultation systems in digital cites could help to improve consultation like this.

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