In this series approaching our workshop, we now further clarify the definition by exploring “what is new” in collaborative e-government. This is particularly important in order to avoid the risk that the concept moves obscurity to oblivion “without even a nanosecond of coherence“.

The notion that government is not the only provider of public service is far from new. It is necessary to have a brief overview of the cultural roots of such tradition in order to spell out the basis for the reflection, which will then inform the results of this analysis. The three historical elements of the debate are privatisation, philantropy and self-help.

One powerful political concept is privatisation. Contrarily to the current appearance, the history of government is not a history of progressive privatisation, but rather a oscillation between public and private provision of services. In the Ancient Greece and in Rome governments contracted out almost everything to the private sector, including tax collection, army supplies, religious sacrifices and construction. The creation of the modern state in the 16th century somehow restarted the move towards centralisation and public provision, which culminated in the 20th century welfare state. The late 20th century, and mainly from the 1980s, saw a resurgence of privatisation in the western world.[1] The notion of contracting out and privatisation is unavoidable when dealing with collaborative e-government: any observation about quality of service and accountability should build on the existing body of knowledge.

The second notion is philantropy and its role vis-a-vis the state. Again, the roots are in the Greek and Roman tradition, with particular relation to the religious prescriptions. But the debate become more interesting in the 19th and 20th century. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed in the 19th century the important role of civil society in the provision of public services in America with respect to France; and during the years of the creation of the welfare state, in particular in the Edwardian UK, the vision emerged of the voluntary sector as the “extension ladder” of the welfare state, catering for new and unmet needs. In the 1980s, the emerging role of the nonprofit sector became recognized as fundamental in the delivery of public services.[2]  More recently, both left (Obama in the US) and right wing (Cameron in the UK) government have shared the notion of government-citizens collaboration to the delivery of public services.

Closely related in both time and meaning, the notion of self-help has very ancient roots, but became a core social policy concept in the 19th century through the increasing importance of mutual organisations and cooperatives. By the end of the 19th century, over 80% of British working age men and 90% of Australian working age men were members of one or more Friendly Society.[3] In many domains, the importance of horizontal peer-to-peer exchange and collaboration has been acknowledged: tacit knowledge exchanged between workers in communities of practice is a factor of economic competitiveness;[4] peer tutoring between students is demonstratedly effective in increasing pupils performance,[5] and patients who turn to colleague and friends for health advice understand their condition better and generally show a greater ability to cope.[6]

These concepts are now yet again on the table of policy-makers, through the new “buzzword” of social innovation.

So is collaborative e-government simpy an expression of these long-term trends?

We argue that this is not the case, that it represents a significant discontinuity. The novelty lies in the dramatic increase in scope and granularity of collaboration, enabled by low-cost ICT. As Clay Shirky puts it, ICT play lowers the costs of collaboration and thereby increase exponentially the applicability and the impact of collaboration.[7] This multiplies the capacity of citizens to self-organize and of business to develop innovative business models out of government data. Furthermore, because of the low cost of technology, no longer this collaboration requires previous permission and formalisation: with can therefore talk about a new paradigm of “collaboration without permission“. There is no longer the need of an explicit agreement with government : for instance, FixMyStreet.com was launched without a previous agreeement with the municipalities affected. There is no longer the need to establish formal organisation in order to deliver the service: collaborative e-government services can be delivered by informal groups.

This paves the way to new, softer and more difficutl forms of accountability and governance.

In the particular field of e-government, we’ve seen in recent years the emerging paradigm of government 2.0, where apps and public services are developed by third parties, largely on top of government data, and where citizens become coproducers of services and sensors.

In summary, collaborative e-government builds on the tradition of privatisation, philantropy and self-help, but is a disruptive innovation because affordable ICT makes this collaboration far easier, more pervasive and does not require formal agreements nore organisations.


[1] These macro-trends can also be observed in other geographical context, but with different timing and patterns.

[2] Salamon, L.M. & Anheier, H.K., 1996. The Emerging Nonprofit Sector: An Overview (Johns Hopkins Nonprofit Sector Series, 1), Manchester Univ Pr.

[3] Weinbren, D. & James, B. (2005) “Getting a Grip: the Roles of Friendly Societies in Australia and Britain Reappraised”, Labour History, Vol. 88.

[5] Merrell, C. & Tymms, P. 2011. Changes in Children’s Cognitive Development at the Start of School in England 2001 – 2008. Oxford Review of Education 37(3): 333-345.

[6] Mayo, E. & Steinberg, T., 2007. The Power of Information : An independent review.

[7] Shirky, C., 2009. Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together, Penguin.