Slovenia 404 - On the e-Readiness of Modern Public Administration
Alois Paulin, 2010
International conference on Information Society and Information Technologies - ISIT, Dolenjske Toplice,
This document reveals the shocking incompetence of modern state-administration when challenged to deal with unusual request for public data. The challenge was stated in form of a simple query that (under optimized conditions) could be accomplished within minutes, but instead hundreds of hours were wasted. This paper further describes methods and technologies that – if applied properly – would contribute to an agile, efficient and sustainable public administration.
public administration, e-government, linked data
Introduction - the request
Between the 11th and 12th June 2010 more than 350 Slovenian public agencies and authorities (ministries, municipalities, local administrative units etc.) received a request for public data with the demand to provide information about the name and surname, as well as the cumulative gross expense for each employed public servant or official from the addressed organization, for the year 2009. Additionally, a full work report for each person in the specified year, as well as the date the person started her affiliation with the addressee were requested.
The requests were conducted in an automated manner, using contact data from Slovenia’s central catalogue of public information (CKIJZ). To evaluate the answers, supervised data mining techniques were applied, which proved useful in the process of tracking the evolution of threads during negotiations with the addressees.
With the exception of the work reports (which the organizations in general were not able to provide as they have no evidence of their employees’ activities), all of the requested data is stored in structured form either within electronic databases of accounting systems, or in the central Slovenian financial database of the Ministry of finance, the MFeRAC system. Regarding this situation, to retrieve the requested data from the database would take a skilled professional in informatics not more than a few minutes of work. However, as this article reveals, the requests were handled in an inappropriate manner, resulting in huge overhead in cost for both the data-provider as well as the consumer of the data.
How to measure e-Government maturity?
When it comes to measuring the maturity of e-government implementations, many models are available (Howard 2001, Chandler and Emanuels 2002, Layne and Lee 2001, UN-DPEPA 2002) that generally range from the passive governmental info-page (“informational stage”) to the fully transactional one-stop-shop that allows a consumption of governmental services without interaction with public officials (“transactional stage”). Most of the models were developed and published at the fin-de-millénaire, at the advent of the “web 2.0”, when it became obvious that a sophisticated web presence can improve governmental public relations. However, as primarily researchers from sociological fields have developed the published models with only shallow insight into the bits and bytes of available technologies, the proposed visions lack a clear technical agenda on which they would base their assertions.
Almost a decade after the initial “e-Gov” hype, Coursey and Norris (2008) observed that the evolution on this field has slowed considerably or even came to a halt. Based on empirical data from US-wide surveys on e-government they conclude that although authorities have reached the informational stage and do publish downloadable data and documents, their services are “not highly interactive or transactional as the models predict” (ibid).
A common flaw in e-Gov theories is the absence of a systematic approach and the misleading focus on governmental “services” as the objects of transaction. Such unclear goals and definitions encourage the development of botched web portals that can be quickly turned into scores at diverse e-Gov surveys, but lack sustainability in both technical terms as well as regarding the content.
The responses - a failure of e-Government
According to several surveys, when it comes to e-readiness of the government, Slovenia is a top-developed country and constantly among the top five in Europe (Capgemini 2009; The Economist 2009). However, those formal statistics focus on parameters like the quantity of electronically accessible services, the provided legislation and other aspects of the façade, while they do not observe the continuity and quality of available services, nor the practical issues like the education of the supporting personnel.
Capgemini (2009) for example highly prices Slovenia for the one-stop-shop “e-uprava.gov.si”, which offers a handful of transactional services and some downloadable forms. However, most of the published content falls under the informational category with (often dead) links to other governmental websites.
The failure of CKIJZ
A paradigm for failure of the Slovene e-government is the already mentioned CKIJZ. As a centralized source of public information catalogues, the CKIJZ should conceptually be a most valuable database containing all existing public legal persons, which would allow both efficient management and supervision for the government, as well as provide good insight into the structure of the state for the public – if maintained properly. However, this database is obsolete and broken and according to the Ministry of public administration, neither is information regarding its completeness available, nor does the Ministry know when the database was last seen up-to-date.
When accessing CKIJZ in order to collect the contact data of all public organizations, it was observed that this database listed only 863 legal persons, including 165 out of 210 municipalities. From the listed organizations, 152 exposed dead links, 190 did not provide any contact information and 15 provided dead e-mail addresses.
Although the CKIJZ provides means to publish the public-information catalogue within the central system itself, only 122 public legal persons (14.6% of all listed) used this possibility. Among them are all administrative units (58), 9 out of 15 ministries and 23 municipalities.
The "passion" of the requests
A request to a public authority is basically a client-server transaction: The client creates the request using any querying language the addressee recognizes as valid (in Slovenia, this is typically Slovenian, encoded in the Roman alphabet) and sends it to any valid and recognized endpoint URI of the server (either post address, e-mail address, fax number). The server validates the request and if it passes the validation, it is processed, else the server rejects it by issuing a formal decision which must contain a “stack trace” including the description of the error to facilitate client-side “debugging”. This process is regulated by formal protocols (laws), which define both the protocol of communication as well as the “schema” for well-formed requests.
The requests were sent as plain e-mail messages and were not digitally signed. According to Slovenian legislation, personal data must not be provided based on an unsigned request. However, less than 40 (of more than 350) addressed corporations demanded a proper identification.
From the received answers, less than 100 were sent in a machine-readable format like PDF (45) or MS Excel (33) and no dataset was sent in a plaintext-format like CSV. Most answers revealed a huge ignorance of modern ICT, as the provided datasets were first transformed into nice-looking tables, then printed, signed, scanned and sent via unsigned/-encrypted e-mails without reference to the UID (The Unique IDentifier is mandatory data for any sent e-mail via SMTP) of the requesting message.
This procedure, as illustrated in Figure 1, is not only exorbitantly time-consuming, but also contributes to a vast overhead in the size of exchanged communication: If measured in bytes, the exchanged communication needed to receive less than 70% of all requested data, would amount to between 500 MB – 1 GB, if taken into consideration also the data sent by post and exchanged communication via phone. The size of attachments sent via e-mail amounted to 219 MB, while the post had to deliver almost 10kg of mail. Name, surname and gross earning of one single public servant would amount to max. 100 bytes of data if stored in UTF-8. The Slovene public sector has approx. 160.000 employees, which would yield in dataset of totally 16MB. The received data encompassed approx. 20.000 names and if 2MB would suffice, then a measurable overhead of 24,900% has been created by the state.
Only sparse evidence is provided about the time that was needed by the addressed organizations to create the answer. The Employment Service of Slovenia, an employer of 998 public servants, estimated that it would take them at least 20 hours to collect the requested information (72 sec/employee), while an employer of 226 public servants from the health sector tried to charge 12 hours of work (191 sec/employee). This information leads to the conclusion, that somebody from the accounting department would click trough a list of all employees and copy-paste their data into a spreadsheet. However, a skilled professional would manage this task by applying an SQL-query over the database itself and resolve the puzzle within minutes.
Governing a society by means of ICT is the natural way of evolution in the “information society”. The current stage of development in the technical field is sufficient to allow a truly transactional society in which public officials would not be needed any more for routing citizens’ requests and demands from one desk to another, but could take the role of friendly facilitators in bureaucratic processes or highly skilled technical advisors from the back office.
Ever since, bureaucracy was the driving force behind the evolution of ICT, as only a competitive advantage could keep the hegemony of the respective holders stable. Paradoxically, today we can observe – probably the first time in human history – a bureaucratic colossus that desperately tries to conquer the flood of data and communications by increasing the numbers of physically working bureaucrats instead of educating them in new skills. What had been more than 10,000 years ago the Mesopotamian clay tokens, are today languages for the communication with computers, like C#, SQL and XSL.
As “internet” generations are emerging, new governmental paradigms will need to emerge, but until then bureaucratic thinking and ways of processing data will still follow the path as illustrated in Figure 1, in which a request traverses multiple joints until the needed data is collected and again multiple joints until a response is returned.