Causes of eGovernment Success and Failure: Design-Reality Gap Model

Why eGov Projects Succeed or Fail: The Design-Reality Gap Model

Central to e-government success and failure is the amount of change between 'where we are now' and 'where the e-government project wants to get us'.

'Where we are now' means the current realities of the situation.  'Where the e-government project wants to get us' means the model or conceptions and assumptions built into the project's design.  eGovernment success and failure therefore depends on the size of gap that exists between 'current realities' and 'design of the e-government project'.

The larger this design-reality gap, the greater the risk of e-government failure.  Equally, the smaller the gap, the greater the chance of success.

Analysis of e-government projects indicates that seven dimensions - summarised by the ITPOSMO acronym - are necessary and sufficient to provide an understanding of design-reality gaps:

  • nformation

  • echnology

  • rocesses

  • bjectives and values

  • taffing and skills

  • anagement systems and structures

  • ther resources: time and money

Putting these dimensions together with the notion of gaps produces the model for understanding success and failure of e-government that is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The ITPOSMO dimensions of e-government project design-reality gaps

Design-Reality Gap Examples of eGov Success and Failure

Full Case Study Examples

eGovernment Failure Thumbnail Sketch

A scientific information system was intended to support strategic decision making in a Natural Resources Ministry in East Africa .  There were gaps between system design and Ministry reality, along dimensions including:

  • The information dimension : the system design assumed that its creation of formal strategic information would be of value to Ministry functioning.  In reality, informal information and gut feelings were what decision makers valued and used.
  • The process dimension : the system design assumed that a rational model of structured decision-making held sway within the Ministry.  This mismatched the dominant reality of personalised, even politicised, unstructured decision-making.
  • The objectives and values dimension : the system was designed within, and reflecting, a scientific environment which had a 'role culture' that valued rules and logic.  In reality, it was to be used in a political environment which had a 'power culture' that valued self-interest and hidden agendas.
  • The management systems and structures dimension : the system was designed for an organisation that had both structures and systems to support strategic decision making.  In reality, such structures and systems did not exist within the Ministry.

All of this means that there were significant design-reality gaps.  The result was failure: the system produced information, but this information was largely ignored by decision makers.

eGovernment Success Thumbnail Sketch

An intranet was introduced within Johannesburg Metropolitan Council.  In this case, design and reality were often well matched, along dimensions including:

  • The information dimension : the intranet was designed to provide just the kind of information that Council users wanted, creating little gap between designed and actual information needs.
  • The technology dimension : the project plan relied mainly on existing technology within the Council, creating little gap between designed and actual technology.
  • The objectives and values dimension : the project met the real (sometimes personal) political aspirations of senior councillors and officials, and gained their support, creating little gap between designed and real objectives.
  • The staffing and skills dimension : intranet developers had the necessary skills to produce the system that had been designed, creating little gap between designed and actual skill requirements.
  • The other resources dimension : the project was set up cheaply and incrementally, without particular time pressures, creating little gap between designed and available resource requirements.

All of this meant only limited gaps between e-government project design and Council reality.  The result was success.  Council processes became more inclusive and transparent.

Design-Reality Gap Archetypes of eGov Failure

eGovernment failures come in more varieties than Heinz.  However, archetypes of failure do exist: situations when a large design-reality gap - and, hence, failure - is more likely to emerge.

  • Hard-Soft Gaps .  How do we think about ICTs?  Often in terms of machinery and engineering, rationality and objectivity.  Many e-government systems get designed according to these notions.  The trouble is, many government organisations don't adhere to these 'hard' ideas.  In reality, they are dominated by 'soft' factors: people, politics, emotions and culture.  When a hard e-government design meets a soft reality, there's a large gap, and a strong likelihood of failure.
  • Private-Public Gaps .  Despite the best efforts of some, the public sector remains fundamentally different from the private sector.  No problem.  Except that too many IT firms, IT consultants, government CIOs et al. forget this.  They pick up an information system designed for the private sector.  Then they try to shoehorn it into a very different public sector reality.  It's a classic case of square pegs and round holes.  The large design-reality gap generates lots of heat and noise, not much light and, ultimately, plenty of failure.
  • Country Context Gaps .  It sometimes seems only the first half of 'Think Global, Act Local' gets remembered.  Governments seeking quick fixes try to pull solutions off-the-shelf from other countries.  But New Delhi isn't New York, and Johannesburg isn't Jakarta.  So there's often a large design-reality gap when you try to introduce in country X an e-government system designed for country Y. The frequent result: tears before bedtime.

Taking Action on Design-Reality Gaps

Follow this link for further details about actions to take to reduce the risk of e-government failure.

Basis for analysis: a) Heeks, R. (2001) Reinventing Government in the Information Age, Routledge, London; and b) eight case studies of e-government in developing/transitional economies submitted during January 2003 to the eGovernment for Development Information Exchange.