eGovernment as a Carrier of Context

Richard Heeks


eGovernment is a global project of technology transfer, taking designs from one context into a different context. This transfer may take place from country to country or, more subtly, from one group to another. This paper focuses on the former type, using examples of 'e-transparency' projects. But it offers insights into all types of e-government project.

The insights suggest a complex interweaving between technology and context. We find that the context of design is inscribed into e-government systems in both explicit and implicit ways. These design inscriptions can mismatch the context of deployment/use, creating a contextual collision that can often lead to e-government failure. In other cases, though, there is some form of accommodation between the two contexts: users may appropriate inscribed elements to their own purposes, or there may even be a reciprocating accommodation between contexts leading to a viable system.

Factors that shape these outcomes - either failure or accommodation - are identified, as are the networks of interests that determine the design inscription and deployment accommodation processes. Conclusions are drawn about policy on e-government project design and development of e-government capacities; and about the value of knowledge-building for e-government from developing/transitional economy cases and from the literature on sociology of technology.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What is the nature and impact of e-government as technology transfer? [part A]
  2. Explain the relationship between e-government technology and context. [part B]
  3. In what ways can e-government designers be external to the context of use? [part B1]
  4. What impacts can be caused by conflicts between the context of design and the context of use for e-government applications? [part B2]
  5. What factors determine whether there will be conflict and failure, or accommodation and workable systems when contexts of design and use are different for an e-government application? [part C]
  6. What practical, and what academic, steps should we take in response to the 'contextual collisions' that can occur with e-government systems [part C1]

Development questions

  1. Are the notions of inscription and contextual collision just academic waffle, or do they have some practical implications of value?
  2. Identify other explanations for e-government success and failure: how do they compare with the ideas presented in this paper?
  3. What could be done to encourage e-government practitioners and researchers in rich countries to learn lessons from case studies in developing/transitional countries?
  4. Identify a fairly detailed e-government case study (ideally, one with which there is direct experience). Analyse it to draw out the implicit and explicit inscriptions. Where did those inscriptions come from? Do they match or mismatch user realities? What conclusions do you draw?
  5. Identify a fairly detailed e-government case study (ideally, one with which there is direct experience). Analyse the networks of interest that are driving and resisting the e-government application. How has each network group attempted to influence the process of design inscription?
  6. Imagine you are working on an e-government project in an OECD country setting, where the designer is from the IT department. What practical recommendations would you make on the basis of reading this paper?
  7. Identify two cases of e-government failure, and two cases of e-government success. Assuming they are detailed enough, or drawn from direct experience, analyse the way in which there was contextual conflict, or contextual accommodation in each case. Do your findings match those of the paper?