Understanding Adoption of e-Government: Principals, Agents and Institutional Dualism

Richard Heeks and Rita Santos


e-Government innovations are of central importance to the public sector. Yet they face the challenge of adoption: getting the new e-government system implemented and used. This paper builds from principal-agent ideas to understand this process. It proposes a model which sees e-government innovation designers (as principals) might use one-, two-, or three-party enforcement mechanisms in seeking to get adopters (as agents) to comply with their intended role. But it also sees this as taking place within a context of institutional forces that extends basic ideas about principal and agent. The model is supported by its application to the case study of a large-scale financial monitoring e-government system.

This also supports the proposition that enforcement mechanisms act within an institutional context that can best be understood in terms of "institutional dualism". This conceives public innovations as forcing an intersection – quite possibly a conflict – between two different "institutional systems"; that of the designers and that of the adopters. The outcome of this intersection and, hence, the outcome of e-government innovations will be complex, moving well beyond simple principal-agent models, and best seen as a journey rather than a destination. Institutional dualism explains actions that reinforce one or other institutional system. But it also explains opportunities for agency and change that further our understanding of e-government adoption.

View/download options

You will need a PDF reader such as Adobe Acrobat (downloadable from Adobe) to view PDF file(s). PDF files open in a new window.

Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What is the conceptual framework used in this paper? [Part A].
  2. What research methodology was used, and why? [Part B].
  3. What is the institutional history behind the SIOPS system? [Part C].
  4. What actions were taken to try to enforce adoption of the SIOPS system, and what impact did these have? [Part D].
  5. What insights do the ideas of institutional systems and dualism offer? [Parts E & F].
  6. What practical recommendations for e-government adoption flow from the paper and its models? [Part F].

Development questions

  1. Make a list – either from your own knowledge or from a quick literature review – of factors that might lead to low usage levels of e-government systems.  Does the paper offer any additional insights?
  2. Identify a rich and detailed case study of e-government implementation.  Can you see relevance of any of the paper's main ideas: principals and agents; one-, two- and three-party enforcement; institutional systems and dualism?
  3. Does this case study have specific features of a developing country that would not be found in an industrialised country e-government case study?
  4. Is the notion of institutional dualism too simplistic to be of value?  Does that explain why it has not been more widely adopted?