Reading Report – Digital Government #8

Book Name:
Digital Government: Technology and Public Sector Performance

By: Darrell M. West

Reported by: Aldwin Urbina (M1)

Chapter 8 / Trust and Confidence in E-Government


The promise of e-government is to provide better service delivery at lower cost to taxpayers. On the other hand, the long-term goal of e-government is for citizens to become more confident on public sector performance and be more likely to trust the government. This chapter presents the trends in government trust in the United States (US), the relationship between e-government and trust in government, and the trustworthiness of e-government.

From the 1930s to the 1950s in the US, Americans saw the public sector as purposely dealing with societal problems and being honest in its approach. They viewed their politicians to be public servants who uphold the interest of the public and not of special interest groups. In contrast, Americans in recent years mistrust the government and do not believe that public officials are honest in their dealings and serve the interest of the public.

There were several controversies and scandals in American history that have contributed to the deteriorating trust of the public in the government. This started in the 1960s where the government was exposed to provide misleading information about the Vietnam War. Americans thought that they were winning the war and that their troops were dignified in doing so as they were told by government officials. In contrary, news organizations exposed that American troop losses have reached tens of thousands and several cases of military personnel committing atrocities occurred. Public trust in the military and politicians plunged and citizens deliberated why the government was lying. This was followed by a series of scandals where top government officials were involved. In the 1970s, the Watergate Scandal broke down; in the 1980s, the Iran-Contra Scandal came to light; in the 1990s, a story broke out that President Clinton had an affair with an intern. Over three decades, public confidence and trust in the government did not improve. The cumulative effect of such incidents reinforced negative perceptions about the public sector. The September 11, 2001 tragic terrorist attacks could have been a turning point for improving the trust and confidence of citizens in government. People thought that President Bush was taking effective action against terrorists abroad after the 2011 attacks. However, in the following years after the tragic incident, the general public disapproves of US handling of the Iraq War.  Citizens thought of the government as dishonest, unethical, and poor performer.

Given the cynical perception of the public towards the government, the author highlights the question whether e-government usage is associated with higher public confidence in government. In 2000, a national survey was conducted to identify the relationship between e-government usage and public trust and confidence in government. The results show that there was no significant relationship between visiting government websites and views about trust, confidence or government effectiveness. In contrast to predictions of proponents, e-government is not associated with improving levels of trust and beliefs about effectiveness of public sector problem solving. However, in a “priming test” conducted, which simulates the degree to which the introduction of detailed questions about e-government affects the potential to transform citizen beliefs, analysis shows that people who visited government websites were more likely during the course of the questionnaire tend to feel that the government was effective. On the other hand, people were not likely to believe that e-government was a high priority for public sector investments.

Though e-government is seen as a non-partisan (i.e., non-political or neutral) means to promote efficiency and effectiveness in the public sector, when politicians argue about procurement and public sector investment, it is difficult for the public to see it as a non-partisan issue. Unless e-government implementation is not associated with cost overruns, contracting scandals, and partisan controversies, it will be true to its promise as a technocratic solution for improving public sector performance.

Reporter’s Own Thoughts

In spite of all government controversies and scandals that have occurred, citizens must be assured that e-government is different from traditional government should governments aspire to promote it. It should not be seen as another inefficiency of the public sector if governments seriously aim to achieve economies of scale by increasing usage of citizens. This chapter further reinforces the notion that the success of e-government adoption and implementation lies extensively on citizen perception.