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Durkiewicz, J. Digital Government. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 19 June 2024).
Durkiewicz J. Digital Government. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 19, 2024.
Durkiewicz, Jaromir. "Digital Government" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 19, 2024).
Durkiewicz, J. (2021, December 27). Digital Government. In Encyclopedia.
Durkiewicz, Jaromir. "Digital Government." Encyclopedia. Web. 27 December, 2021.
Digital Government

Digital Government (DG) may be treated as an umbrella concept, and engaged rhetoric may respond to different government priorities. DG does not have one settled definition; extracting the “perfect” one emerges as a scientific activity on its own, and circulating definitions vary in terms of scope—from information supply to e-democracy; subject—from citizens to all public stakeholders; and technology family—from personal computers to the Internet. To make things even more complicated, DG is also called by various synonyms or near synonyms, such as “electronic government,” “electronic governance,” “transformational government,” and others. In our paper, we stick with the “digital government” label and study its relations with governance. A clarification for readers not familiar with this nomenclature: DG does not refer to a “digital” variant of “normal” government; it is rather about the use of digital technologies by government. What is more, a distinction between “government” and “governance” should be made: governance is a multi-stakeholder process and government at any level can be a stakeholder in this process.

digital technology digital government sustainable governance e-government ICT

1. Digital Government and its role on the way to sustainability

Digital Government (DG) may be treated as an umbrella concept meaning “many things to different people according to one’s focus” [1] (p. 186), and engaged rhetoric may respond to different government priorities [2] (p. 23). DG does not have one settled definition; extracting the “perfect” one emerges as a scientific activity on its own [3], and circulating definitions vary in terms of scope—from information supply to e-democracy; subject—from citizens to all public stakeholders; and technology family—from personal computers to the Internet [4] (p. 9). To make things worse, DG is also called by various synonyms or near synonyms, such as “electronic government,” “electronic governance,” “transformational government,” and others. Here, we stick with the “digital government” label and study its relations with governance. A clarification for readers not familiar with this nomenclature: DG does not refer to a “digital” variant of “normal” government; it is rather about the use of digital technologies by government. What is more, a distinction between “government” and “governance” should be made: governance is a multi-stakeholder process and government at any level can be a stakeholder in this process [5].
However, what remains clear is that the systematic and institutional application of digital technology to public administration routines—a generic DG denotation—is not treated as a fancy tribute to the technical progress but a path to achieving tangible benefits for the state and society. Indeed, while these benefits appear fairly malleable, given the variety of state qualities that can be enhanced by DG, as technology becomes mightier and more ubiquitous, the expectations rise as well. On the other side, the early enthusiasm and faith in the revolutionary power of digital technology, e.g., “[DG] offers a historic opportunity to make the impossible possible for developing countries” [6] (p. 8), is nowadays scaled down to concrete expectations. According to [4] (pp. 8–10), potential benefits can range from general, e.g., service efficiency and improved access to citizens, to explicit, e.g., civic participation and cost containment.
From a normative standpoint, we expect that DG should improve various qualities of public governance. The literature contains various studies that confirm such expectations. The targets range again from general, e.g., DG for good governance [7][8] DG for public value creation [9][10], or DG for political modernization [11], to explicit, e.g., DG for government effectiveness [12], DG against bureaucracy and administrative burden [13], or DG against corruption [14][15]. A separate category consists of studies that handle high-value political issues. What is the relationship between DG and democracy? Does digitalization reveal its transformative power in government? Despite the hope in the healing power of digital technology [16], DG still hosts debate and controversy [17][18][19].
Among many expectations for producing high-value policy impact, DG is increasingly recognized as a key enabler for Sustainable Development (SD). This is declared by many international organizations, e.g., the European Commission intends to “harness ICT to promote smart, sustainable and innovative government” [20], the United Nations (UN) assures the strategic role of DG in the SD agenda [21][22][23], and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes that DG “can make a crucial contribution to sustainable development and growth” [24] (p. 5).

2. Governance - in general

When speaking of public governance, the first challenge is to identify the semantic frames of this concept. Even though the term appears intuitive and understood by the non-specialist audience, this intuition may be misleading. According to Fukuyama, the term has at least three meanings. Public administration, i.e., “effective implementation of state policy” [25] (p. 89) is the one most relevant to what we discuss here. A governance-defining exercise undertaken in [26] concludes that “governance is the coordinated, polycentric management of issues purposefully directed towards particular outcomes” [26] (p. 257). The World Bank supplies a variety of definitions, from broad: “rules, enforcement mechanisms, and organization,” to public sector-specific: “the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development” [27] (p. 3).
Descending the level of generality, we identify the demanded qualities of governance. Again, the range of ideas is broad, but typically boil down to eight features under the “good governance” label—participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and following the rule of law (GG) [28]. Equally, the GG concept is criticized for its shortages in terms of parsimony, differentiation, coherence, and—specifically—theoretical utility [29]. Indeed, GG carries different meanings based on who speaks about it: the international donor community, national governments, business entities, and non-governmental organizations [30]. The competition is typically fought along economic paradigms, and often won by the neoliberal option [31].
Beyond this debate, if governance is to be operationalized, in order to be measured and compared, a relevant framework and data are required. Among such frameworks, one of the most recognized is the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators [32], designed to survey governance globally and in six dimensions: Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and Absence of Violence/Terrorism, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law, and Control of Corruption [27] (p. 4).

3. Sustainable Governance

Even though the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) lack a single goal dedicated to good governance [33], (good) governance is considered essential in the pursuit of the whole agenda. For instance, the role of governance is emphasized within Goal 16: “We cannot hope for sustainable development without peace, stability, human rights and effective governance, based on the rule of law” [33]. This position is supported by OECD: “The success of these goals [SDG] depends to a large extent on the coordination of implementation efforts through good public governance” [34].
A question that arises here is: can governance and sustainability (understood as a paradigm shift rather than just one of governance qualities) be aligned up to a level that one can speak about “sustainable governance,” and thus perfect integration rather than interrelation? In their search for an answer, Bosselmann et al. conclude that: “Sustainable governance is the set of written and unwritten rules that link ecological citizenship with institutions and norms of governance,” and thus, is separated from the conventional theories of governance, even in its “good” form [35] (p. xiv). This tension resonates with the findings of [36], which challenge GG as “the universal recipe for achieving sustainable development” since “there is no single form of good governance that can achieve sustainability” [36] (p. 569). Hence, an assertion that GG “does not guarantee sustainable development; however, its absence severely limits it and can, at worst, impede it” [37] (p. 1166).
Weighing the arguments above, it is justified not to treat SG as a brand new embodiment of governance strictly following the philosophy of SD, as present in the typical academic discourse and conceptualized in [35]. Instead, we can treat SG as a subset of governance that aggregates the features that are conducive to the pursuit of sustainability, hence, e.g., distinct from any “economy first” option. An example of such an approach is exposed in Bertelsmann’s Sustainable Governance Indicators [38], to be discussed further. Our preview of the articles published in the “Sustainability” journal (42 articles responding to the search phrase “sustainable governance” as of 25 October 2021) confirms that the majority of authors approach the topic with a similar view.

4. Digital Sustainable Governance

The UN consistently promotes DG as a driver for SD, as manifested in the selection of themes for three recent editions of the Global E-Government Survey: “E-Government in Support of Sustainable Development” [23], “Gearing E-Government to Support Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies” [22], and “Digital Government in the Decade of Action for Sustainable Development” [21]. The UN’s DG-surveying initiative is well-aligned with the organization’s focus on the SDG agenda. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to assume that this association transcends intra-organizational alignment, particularly given its presence in the reports and documents issued by other organizations, as mentioned earlier.
The nexus of the relationships between digitalization, governance, and SD is scientifically underexplored, as noticed in [39]. In order to organize the field, the study proposes a scheme depicted in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Interrelations between the governance (GOV), sustainable development (SD), and digital technology (ICT) domains, adapted from [39] (p. S97).
The scheme indicates what emerges by the intersections of three domains—digital technology (ICT), governance (GOV), and SD. E-governance (EGOV) here is understood as ICT enabling governance—in our paper, it is Digital Government (DG). Governance enabling SD (GOV4SD) is Sustainable Governance (SG). The focus, however, lies in the intersection of all three domains (EGOV4SD)—in our paper, it is Digital Sustainable Governance (DSG). The “enabling” relationships highlight that the intersections are not symmetric: ICT is always a “service domain,” SD is always a “customer domain,” but GOV is a “customer domain” with respect to ICT and a “service domain” with respect to SD [39] (p. S96). By the same logic, EGOV—the intersection of two service domains with respect to SD—is also a service domain with respect to SD. Thus, when a service by DG fails to enhance SD, the likely cause is a political, managerial, or measurement problem.


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