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Exploring the Governance-ICT nexus at City level in Europe

3. February 2011 – 00:06 by Francesco Molinari

On January 31st, a group of academic researchers, city managers and consultancy professionals was gathered into a single-day expert advisory meeting led by IPTS, the European Commission’s Institute on Prospective Technological Studies, and Eurocities, the network of major European cities, to discuss and evaluate the preliminary results of an exploratory study carried out jointly by the two organisations over the past couple of years.
The study, called EXPGOV, has by now collected a huge amount of evidence on the most likely areas of impact of ICT on governance, based on a survey of about 60 out of 446 EU cities with 100,000 inhabitants or more from all 27 Member States (plus Croatia and Switzerland), and later on the preparation and analysis of four detailed case studies (Barcelona, Berlin, Manchester, and Tallin), the results of which were presented for the first time during the meeting.
In my opinion, the big merit of this effort is to have raised the issue of assessing ICT impact on middle- and large- sized city governance on a systematic basis in Europe – probably for the first time ever, as strange as this may appear. In that respect, it is a preliminary answer given to the key questions: “Where do we stand? Where should we go?” and also the photograph of work in progress, showing a fair deal of convergence between old and new Member States, south and north of Europe, relatively larger and smaller communities, both in terms of problems tackled with and solutions offered to approach them. Particularly the survey questionnaire (which was anonymously filled out by several kinds of stakeholder, including city managers or their delegates) provided evidence of a number of “flagship projects” that must have been making the difference in a number of European city contexts.

Another merit of this research possibly lies in the preparation of a simple, almost intuitive, “maturity model“, highlighting three value drivers of ICT enabled governance (performance, openness and inclusion), without indulging to the temptation of reading them in evolutionary terms. This model seems easily transferable as improvement guideline for city governments and also useful in terms of predictive power, although the latter capacity should be qualified and confirmed by additional research.
Bottom line, the study confirms the existence of linkages between ICT and governance, at least in the relatively more populated cities of Europe. However, a huge number of questions remain unanswered. For instance, while we can speak of generic impact and identify the value drivers of ICT for governance, quantifying the phenomenon remains hard – if possible at all. Another question is that the study says nothing about the less populated / peripheral cities of Europe. Does size matter in any respect or not?
There probably is sufficient awareness about the relevance of the governance issue in the respondents’ minds, which is good particularly when they are civil servants or elected officials. But what about vision alignment inside the organisation (along the command and control hierarchy) as well as outside it (among the citizens and external stakeholders)? Does the maturity model survive to this generalisation, or does it need extension? Social validation of the value drivers with and by the users could be the next step to make.
Finally, most European cities seem to live with some degree of anxiety the “contradictions of development” (which call for more and better attention to social inclusion). Is this the real next new frontier of ICT enabled (or enabling?) governance?
In conclusion, being so pervasive as a technology, ICT may ultimately disappear from, and/or become embedded into, the daily practice of governance. Yet before arriving to that, our understanding of their potential and value for the sustainable management of EU communities and institutions surely deserves further reflection. Hopefully there will be a second round for this study, and the IPTS and Eurocities will keep this open approach that can only be beneficial to the formation of a growing and stronger level of awareness among researchers and practitioners alike.

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