Written by Ma Liang.

Authoritarian regimes are usually characterized as being less responsive to its citizens in comparison to democratic governments. The use of Internet and other cutting-edge information and communication technologies (ICTs) have substantially transformed the process of government operation. An interesting question to be answered is whether and how authoritarian governments equipped with ICTs respond to citizen requests. Are they responsive to e-requests?

Although lots of government sectors adopt ICTs partially due to the commands of central and upper-tier authorities, many do a good job in tapping new technologies to better serve the public. Mailboxes and hotlines play a significant role in handling citizen complaints and requests. Online forums and chat rooms initiated by local governments also attract tens of thousands of netizens to send their opinions to the government.

Weibo, WeChat, and other Web 2.0 technologies or social media applications, have been increasingly used by various government sectors across regions in China. These applications have been voluntarilyinitiated by police bureaus, propaganda departments, tourism bureaus, and many other functional sectors at local level. Together with central and provincial mandates, as well as peer-to-peer learning and competition, these applications have been rapidly diffused across regions and sectors.

Social media are ubiquitously utilized by local governments, and they play a more and more crucial role in information disclosure, public relations, emergency response, citizen participation, and public consultation. Some observers conjecture that these applications are symbolic instruments solely for legitimacy purposes and may not be actually used by governments. Others argue that these applications are primarily employed for surveillance and monitoring. Recent studies do confirm parts of their observations, but they also pinpoint the other side of e-government development in China.

A survey experiment conducted by three scholars in the US used online request forms to assess the responsiveness of over 2,000 county governments. They found that local governments are selective and conditional in responding to citizen requests via online channels. If complaining citizens could trigger collective actions or upper-tier authorities’ attention, governments were much more likely to respond to their requests to address their sentiments.

Although governments concerned with social stability were over-responsive to citizen requests with the potential of collective actions, they were also highly responsive to ordinary online inquiries and complaints. On average one third of county governments responded to the alias’s requests.

Another study by two researchers from University of Toronto and MIT used similar approach to assess more than 200 prefecture governments’ responsiveness to constituency service requests about unemployment benefit and business taxation. They found that 43 percent of the total 1,225 requests were responded by prefectural governments.

If we look at China’s e-responsiveness against international benchmarking, we can find that its performance is equivalent to, if not better than developed countries such as the United States (ranging from 19 to 78 percent), Norway (85 percent)Australia (67.5 percent), New Zealand (89.3 percent), and Denmark (88.3 percent).

The speed and quality of the replies in China are also comparable to these countries, although the topics and channels used in these studies are different. In the case of county government responsiveness, about 70 percent of responses were delivered within ten business days, among which more than 20 percent were within one business day. Over half of the responses directly provided detailed and specific information to address the requesters’ concerns, rather than simply defer the requests or refer the requesters to contact other agencies.

In a guanxi-oriented society like China, elite cohorts with personal ties with government officials are usually more likely to receive preferable policies and treatments than ordinary and disadvantaged groups. The adoption of ICTs impersonalizes the administrative processes and may equalize public service delivery. These two studies indeed revealed that the status and identities of the requesters did not significantly affect the rate of government response. In other words, government e-responsiveness is much less conditional on who you know than traditional face-to-face channels.

In the United Nations’ E-Government Survey, China’s central government lags behind these high-standing countries. For instance, China was ranked 70th in the 2014 study, while these countries all broke the top 20. The responsiveness of local e-government channels in China is incredible in comparison, although there are notable disparities across regions. If one third to half of local governments are very responsive, then we must acknowledge that still half to two thirds of them are characterized by unresponsiveness. Government agencies in the western inland regions are usually less likely to respond to citizens’ e-requests, partially due to resource constraints and employee shortage.

In contrast to the flourishing e-commerce industry (e.g., Taobao and Jingdong), China’s e-government has largely lagged behind. Numerous government websites called “zombie websites” lack essential maintenance and timely updates, and they are difficult to navigate and fail to meet user expectations. The enactment of the Regulations on Government Information Disclosure by the State Council in 2007 has significantly improved government transparency, but still much information is kept secret and inaccessible online. Citizens are often frustrated by inaccurate and out-of-date online government information, which may mislead them to apply wrong administrative procedures and be unable to receive essential public services.

How to boost citizen-centric, service-oriented and responsive e-government? The State Council promulgated the first nationwide general survey in March 2015 to assess all government websites at or above the county level, aiming to alleviateinertia and unresponsiveness of enormous existing e-government features. The central government also commissioned the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) as a third party to evaluate information disclosure of government web portals. This top-down mandate, together with external scrutiny, may help boost local governments’ e-responsiveness.

What is more important is to hold governments accountable to the public. The adoption of ICTs is not only utilized to facilitate government-to-government communication, but is also used to connect the government with citizens and other stakeholders. Citizen participation and consultation, if implemented appropriately, may help incentivize the government to pay more attention to citizen demands. The responsiveness of e-government can be substantially improved, only if citizens’ preferences and satisfaction really count in government performance measurement and cadre personnel management institution.

Ma Liang is a research fellow at Nanyang Centre for Public Administration, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and co-author of Public Employees’ Perceived Promotion Channels in Local China: Merit-Based or Guanxi-Orientated? Image Credit: CC by Josh Chin/Flickr