As the number and diversity of available e-government services grows worldwide, so does the research on their current state and the success factors leading to their adoption. Much of this research employs technology adoption and diffusion models, showing the importance of factors such as trust, perceived usefulness, perceived e-government value, perceived compatibility of values of citizens and governments ease of use (e.g., Belanger and Carter, 2006). At the same time, qualitative studies have shown, in context, the challenges in the implementation of e-government services, e.g., as citizens and state employees ‘work around’ the systems (Azad & Nelson, 2009), or as political parties as ‘mega actors’ negotiate the role of IT in state modernization (Prasopoulou, 2009). These studies reveal a complex picture of service adoption and bring to the fore the specificities of each national or application context.
Against this background, in a recent workshop on ‘IT and Culture’ at Tours, France, the authors of this paper had the opportunity to discuss and contrast their experience on the adoption and reactions to new e-government services in three countries of the Mediterranean Region, namely France, Greece and Lebanon. These countries are quite different in terms of and e-government adoption and the maturity of available e-services. However, the most intriguing aspect that seems to emerge from such a comparison is that ‘unconventional’ variables, that is, aspects that are rarely acknowledged in mainstream information systems research, may come into play and substantially influence e-government services adoption.
In this paper we will argue that religion may be one such important institution, whose significance can be more vividly understood and appreciated by considering different cultural contexts. In this respect, Lebanon, Greece and France provide an interesting set of countries to consider; despite their geographical proximity, the importance and interference of religion is substantially different, and, once considered in more detail reveals a complexity well worth studying further.
Of the three countries, in France, religion is separated from the State since the days of the French revolution and therefore religion is not expected to play a role, at least openly, in contemporary political decisions, such as the adoption of e-government services.
Conversely, the role of religion is very prominent in Lebanon, where it is tightly related to state governance. Lebanon has a complex political and public system, where a careful balance in all aspects of political life must be maintained among the 18 ethnic and religious communities. Therefore, the seats in parliament, in government, and in the civil administration are allocated proportionally between Christian and Muslim. The Christian president, the Sunni prime minister, and the Shiite speaker of parliament all rule with almost equal power, although in different capacities. As a result of this confessional oligarchy, Lebanon lives in perpetual political and administrative paralysis. The public administration is seen as the place where confessional parties took care of their interests, seriously undermining institutional credibility (Dagher 2002). According to several reports, Lebanese citizens hold a negative attitude towards the Lebanese administration. They perceive the public administration as a cave for corruption that absorbs public money without providing quality services in return (Antoun 2009). Therefore, adoption of public e-services was not independent of but rather contingent on this political environment. Lack of trust in securing private identifiable information, lack of privacy protections, and fear from government control were the main inhibitors.
In Greece the religious picture is much more homogeneous, with over 95% of the Greek population belonging to, although not necessarily practicing, the ‘prevalent religion’, according to the constitution, of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ (commonly known as Greek Orthodox). Church is an important institution, on occasion becoming involved in political matters. This role is rooted in the history of modern Greece: the Greek identity has been preserved alongside the Christian identity under the Ottoman Empire rule and has been instrumental in driving the revolution for liberty and the establishment of the modern Greek State in the early 19th century. The Church therefore argues that religious identity should be formally recognized as part of citizen identity: in 2000, when the Greek state revised the identifiers used on identity cards, the Church reacted very strongly to the removal of religion as an identifier. Citizen signatures were collected after Sunday service, pressing for a referendum on this matter. Although this never took place, it was clear that the church played an active role in shaping opinion about matters related to government services. At present, the Church opposes the introduction of an electronic citizen card by the Greek state. As a result, several citizens stated on the relevant online deliberation (www.opengov.gr) that they will not accept this card that ‘brutally insults [their] religious consciousness’. Set against a background of general mistrust towards the government on the one hand and skepticism against all institutions on the other, the Church occasionally strives to accentuate its importance by assuming a protagonist role in State affairs. Even though such initiatives are heavily criticized in society, they are nonetheless influential for part of the population (typically those least ready to participate in the e-society) and therefore religion can become an ‘unexpected’ inhibitor of e-government services adoption.
This initial comparison of the role of religion on e-government adoption in the three countries illustrates that religion may be an important factor to consider when designing e-government services. Yet, our survey of the literature shows limited attention to date to the role of religion for e-government adoption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies explicitly acknowledging and naming religion as a key cultural factor in the context of e-government come from countries where religion is central to state affairs, as is the case in many Arab countries (e.g., Alomari et al., 2010, Al-Shehry et al., 2006).
The aim of this paper is to consider the role of religion in more depth, and drawing from the experiences in the three countries discuss the methodological challenges related to the study of religion in e-government. We hope that this discussion will draw attention to this ‘unconventional variable’ that is absent in much of the mainstream research on e-government services adoption, but may in fact be significant in certain cultural context and therefore needs to be studied and understood more thoroughly.
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