Volume 11, No. 1, April 2001
Working on the topic of E-Government at the World Bank, I find that during the last few months the theme of e-government has become a 'hot topic' in the development community. Many multi lateral institutions, consulting companies and other IT companies have started e-government initiatives and there are suddenly a number of seminars to attend. Is this just another buzzword like management by objectives, zero based budgeting, and reinventing government, which did not live upto their promise or is it something substantial? Deliberating on why Governments from developing countries are interested in e-government initiatives, several reasons suggest themselves. Firstly, citizens are experiencing a vast increase in service levels in e-commerce through the private sector, leading them to expect governments to use the same technologies to achieve systematic improvements in service delivery. The other reason is a good economic growth, particularly in countries like India and China. Expectedly, the next phase of reform emerges as government reform, and what better way to induce governance reform than through harnessing of ICTs.
As a consequence of the experimentation and innovative use of ICTs in DCs, a sense of competition with developed countries has emerged, serving as an incentive for DCs to catch up with the developed world. To illustrate, Brazilians feel pride in the fact that their recently launched electronic voting system is better than the existing system in the United States. Another example is from Gujarat in India where a smart card (card with embedded microchip) is issued for a driving license. There are very few places in the world where these kind of licenses are issued. The project implementers think they are ahead of the rest of the world, and apparently, such pride acts as a motivating factor driving governments to go electronic.
I think the interest in e-government has also something to do with the spread of Internet which is creating a critical mass in the urban areas of many DCs, not as considerable as in most developed countries, but large enough to lead the government to deliver services online. In some places where e-government has been introduced, it has shown that it can work, and can have a wide impact on government efficiency and effectiveness. The most dramatic impact so far has been in service delivery - making the service more convenient and cutting service delivery time. In India for example, a driving license is issued in a day as compared to the fifteen days required earlier. Registration of real estate property takes half an hour against the one-month taken by the traditional system. Improvement in service delivery has led to greater transparency and lower corruption levels. With the entirely automated processes in place, there is no opportunity for people to obstruct the service delivery process by demanding 'speed money' to hasten the manual process, and corruption has actually come down.
True democracy allows citizens to participate in the management of their own affairs. Many DCs are yet to achieve that ideal. The poor often get alienated from the government as they feel they are at the fringes of the government's priorities. Initial efforts are being made at the level of sharing information with the poor on the web. Involving the rural people is the staring point of e-democracy, when the government begins to involve people in the governing process by cross-sharing information, delivering services, and facilitating them to comment on the proposed development plans. Such initiatives are happening in Latin America and in countries like India.
E-government enhances transparency, as illustrated by the initiative undertaken by the municipal administration in South Korea. In order to reduce corruption in the issue of a variety of licenses, the administration has built a system where the citizens can track the progress of their license and take direct action against the corrupt officials. The web has also been used to shame corrupt people. In India, the Chief Vigilance Commissioner has put up a site to list the names of senior officers in the Indian bureaucracy who are under investigation.
Alleviation of poverty through e-government is a difficult goal to achieve, because it would assume that e-government reaches the poor. Infrastructure in many countries is insufficient and the poor do not have access to the net. With some successful innovations in technology (SIMPUTER at a cost of $200), or the claim by MIT Media Lab that taking Internet to remote rural areas (unconnected by fixed line telephone) may cost just $ 1000, there is hope that community access will become affordable. There are very few examples of impact on poverty and I have often cited one of them--the dairy example from India in these columns. In fact, a story about the use of ICT at milk collection societies in Gujarat is one of the four winners of the IICD and Info Dev story competition 2001.
Another interesting example is the Malaysian initiative enabling knowledge sharing in local language to improve productivity on farms. The knowledge does not flow from experts alone but also from one farmer to another.
Yet another way to impact rural poverty is to enable rural people to do e-commerce. This can give greater opportunity to small producers to sell to distant markets, know the market prices, have better negotiating power, and sell their products to alternative distribution chains. These are only some possibilities, and I there is much scope for e-government to impact poverty on a wider and more pervasive scale.
Isolated instances of implementation of innovative e-government applications notwithstanding, the challenge now is to ensure their wide-scale impact. In a large country like India that has 600,000 villages, implementation of an application in 2,000 or 3,000 places is not going to create an impact. Making e-government widespread entails bridging the digital divide, enabling access to the Internet in rural areas, and setting up many more information kiosks. So far in DCs, sparing a few politicians and civil servants who believe in reforms and have initiated innovative applications, the vast majority is yet to awaken to the potential of e-government for reform. A major task is to build institutional capacity for governance reform, because once the capacity is instilled, people will certainly use the technologies to deliver services and information.
Research areas would have to address rural poverty. But what really seems to be missing - both in e-government and in e-commerce – is documented research on the impact created by these initiatives on economic development. The information we have is largely anecdotal, without inputs on whether the costs and benefits are commensurate. Technology can be used to teach the alphabet to rural children, but the issue is whether the investment is worth the outcome. A better assessment of preparedness of countries to implement e-government is critical. These are some areas where the World Bank and similar institutions need to focus.
An important challenge is to create a greater awareness about e-government within the multilateral institutions. Application of ICTs in sectors like education, health, or transportation is not being implemented as it ought to be. Another challenge is to motivate civil servants and project leaders in DCs to be more involved with reforms and to use IT as an enabling technology for innovation in their own spheres of work. These are the challenges the multilateral institutions and the community built around the IFIP WG 9.4 should address.