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Observations from the trenches of electronic government

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue January, January 1 - January 31, 2002 | BY Gord Jenkins 

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Infrastructure, political mandate, and internal organization influence how a country manages e-government. One author discovered seven common themes among five different e-government implementations.



The following observations are based on my experience in electronic government (e-gov) while living and working in Sweden, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and India. They are eyewitness accounts from someone who has been "on the ground" in e-gov for more than five years. This is not meant to be an academic paper. There are no references to other academic papers and definitely no peer review.

Countries are different culturally, politically and in population and education, so can they be compared? Yes, to a degree! (How's that for a Canadian response?)

E-gov goes by different names in different countries: In Hong Kong it is called "electronic service delivery"; in Australia it is known as "government on line"; and in India it is called "electronic government." These terms all refer to the same thing: providing government services and information using the Web.

I found the English language to be a common denominator in many countries. In Singapore, for instance, virtually all business is done in English. The Web by and large is written in the English language. Computer languages from Assembly to C++ are written in English.

English was the language spoken at my first meeting in Sweden with a delegation of Swedes and Finns. Swedes can understand Danes and Norwegians, but not Finns. Finnish, being a Magyar language, is extremely difficult for a Swede, and nearly impossible for a Canadian. Even when the Swedes met the Danes and Norwegians, they spoke English.

The Swedes, the Finns and the Canadians spoke another common language: TCP/IP, SMTP, and HTML, the Internet and Web-based standards and protocols. This Web language is the basis for e-gov. TCP/IP is the same the world over, unlike electrical plugs, which are exasperatingly different for each country!

Sweden, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and India each have a government-mandated e-gov program. But there the similarity ends. Each had different motivations for establishing e-gov. Among these purposes: stopping corruption, providing better service to citizens, and getting a competitive edge in a global market.

Many political leaders in these countries announced deadlines for implementing e-gov. Today, most of those politicians are sorry they set a date as they have realized how difficult is to implement e-gov. In some cases, official expectations have been backpedaled to providing appropriate goods and services, a subtle yet important change. Reality is catching up to political rhetoric.

The Swedes believe in the three Cs: consensus, cooperation and conservative. I might add a fourth: conformity. For an excellent discussion on E democracy, try Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Swedish Federation of County Councils and Regions. Sweden does not have states or provinces, only the federal government and municipalities. What a blessing! One wag said this was the main reason Sweden is ahead in e-gov.

In the India state of Orissa the government is facing serious obstacles in implementing a central e-gov. One senior Orrisa state official described e-gov to me as "A good idea but with no money to implement," adding, "How do I do government online if I don't have the money to do it, and with all the other immediate priorities?" Over the past two years, a large cyclone and serious flooding have struck the state. Every penny that came in (mostly foreign aid money) that was intended for infrastructure was used to hire people for jobs. When I asked the chief secretary why the telephone lines and basic infrastructure were not repaired, he answered that "infrastructure reconstruction does not put food into ordinary people's mouths -- only contractors' pockets." Creating jobs and hiring people, even with little or no work, gets money to the people immediately. Hiring was a quick way to stop protests and get people off the streets and out of food lines. There seemed to be three people for every public service job. It's not a good place to use the argument "cut back people to be more efficient."

One reason that India is interested in e-gov is to control revenue "leakage," as it is called. Even a 5 to 10 percent reduction in pilferage, money passed under the table to get services done, would mean millions of rupees in the public coffers. However, cutting down on corruption is not a great inducement for the corrupt politician to improve accountability. Finding 1: Government must get its internal act together first.

Government-to-government, or administration-to-administration, interaction must be sorted out before implementing e-gov services to people and businesses. E-citizens' initiatives will end in disaster or become bogged down unless internal homework is done first.

The five governments discussed in this paper each started e-gov without a model for implementation because there is no such model to follow. Some academics and companies such as Gartner have created a model based on maturity; how far along the implementation curve an entity is. This is interesting as a snapshot but does not help in implementation.

No country followed an internal strategy step by step. India is trying to start in the middle and do everything for everyone when they don't even have the basic infrastructure to begin with.

Hong Kong rightly ensured that the government departments that were in on the original Electronic Service Delivery program could speak to each other before they opened the shutters to the outside.

Having an internal government strategy for how to implement e-gov and organizing inside the government first are keys to a successful program.

Finding 2: Basic Infrastructure is needed first.

Web-based government information and service delivery will become mainstream in the US and the world's developed countries that have reliable infrastructures in place. On the other hand, e-gov does not stand a chance in countries that do not have infrastructure.

India is trying desperately to install the infrastructure, and losing the battle badly. The nervous system of e-gov is electricity and the phone system, both landline and cellular. These are overloaded in India because of its rapid population growth. My memory of India is not of a cow or a temple but rather of my Internet crashing when the electricity went off for the twelfth time in a day and the wonderful sound of my generator kicking in.

In Sweden, Australia and Singapore, infrastructure is well established. Residents can take uninterrupted electricity, Internet connections and telephone dial tones for granted.

Singapore is an oasis of high tech sophistication. How it came to be so advanced is hard to say. A multitude of positive factors came together to create a test tube of what e-gov can really do. All the services described on its Web page really do exist. Singapore is not big on hype as a national characteristic. It is an island state caught between two large countries that are, to put it nicely, not exactly stable. Indonesia is unstable and Malaysian ports give Singapore a run for its money.

The e-gov of Singapore is an offshoot of its overall program of using technology to keep ahead of the competition. Singapore has a fully computerized port. I never saw the crews of ships there. The ships were turned around so fast that the crews had no time to disembark and go into town. The city is fast becoming a fully computerized version of the port. Automobiles entering the city are as controlled as the ships coming into port. The subway, busses, and city-controlled accommodations are wired, and so to no one's surprise is the government.

Along with infrastructure, e-governance, laws and regulations, must be in place for any electronic government initiative to get started. Singapore, Sweden and Australia have excellent e-governance regulations.

Finding 3: The digital divide is a fact of life

The digital divide will make it difficult if not impossible to provide e-gov services to everyone. This is true in the five countries discussed in this paper, as well as in the US and Canada. Some people do not currently have access to the Web, the Internet or e-gov. Some people will never have access.

According to a World Facts Book 2001 survey, surprisingly, Hong Kong does not have enough landline phones (mobile or cellular not included) for its population. According to the survey, Singapore and Australia have landlines for 100 percent of their populations, Hong Kong for 48 percent, and India only 1.9 percent. Singapore actually has more phones than population. Australia has the challenge of providing phone service to the outback at prices and services comparable to city folk, as do Canada and US.

Finding 4: E-gov must have a political mandate

Is mandated policy necessary for an e-gov initiative to succeed? It certainly helps. High-level government support is a catalyst for e-gov. All five countries have excellent e-gov policies pronounced and promulgated by their respective governments, yet all are at different stages of implementation.

Governments will want to implement e-gov for different reasons: Singapore wants efficiency; India's public service bureaucracy does not necessarily want to be more efficient, as this would mean laying off people, as previously mentioned. Instead, political leaders in India look upon e-gov as a way to remove corrupt bureaucrats from temptation as tax dollars make their way up the collection chain. This is true not only in India but also in many Central European, South American and African counties.

With an electronic environment it is harder to bribe an official. There is no need to grease the palms of a middleman to get to "the right person." In Singapore and Sweden where corruption is not an issue, e-gov was put in place to make already efficient programs even more efficient.

Finding 5: Government needs a citizen focus

Who is the client? Governments remain organized according to political and bureaucratic needs, and not what is best for their citizens. Most governments and their agencies use the Web to project their own organization or self-image.

An e-gov initiative should take into account citizens' needs and not just the services that are easiest for the government department or agency to implement. Singapore has attempted to address this through its "stages of life" Web pages that cover everything from birth to death. Appropriately, the Web site is called "Electronic Citizen" (ecitizen). Singapore even has a dating service for busy professional men to meet busy professional women, and vice versa. The dating service is offered because the State wants to increase Singapore's birth rate.

Hong Kong has recently adopted Singapore's "stages of life" approach but with a more horizontal approach to citizen needs' including, for example, hobbies. Hong Kong also blended its government services nicely with the private sector. This idea can be carried too far, however. In Brisbane, Australia the local government came under fire because its Web site was too commercialized. Brisbane's site has since been "cleaned" but Hong Kong's has become even more commercialized.

Government senior managers should be encouraged by their political masters to move to e-gov. There is a danger of no movement and the resulting paralysis by the challenge.

Finding 6: E-gov's strength is the horizontal linkage between programs and departments

Governments are organized vertically. They have vertical departments with vertical organizations and vertical programs and dollar allocation. Consumers wanting to deal with more than one government department must start with one and hope that it will connect to the others involved. The Web, on the other hand, can go where other departments cannot go -- horizontal. Creating a horizontal flow of information and services across departments in a vertically organized government is the biggest challenge of e-gov. This problem has not been addressed in any of the five countries discussed. All suffer from "stovepipe" syndrome, with Sweden having the most vertical organization.

Finding 7: There is uncertainty in any e-gov initiative. Politicians and bureaucrats must understand what it is they are being asked to do.

Governments do not like to make up-front investments in uncertain projects. Singapore, with its brand of "firm democracy," has an enviable position from which to make things happen quickly. If the senior minister of Singapore wants e-gov (which he did), he gets it. He also did not like the trees in front of Raffles Hotel. New trees appeared overnight! The governments of the other four countries I worked in did not react so quickly.

Additionally, there is an overriding need for government program managers to understand the potential of e-gov. In every project I worked on, no matter the location, not enough time was spent on making sure that senior management understood exactly what e-gov was and how it would be implemented.

Conclusion

These observations are based on personal experience in only five countries. My hope is that someone will use these findings as a base for broader discussion and conclusions. How about e-gov in South America, Central Europe, the Middle East? Are any of these findings true there as well? My comments are not academic. They are a synopsis of hard and difficult times in five counties from an e-gov grunt on the front line who did it, or tried to do it. Folks, this e-gov is only beginning!

Gord Jenkins is with Jenkins & Associates of Ottawa, Canada.

COMMENTS

thank you for having this research. it is heplful to my research too- the weaknesses of eGovernance

— frakneil, Fri, 14 Oct 2011 08:39:28 UTC

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