in cabinet meetings without being physically present. The system entails original Web-based software, workstations for ministers and support staff, terminal and database servers, and audio and video systems. Details are available on Estonias Web site <www.riik.ee/government>.

Audio broadcasts and full-text transcripts of parliamentary sessions are posted immediately. Everything -- with the exception of certain classified agenda items -- is accessible by citizens. Additionally, the government operates a virtual briefing room <www.riik.ee/brf> -- meant mainly for media but also accessible by the general public and government officials.

Estonian officials say the system has made government more transparent and resulted in better decision-making as a result of more efficient access to information. Whats more, in 14 months, the system is expected to pay for itself in savings on paper and printing costs.

Estonia has now begun the process of altering its laws to allow Internet voting in local, parliamentary and presidential elections. Justice Ministry spokesman Aivo Barbo recently told Agence France-Presse that a working group is preparing to introduce online voting in one precinct in local government elections in 2002. And if that test proves successful, it would be followed by the introduction of countrywide e-voting in the 2003 parliamentary polls.

Estonias rapid move to e-government has much to do with its small size. Its population of 1.4 million is less than many large cities in the world. However, officials also attribute their success to what one official described as a latecomers advantage. Estonia gained its independence at the beginning of the 1990s. Had that happened 20 years earlier, much of the government would have been moored in a mainframe IT environment.

For Estonias citizens, many of whom dont have money for computers at home, access to the Internet is largely through their place of employment. Employers generally have not banned private Internet use in the office. But the government is also setting up free public Web-access points around the country.

Speeding the Transformation

Estonia has now become the prime example in the world of how rapidly e-government can be implemented. In contrast, a survey conducted by Accenture last year found that e-government services are generally emerging slowly, even in countries that lead the high-tech sector. Although the United States, Australia, Canada and Singapore were pioneering the e-government shift, the survey found that these nations had not surpassed 20 percent maturity in providing online government services. Among the factors cited as inhibiting e-government initiatives were privacy concerns, as well as legislators lack of understanding of e-commerce.

And based on more recent international e-government meetings and studies, this has not changed significantly in the last year. But this may not be all bad. As the G8 Government Online program discovered in their yearlong study, e-government itself is also an evolving aspiration. "Three years ago, providing access was considered sufficient," their report noted. "Today the requirement is seen as being more complex. A simple memory dump from the governments computers is not satisfactory in an electronic democracy. Governments now recognize that the data must be of high quality to be useful. Secondly, it must be organized in a manner that will enable citizens and the organizations of society to find the information they need to make informed decisions. Thirdly, the citizens need computer literacy and access to computers. Without these resources, simple access to information will be meaningless."

The legal structure, culture and society of a government affect how Internet and other technologies are introduced into governance in different countries. However, the Third Global Forum did reach many specific conclusions about how to speed and improve e-government implementation.

As noted in the forums closing recommendations: "Using the Internet as a means of accessing public information and of delivering public services facilitates a peer-to-peer relationship between state and citizen and between state and business. In this new relation of equals, the client-provider system is no longer the administration that controls the citizens, but rather the opposite."

Blake Harris  |  Contributing Editor