Reaping Global Rewards

Investing in e-government yields practical results worldwide.

by / June 11, 2001
All governments see the Internet as something very different and very promising. Now, virtually every government has a range of Internet-based programs or plans designed to enhance democracy and support effective citizen participation. Everyone agrees that IT and the Internet can transform governance. But as with everything technical, the devil is in the details.

At the Third Global Forum on e-government, for instance, hosted by the Italian government in March, representatives from 122 countries, including many ministers responsible for the e-government initiatives in their respective countries, talked of their successes and their plans for the future. Successful projects to date largely fall into the category of Internet service delivery and access to government information.

Norway points to its online system for accepting automated drafts of tax returns, choosing a doctor or applying for admission to a university.

The Philippines highlights the success of its Health Information Village, or e-Health program, that links various research, professional and expert groups involved in developing health-care applications and makes health information available to the general public.

The Italian Ministry of Finance takes pride in its Fisco Telematico network, which connects about 100,000 tax consultants, companies, banks, post offices, Tax Assistance Centers and trade associations. In the last year, the system expanded to allow taxpayers to file tax returns from home through the Internet. Italy also has an Internet based e-procurement system, which the Italian Ministry of Treasury says saved more than $150 million lira ($70,000) in 2000, and is expected to save the same or more in 2001.

The Australian governments Business Entry Point <> provides businesses with government-related information and a range of key transactions that can be completed online. This has become one of the worlds leading models for government service to business.

Mexico has Compranet, an electronic system of government contracting that allows suppliers and contractors to access information on required goods, services, leasing and public works and to present their tenders electronically, carrying through the whole contracting process to final settlement online.

Greece now offers a series of Web- and call-center-based e-services <> for filing tax forms, issuing tax certificates and responding to citizen questions on taxation issues.

Barcelona, Spain, promotes the success it has had with its city hotline, which received more than 3.5 million calls in 2000, and its municipal intranet and Web page, which also now receives more than 3.5 million hits a year.

The Third Global Forum concluded, in its summary recommendations, that technology could do much to strengthen government decision-making and policy formation. The potential of IT and the Internet is to "integrate data and facts in a more structured and comprehensive form through better knowledge management." Moreover, it recognized that the quality of data will improve through better collection and analysis. "The Internet can facilitate information sharing and the involvement of experts as well as broadening the basis on which governments seek to identify and reconcile conflicting interests and goals. A major benefit of the Internet, in fact, lies in its capacity to involve citizens and civil society in the policy debate through direct interaction."

On this front, however, little real progress has been made. Few of the specific projects presented at the forum offered this level of citizen involvement. Yet the goal is clearly there.

The G8 Government Online program recently sponsored a one-year effort to solicit and present government online and democracy experiences and ideas. Although a few years ago electronic democracy emphasized access to government information and the ability to vote on government decisions, the study found that the goal has now expanded to seven levels of citizen participation:

1. Access to information held by the government.

2. Online interaction with the government on service programs available to the public.

3. Online discussion of the issues with other citizens.

4. Online discussion of the issues with subject-matter experts.

5. Online discussion of the issues with government officials.

6. Contribution of ideas relative to the issues undertaken by the government.

7. Voting on the issues.

These goals highlight just how far e-government still has to go, even in the worlds leading high-tech countries.

Management Is Key

In part, implementation of e-government initiatives gets bogged down in poor IT management. In a study of e-government initiatives, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that most governments experience problems when implementing large IT projects. "Budgets are exceeded, deadlines are overrun and often the quality of the new system is far below the standard agreed to when the project was undertaken," one OECD report stated. "Moreover, governments are not alone in failing. Evidence suggests that private-sector companies have similar problems. The Standish Group, for example, estimates that only 28 percent of all IT projects in 2000 in the United States, in government and industry, were successful with regard to budget, functionality and timeliness. Twenty-three percent were cancelled and the remainder succeeded only partially, failing on at least one of the three counts."

For most governments, large public IT projects can pose great political risks. Ministers and governments are held accountable for the failures and the accompanying waste of taxpayer money. Yet, firmly confronting and admitting past failure seems to be the way through the quagmire, as the UK recently demonstrated.

In May last year, UK Minister of State Ian McCartney, who is responsible for e-government, issued a report that tackled Britains dismal track record of government IT project management. This outlined the many serious problems encountered in that governments IT projects, resulting in tenders frequently being delivered late, over budget and, on occasion, scrapped at tremendous cost to the taxpayer.

The report made 30 recommendations to improve the performance of major projects. These focused on business change, strong leadership, supplier management, improving staff project-management skills and breaking projects up into smaller chunks to reduce the risk of expensive failures.

Focusing on better IT project management has worked for Britain. McCartney recently announced that Prime Minster Tony Blairs target of delivering 25 percent of government services electronically by 2002 has been reached more than a year early. In fact, more than 40 percent of Britains government services are now online, and the figure will be nearly 75 percent by 2002.

Additionally, citizens are making increasing use of the online services. According to research by National Statistics, one in five adults (18 percent) who use the Internet do so to access government services or official information.

In December, the UK online citizen portal <> went live, and it was officially unveiled in February. Dubbed cradle to grave Internet services, the portal guides Internet users through the maze of more than 1,000 government sites -- making searches easier and providing a single information access point for life events, like having a baby and dealing with crime. It has become a leading example of a full-service government portal.

Small Can Be Beautiful

When it comes to meeting e-government goals and effectively managing IT projects, size does matter. Last November, Estonia announced that it had become the worlds first paper-free government.

All government business in Estonia is now carried out via a secure Web server using HTTPS. Cabinet meeting sessions are now prepared and conducted electronically. Ministers read proposed laws and make comments and suggestions online. If all ministers agree on a particular agenda point, these can be adopted a priori. And as soon as the country adopts a digital signatures act, ministers will even be able to participate 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 <>.

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 <> -- 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