At the Top

Three countries -- the United States, the United Kingdom and Singapore -- stand close together while boldly moving online.

by / August 1, 2003
CIOs don't get many chances to boast about their achievements -- too many public-sector IT projects end up underperforming, over budget or as train wrecks. But Mark Forman, the federal government's associate director of information technology and electronic government, can talk about a project that showcases how the best of IT blends with core functions of policy development and service delivery. When it works, as it did with the federal government's, the result is e-government at its best.

The Federal Register -- the daily publication containing the government's proposed rules, notices and presidential documents -- had an average print run of 20,000 in 1996. "We started seeing data that showed the American public wanted to be more involved in policy-making," said Forman, who guided the creation of "With the Internet, you don't have to wait for an election to do that."

That realization led to major efforts by agencies to bring together the public, the Internet and federal regulations. Some agencies spent millions of dollars developing Web sites that allow citizens to comment on proposed regulations before they become law. Not only was this stovepiped approach wasteful, it also was confusing and non-customer-oriented. So under Forman's guidance, the federal government created, an online version of the Federal Register that aggregated all proposed rules and regulations on one site.

The response was immediate. By 2001, subscriptions to the print version of the Federal Register dropped to 15,000, but the regulation Web site received more than 65 million hits. "That was an eye-opener for us," Forman recalled.

Because the site needed an electronic form engine to allow public comments on the regulations, the federal government first looked at available products in the commercial sector. Nothing scaled to the required size, so they devised a simple e-mail response form system. The total solution cost the government less than $250,000 -- far less than the millions of dollars agencies were spending. "We now have over 90 percent of federal rules and regulations online for comment," Forman said. "And we did it faster, at a fraction of the cost and made it simpler for the citizen."

Increasingly Sophisticated E-Government
Customer-centric service is one of the four cornerstones of e-government, according to Jeremy Andrulis, a management consultant with IBM's e-business Innovation Institute. The other three -- knowledge focus, government integration and private-sector involvement -- will help government meet the rising tide of expectations by transforming the way government operates.

Writing in an IBM white paper, Reconstructing Government: Four Fundamental Areas of Change, Andrulis explains, "The ability of governments to move from their current decision-making and service delivery framework to one built upon these cornerstones will dictate in large part how they will evolve and mature."

The transformation, or as Andrulis calls it, "the reconstruction" of government through technology, is well under way worldwide. The degree to which it's happening varies, but a number of organizations have found through research and surveys that governments around the globe are pursuing their visions of e-government at an accelerated pace.

Accenture, which has surveyed e-government progress globally for three years, found that at the highest level, "governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated, both in their articulation of what e-government is, and in how best to implement e-government initiatives to maximize benefits to citizens, businesses and government alike."

The governments that lead e-government progress spell out precisely what e-government should do, how benefits can be delivered and measures needed to foster cross-agency cooperation. The international management consulting firm is seeing significant progress in how government treats citizens and businesses like customers through use of CRM processes to enhance their experience.

A handful of countries consistently score high on a number of surveys that rank national e-government efforts. Three that have moved into the top tier are the United States, the United Kingdom and Singapore. The countries differ in terms of population, economy and Internet penetration. Government structure also varies, along with citizen confidence and participation in public policy. But these countries share similarities in how they have clearly articulated their plans for e-government, how it will be managed and the expected outcome.

Singapore: City-State E-Government
Singapore, a former British colonial outpost, is home to 4 million people who live prosperously in a city-state of gleaming office towers. Here, electronics and technology are key engines of economic expansion.

After decades of growth since its independence in 1965, Singapore hit a few economic bumps in recent years, most notably in 2001 during a major downturn in global trade (on which the country is highly dependent). To help turn things around, Singapore's government began fostering the development of a "knowledge-based" economy, according to The Economist.

That kind of economic involvement by the national government also is evident in its approach to e-government. Almost from the start, the country has been a leader in digital government, according to Chin Siong Seah, a partner with Accenture. "The government has a very top-down driven approach toward the planning and execution of e-government initiatives across the country," he said from his office in Singapore. "It recognized e-government as something important long before some of the other countries in the world."

By getting involved with e-government early and aggressively, Singapore pushed the success of its online services to the top of virtually every chart and survey. Accenture's 2002 research report, eGovernment Leadership, ranked Singapore No. 2 out of 23 countries surveyed. More recently, the World Economic Forum assessed network readiness of 82 countries and ranked Singapore third behind Finland and the United States.

Singapore has given e-government so much attention for several reasons. First and foremost, the country's small geographical size and economy, when compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors, make it try harder. Its neighbors -- Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam -- have vastly larger populations and cheap labor pools, while other Asian countries -- such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and China -- have economies that dwarf Singapore's.

"Singapore has to stay ahead of the technology curve relative to other countries," Seah said. "It looks at information technology down the road and what it will mean for government-to-citizen services, and then plans around those enabling technologies with the goal of executing their deployment within a certain time frame."

That's certainly the case with the government's public service portal, eCitizen Centre. Launched in 2001, the portal delivers integrated services centered on user need. Its design and execution received the highest accolades from Accenture, which said the site demonstrated "superior performance in delivering mature online services."

Those services include booking sports facilities, filing and paying taxes, renewing driver's licenses, setting up businesses, and paying traffic fines, to name a few. Altogether, citizens can partially or completely transact with 70 percent of the government's online services.

Through one online form, for example, the government's entertainment licensing system allows application to as many as seven agencies involved in granting a license. This has shortened the application process by six weeks.

Singapore's accomplishment can be measured in more specific ways. In 2001, for instance, the country's customer-centric portal received 240,000 hits per month. By 2002, it received 4.2 million hits per month -- from a country of 4 million people, the majority of whom have Internet access. To date, the government has 132 of 136 possible e-services online for citizens and businesses. This only hints at the integrated, transformational online services now, or soon to be, available in Singapore.

In 1998, Singapore enacted a law recognizing electronic signatures through the use of digital certificates. Today, citizens and businesses in Singapore can identify themselves and authenticate a multitude of transactions using one common identity and password.

On the transformational side, Singapore's government recognizes that citizens and businesses don't just want to see traditional services in an electronic format.

"The government realizes that just providing an online service without understanding the relationship with the citizen isn't good enough," explained Accenture's Seah. "It's a strategic change of direction for the government." So the government is developing CRM solutions in addition to its e-services.

For example, the recent economic downturn led to an increase in unemployment, which hasn't occurred in Singapore for years. Recognizing the importance of re-establishing the work force as quickly as possible, Singapore is using e-government and CRM to help individuals find jobs. The emphasis is on finding a job, not just looking for one. Instead of providing job seekers with an electronic form for a resume and a database of job openings, the Ministry of Manpower has users create a personal profile, so the system can find job matches. "It represents a different direction for government, with more emphasis on quality of service," Seah said.

Public Framework
The framework for Singapore's highly integrated e-government initiative is the Public Service Infrastructure (PSi), which was built by National Computer Systems and Ecquaria, two Singapore-based technology firms. Using technology from Sun Microsystems, PSi allows different government agencies to share components, such as payment gateways, electronic data exchanges, a forms generator, an authentication engine and other security features for e-government.

"We have built the PSi around a common set of tools, basically because the different government agencies and their legacy systems would present us with too many interfaces if we had to integrate all of them," said Tan Swee Hua, director of Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority (IDA).

These components allow the IDA to provide government agencies with services on demand. In effect, the IDA acts as an application service provider to the other agencies, offering key e-government services agencies can tap without individually going through expensive application design, development and deployment. PSi works because it's based on a Web services infrastructure that allows for rapid application development and delivery without extensive recoding. The agencies can define what they want and select from the range of service delivery engines to build what they need.

Trading Restrictions for Security
Singapore has one of the highest rates of Internet use in the world. That kind of market penetration doesn't necessarily translate into unqualified success with e-government, however. Like other governments, Singapore struggled with developing the kind of integrated e-services that best suit citizen need, according to Seah. This included agencies to become more business-oriented, change their processes and become more customer-oriented.

Despite the high rate of Internet access in Singapore, the digital divide still exists, resulting in some groups -- particularly the poor and elderly -- not using e-government services to the same degree as the middle class and young.

Some have questioned the government's continued tight regulation of political content and Internet usage while fostering its growth for business and government services. But restrictions in Singapore pale in comparison to how other Southeast Asian countries control content, according to Nina Hachigian, director of RAND's Center for Asia Pacific Policy. In her essay, The Internet and Power in One-Party East Asian States, Hachigan points out that unlike China's restrictive policy, Singapore "has not attempted a technically complicated campaign to block large numbers of pernicious sites, nor has it spent state resources to train legions of cyber-police." In fact, the citizens of Singapore seem pleased with their current security and prosperity in a region looking increasingly more volatile. "Citizens no doubt appreciate the technology that government makes so accessible to them," she concluded.

Blair's United E-Kingdom
No one can accuse Prime Minister Tony Blair of being shy about making bold, visionary statements. When he became prime minister more than seven years ago, he set out to give the United Kingdom a competitive edge in electronic commerce. "Blair wanted the government departments to be exemplars of everything electronic," said Barry Glassberg, director of eServices at Inland Revenue, the country's national tax agency.

In 2000, Blair raised the stakes further when he declared that by 2005, every government department must deliver 100 percent of its services online. "They really started off e-government with a hell of a push to make it happen with a great deal of political will," said Steve Dempsey, a partner with Accenture's UK Government Practice.

Blair's desire to make the UK one of the leading governments in terms of electronic services quickly translated into a number of impressive pieces of infrastructure, according to Dempsey, who said there was no question as to why things happened so quickly. "It was clear leadership from the very top," he explained.

Accenture's e-government report succinctly explained the reasons behind the UK's success in its vigorous efforts: a strong leadership structure, ability to deliver government services online, a clearly articulated action plan, effective communication with citizens and benchmarks for measuring progress.

The creation of the Office of the e-Envoy was the key to the country's well laid plans and their strong execution. Set up shortly after Blair's 100 percent online service delivery mandate, the Office of the e-Envoy, under the direction of Andrew Pindar, took responsibility for the government's e-government and e-commerce agenda.

Infrastructure went up quickly, according to Dempsey. First came the government gateway with its central authentication and transaction engines for service and business between government, citizens and private firms. The government also launched UK Online, the national portal that delivers services and information organized around life events, not departmental functions.

The government hasn't been shy about spending serious money on e-government either. The budget for UK Online is
Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.