November 2005

Role of e-Government in overcoming bureaucracy in transitional countries

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Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have become a part and parcel of our daily life by penetrating all spheres of human activities. As a result, a new field of economy i.e. ‘information economy’ has been established in developed states with more than half of the working population currently involved in information-based production. Both Government and private sector are applying ICTs in various spheres of life including management, education, healthcare, business, banking and thereby providing higher living standards for citizens. The rationale behind this is bound with a set of following values indicating a direct link between ICTs and human rights. These value sets are depicted as under:

Globalization: Web technologies enable any individual to get any type of information from any place in the world. However only 14% of the world’s population currently has access to Internet. 70% out of them are residents of developed nations. Due to objective reasons there is an obvious information shortage in the outsider countries in the field of ICT access.
• Distribution: Ideally, all users have equal right for authorized information. However, given the realities of ongoing globalization, unequal development of cyber space and ICT facilities is bringing about dependence for majority of nations on the knowledge-based economy (this process is accompanied by brain drain, cheap workforce, compulsory enforcement of Western standards, heavy competition market etc.)
• Transparency: Any individual with proper access to ICT may become a source of information. However, the problem of tremendous digital divide existing among the nations created abrupt inequities both within nations and among individuals. For instance, in the countries with transitional economies large portions of population in remote areas and low income groups are completely deprived of these opportunities by virtue of a number of objective and subjective reasons such as underdeveloped ICT infrastructure, low level of incomes, high unemployment, expensive technical means, shortage of national program modules, language barrier, etc.
• Absence of limitations: Unlike other forms of mass media the capacities for electronic information storage and transmission are unlimited. However inalienable rights for access and dissemination of information are being violated in overwhelming majority of the countries, including nations with wellestablished democratic traditions. This is done through pieces of legislation contradicting provisions of international conventions and passed with a view to getting Internet under control on the pretext of information security. This factor is furthermore tangible in the countries with poor democratic traditions and lack of political will to reforms.
• Interactivity: Any individual upon his/her own will may become both source and user of information. However, poor development of information society, low level of ICT, ambiguous attitude towards democratic values supported by information technologies, gender imbalance, abuse of existing situation for personal and political purposes have led the countries in transition to the danger of undermined national values, xenophobia, cyber-racism, cyber-crime and finally cyber-terrorism.
• User control: Each user is free in selecting information and affording degree of confidentiality to the information to be disseminated. However, limited resources for electronic information (databases, knowledge bases and field bases), shortage and low speed of access points to the network, low computer awareness of the bulk of population, poor level of computer skills create  serious impediments for a large part of the population in developing countries to fully benefit from these opportunities.

The possibilities to benefit from these opportunities provided to a certain extent in developed  countries, led to a greater democracy and transparency in the state and society relations and  created possibilities for development of digital and information-based societies. E-government  as the guarantor for human rights’ observation and advocacy in these societies, is considered  a part and parcel of the ICT-based economic management and human development across the  world. It serves for the following main goals common to all the countries of the world:

• Improved public services
• Enhanced flexibility of the state and government agencies
• Reinforced legal system and enforcement of law
• Rapid development of economic fields with higher priority
• Improved living standards of low-income groups
• Increased public scrutiny of the administration

Due to specific features, typical of each society, there are no universal models or assessment  criteria for electronic government in transitional societies. Since the level of economic  progress remains as the major index for a nation’s development, it would be appropriate to  measure the degree of potential for e-Government applications through this very index. The countries with transitional economies deserve a special attention in this respect since these  societies are facing greater problems with human rights due to their social and economic  realities. These problems may be generally presented as follows:

• Violations of social and economic rights
• Graft and corruption
• Shady economy
• Economic crime
• Bureaucracy in public service
• Lack of legal awareness
• Dominance of personal priorities in relations between government officials and individuals
• Artificial secrecy regarding activities of government authorities
• Lack of suffrage comprehension
• Insufficient promotion of pieces of legislation adopted
• Insufficient use of electronic media
• Lack of mass public use of the ICT
• Lack of confidence in administrative bodies due to artificial impediments in relations between the state and the society

According to research, given serious problems in this field faced by transitional economies,  information technologies should be urgently promoted in a comprehensive manner in  economic, social, cultural, scientific, technical, legal and ethical spheres with a view to  implementing e-government ideas aimed at enabling each individual to fully exercise his/her  right to access and disseminate information.

So far majority of countries in transition declared their determination to benefit from the ICT  possibilities by creating e-government system as an important tool for human rights protection and human development. However, activities undertaken in this respect have so far been primarily spontaneous and the whole process was featured by some common peculiarities in transitional countries. First, the idea was implemented in a very slow and heavy-handed manner in all the countries undergoing transitional period. This was probably  due to the fear of possible backlash. Second, very specific political infrastructure of the states  in question significantly weakened political will to e-government foundation, which is one of  the major preconditions for success. On the other hand, the very nature of socio-political infrastructure made the forces of internal resistance to this process unavoidable.

The transitional societies tend to use the ICT services primarily in the major public spheres  such as education, healthcare and government authorities. These services are dominantly  provided through the web sites owned by the government authorities.

The Azerbaijan Scenario

Azerbaijan has clearly expressed its position on this matter on the highest governmental level  during the Geneva Summit. This decision is backed up by Electronic Azerbaijan program  currently implemented on the national level. Economic and political stability featuring  domestic situation in Azerbaijan for last 12 years is instrumental for successful  implementation of the programs of this type. With the most dynamic development rate in the  region, Azerbaijan has a significant potential for furthering the use of information  technologies. Integration into the world community is the foremost priority for the nation at  this moment. To accomplish this, creation of an e-government network appears to be of vital
importance.

The National Strategy for Developing Information and Communication Technologies in the  Republic of Azerbaijan in 2003-2012 (http://www.nicts.az) adopted in 2003 identifies the  major leitmotiv for the works to be undertaken in the country for the decade to come. It  should also be noted that so far Azerbaijan has been the only country of the South Caucasus to  adopt a national program of this type. As a follow-up from this policy, the idea of drafting a  national ICT program was brought about by the State. This resulted in adoption of the  National Program for Development of Communications and Information Technologies in the Republic of Azerbaijan for 2005-2008 (http://www.mincom.gov).

As of July last year, the project on creation of the National E-governance Network was  launched in collaboration with United Nations Development Program (UNDP).  Implementation of this project furthermore increases the possibilities of government agencies  to better benefit from ICT. More than thirty per cent of ministries and government agencies in  the country have official web pages. Since 2000, the government agencies are served free  of charge through gov.az domain. Web pages of government agencies primarily contain  information on the agencies’ missions, institutional chart and duties. Meanwhile, some pages  already provide various documents and charts of official services offered to users.  Development of Internet in Azerbaijan dates back to 1995 with an approximate number of  users reaching four hundred thousand at the moment.

“With the most dynamic development rate in the region, Azerbaijan has a   significant potential for furthering the use of information technologies.”

Online communication network of the State Customs Committee in the Republic of Azerbaijan  operates in real time format providing communication between the capital and 34 outlets  scattered all over the country. This appeared to be the first practical implementation of the  Broad Area Network in Azerbaijan. The State Social Welfare Fund together with the World  Bank is currently working on ICT application for three spheres, such as retirement payments,  social support and jobs database. As a result, both in the capital city of Baku and in majority of  countryside areas, pensions are paid by means of cards. The system of Broad Area Network is also being currently created at the Ministry of Taxes. The Ministry’s web site is capable of  providing rapid response to clients’ queries. The State Agency of Standards, Metrics and  Patents started reforming its activities in compliance with the international ICT standards.  The system of electronic payments is getting furthermore prevalent with the National  Banking Transfer System currently operating in online regime.

“Over the past five years, UNDP Azerbaijan has developed a portfolio of e-governance programmes valued at USD12.2 million, making it one of the largest mainstreamed e-Governance programmes of UNDP anywhere. Direct government cost sharing accounts for  50% of all projects, while third party cost sharing is on the rise, currently at 14%.”

With a view to increasing transparency of student admission process, the testing system has  been used in the country since 1992. This involves application of the most up-to-date  computer technologies for automatic check-up. Since transparency of election campaigns is  the major indication of democratic processes in the society, automated information system for  elections has been in use since 2000. The main feature of the system in question is rapid and reliable information exchange between the Central Election Committee and countryside polling stations.

To better identify the area distribution and structure of population, as well as to get and  update other types of necessary information to be provided to natural and legal persons  pursuant to legal provisions, creation of the National Register (databank) was initiated in  2004. The Register is supposed to comprise data on all citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan, as  well as foreign nationals and stateless persons permanently residing in the country.

Since, degree of media freedom is among the main indices of a country’s democratic  development, mass media constitutes one of the most important accomplishments of the  ongoing democratic processes in Azerbaijan. Access to Internet has substantially increased the  opportunities of media to obtain and disseminate information. In the meantime,  availability of media web sites enabled large groups of population to reflect from the issues  discussed and get rapid response on them. All together this provided a strong impetus to  formation of electronic media in the country.

Steps have also been undertaken in the field of upgrading national legislation on the ICT. So far the Laws on Electronic Signature, Electronic Documents, Law on Electronic Commerce and Law on Telecommunication have been adopted.

This created an enabling environment for further development of e-Government. In addition,  some activities are also being conducted in the field of distant learning as well. In fact,  Azerbaijan is a leading country of the region in this regard. As far as human resources for ICT  are concerned, the country’s position on this issue had been clearly expressed at the Geneva  Summit through the motto “Let’s Convert the Black Gold into Human Gold”.

Currently, a number of projects have been conceived and undertaken in Azerbaijan with  support from World Bank. These projects are aimed towards developing government- to-government (G2G), government-to-private (G2P) and government-to-citizen (G2C) type of  telecommunication networks. Some of these are – Technical Assistance to Institutional  Building 2 (ongoing); Pensions and Social Support (ongoing); Technical Assistance to Poverty  Analysis and Capacity Building (ongoing); Development of Education Sector (ongoing);  Energy Transmission (discussed); Facilitation of Commerce and Transportation (discussed).

Nowadays, one can surely say that Azerbaijan succeeded in creating necessary conditions for  a consistent ICT development. The process of cooperation both within and between the  government, the private and the NGO sectors is going on and this is one of the major  preconditions for sustainability of e- Government. It was this cooperation that triggered a  very active involvement of UNDP for ICT development in Azerbaijan. With this momentum,  Azerbaijan has a real chance to become a leading state in ICT development in the Caspian  region and reinforce its advanced role in advocating human rights by successful implementation of e-Government programs. In addition to this, international ICT conferences like – BakuTel 2004 and Global ICT Conference on Digital Divide and Knowledge-based Economy (Problems and Solutions), recently hosted by Azerbaijan is another sign of ongoing  developments that are happening in the field of ICT.

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