March 2006

e-Government in evolution

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The Internet has opened new  possibilities for the government and the governed, just as it has for the businesses. The emergence of the e-business, e-organisation and k-economy and the corollary, e-Government, is predicted to change social governance dramatically, if not, radically. Over the past decade many governments have conceived and implemented programmes intended to launch the government into the digital realm. While many see the power of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) especially the Internet to improve, extend and diversify public service delivery systems, others view it more broadly to include the governance dimensions. The optimists view ICT and particularly, the Internet as the panacea for the ailing spirit of democracy all over the world. ICT, it is argued, will rekindle the political consciousness of the citizenry and draw the apathetic masses back into the mainstream of political debate and discourse. The years of declining social capital and the politics-citizen disconnection can be mended and in fact, reversed.

Whether ICT and specially Internet, revives waning interests of people in political life of a nation, there is near consensus that the Internet enabled electronic government will dramatically change the way in government serves the public. Many of the age old complaints of government and its services can come to pass if the Internet is exploited systematically and adaptively. The highly complex bureaucracies that grew to regulate the economy and society through the highly differentiated but usually lowly integrated bureaucracies can eventually be reconstructed through the Internet and intranets.

The Malaysian government has envisioned a technologically advanced society and implicitly, a technologically enabled government through its Vision 2020. The move towards a digital government is progressing slowly along the government-to-government (G2G) route and also along the government-to-citizen path (G2C). Alongside with the launching of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) in 1996, the government has lined up several flagship e-government projects namely Project Management System, Human Resource Management Information System, e-Procurement and General Office Environment intended to transform the government from the paper-based, unintegrated islands of agencies and departments to an integrated and networked government.

International surveys have given Malaysia fairly high marks for e-Government development. The study here examines 168 randomly selected government agency websites on information currency, interactivity, communication and online services. The findings, however, suggest that the international assessments have been rather exaggerated. Most websites served little and stale information for the citizens.

The 8th Malaysian Plan and the recently launched Knowledge-Based Economy Masterplan recognise and strategise for the transformation of the government particularly the public service. Although many of the projects are mainly aimed at intra-governmental transactions, the agency-public interface is still an important goal. Within this e-Government plan, the government agencies are expected to and have launched websites as digital service portals. In keeping with the standard development elsewhere, Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU) has sought to organise these sites into a convenient public service portal. Several agencies have significantly improved their services to the public by allowing inquiries and searches to be made online. Companies Commission of Malaysia, Road Transport Department, The Royal Malaysian Police, the Subang Jaya Municipality and the Election Commission are examples of such agencies. But the vast majority has not used the Internet for interaction but merely as a static broadcasting medium.

Because of its popularity, low cost and tremendous reach, government agencies have over the last eight years entered the Internet domain to make their presence felt. Since then, a plethora of websites have been created and launched with the usual fanfare. While most agencies proudly proclaim their digital initiatives, the usefulness/value of these sites to the citizen-clients has not been systematically examined. Many of the surveys of e-Government by international consultancies like Accenture and Taylor Flores Nelson involve limited websites, mostly of the federal agencies and target English contents. Although remarkable improvements have been achieved in providing services via the Civil Service Link, these success stories are by far the exceptions than the norm. To provide a better description of the progress of e-Government, it is important that the state and performance a of larger base of websites be examined.

Implementation and Reality

Despite the growth of websites and the profound implications for the government, there have been few studies of the e-Government revolution. It is not clear how the e-Government revolution has progressed and what kinds of information and services are online. It has been posited that the Internet will encourage greater accessibility to services, greater openness and accountability of the government agencies. In reality, many government websites carry stale information and outdated data. These sites often do not have much interactivity designed into it. There are very few agencies providing the services entirely via the Internet.

Most agencies have advertised their services and make available the  forms and the instructions. Few actually permit complete online transactions.

This state of affair has raised serious questions about performance of these websites and also the larger question of how information technology is being deployed in the public sector. The websites are undoubtedly agency-centric creations.

This survey highlights the state of use of this potentially useful delivery channel. Much less is known about the pace and the depth of e-Government implementation in Malaysia. The publicly available information is policy oriented and says little about the progress and, more importantly, about the pilot project outcomes, which will inform the eventual rollout of the e-Government programmes. The recent United Nations e-Government Readiness Report 2004 is quite revealing about e-Government in Malaysia. Most agencies are merely getting on the Internet and have not gone beyond the ‘publish stage’. The government agency work is still largely offline with exception of a few progressive record-keeping agencies.

The study is a cross-sectional

sample survey of public agency websites. It is intended to examine the state of development of the digital service window of the agencies. A sample size of 200 agency websites was deemed appropriate as it covered about half the listed public agency web sites. However, we were able to obtain data from only 165 websites as the balances were inactive or have been removed pending reconstruction or experienced server problems.

The Malaysian government has envisioned a technologically advanced society and implicitly, a technologically enabled government through its Vision 2020. The move towards a digital government is progressing slowly along the government-to-government (G2G) route and also along the government-to-citizen path (G2C).

State of e-Government

The sample observed included more state agency websites than federal. But the slight over representation of the state agency websites in the sample does not raise serious concerns of distortion. About half of the websites were in Bahasa Malaysia while a third was bilingual and about 15% in English only.

Sixty-five percent of the websites did not display a privacy policy statement, which is very worrisome as it is a standard practice in e-Government. In fact, MAMPU guidelines require that the privacy statement be displayed. With security and privacy issues being still the main obstacle to e-business and e-government, the poor showing here is not very helpful to ameliorating these perennial security concerns of users.

The government websites are notorious for their failure to keep the information on the websites current. Critics have scoffed at the suggestion of advancing e-Government by constantly referring to the disconnection between data currency and the website. This survey finding does nothing to diminish this criticism. The staleness of information on the web speaks volumes of the lack of integration of the website into the agency activities. It surely indicates that there is no automatic or scheduled updating of information. The use of outside vendors for the creation and maintenance of the websites in part also explains the lag.

The promise of e-Government lies in bringing the agency services to the “anywhere and anytime” concept that the Internet makes possible, cheaply. All e-Government surveys look at the range and extent of agency services, which are available on the net. Although many international surveys have accorded high marks for online services, this survey tells a different story. Less than 10% of the agencies provided complete online services to the public. A minority had some form of online services but they represent only a part of the total service offering. Even forms and guides are still to become a standard feature of website services. The availability of the online payment facility probably is the best indicator of how far full online services can proceed. On this score, there is precious little to report.

An often-mentioned complaint about government agencies including its services on the web is the lack of or slow response to inquiries. To test this, we sent emails to the listed officers asking simple questions about the agency services. We logged their response to our emails and the response was dismal. Even, more recently a test of email response (by ministers) carried out by a national daily New Straits Times produced similar results.

The Malaysian e-Government vision does not accord, at least at for now, much weight to extensive public participation in the agency affairs beyond the role as users. The role of the users as citizens in the policy making process is not articulated as a key objective in the e-Government visions.

Discussion

The e-Government development is quiet but dramatic changes are taking place throughout the world. Several countries notably US, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Norway, Canada, UK, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany have progressed to become global leaders in e-Government. As the e-readiness of Malaysians improves, the conditions for the e-Government, e-administration and even, the e-Governance will improve correspondingly. The UNPAN survey placed Malaysia in an exalted position labeled as ‘interactive presence’ (UNPAN, 2001:14) (but dropped to 42nd place on the UN 2004 survey and a place down in the 2005 survey) while the Accenture study placed Malaysia among the ‘platform builders’. But on a national basis, the findings of this study paint a slightly different picture. There are wide variations in the e-Government development as judged from their website. But along this e-Government spectrum some commonalities are readily observed.  Information paucity, information staleness, information utility and responsiveness continue to plague e-Government in Malaysia.

Implications

The implications of these findings are discussed in sections such as Information Currency, Agency-Centricity, Online Services and Interactivity in the context of the development of e-government in Malaysia.

Information Currency: Government services are information based. The quality and quantity of information defines the quality of service available to the people. UNPAN list the quality of information as a sine quo non for developing credibility of the e-Government. Even in more progressive e-Government countries, the citizen’s demand is greatest for information. It is not merely the creation of the website that marks improvement or greater openness. It is quality and quantity of information about the internal administrative functions that is made available to the users that determines whether e-Government improves services in a democratic society. The access to information, where available, must be convenient and inexpensive. Undue difficulties and costs in obtaining information about the government serves only to frustrate not facilitate citizen-government interaction. The staleness of the information posted on the government websites has become an object of ridicule and a measure of the commitment to the digital service window. The information quality has three dimensions namely the currency of the data, the regularity of updating and the level of aggregation of the data presented.  This study examined the time since the last updating.

The difficulties are likely to arise if the backroom activities are not computerised and integrated to enable easy, if not, seamless uplink to the agency websites. Even where such links exist, the effectiveness of these links must be continuously examined because many sites offering database search do not yield anything except a note of server problems. Citizens’ expectations of online and conventional services are different. Many organisations have developed the websites using outside vendors and the uplinks are managed via these vendors. The transfer of information to intermediaries to be posted on the Net not only prolongs the process but may also introduce new risks as some information cannot be exchanged with outside parties. Other valid, though speculative, reasons can be offered for this state of affairs. The staleness of the information served on the agency website is also perhaps in part due to the tactical question of keeping the citizens away from actively evaluating the agency performance. Much of the information and data, however innocuous they seem, are classified as confidential and as such cannot be made public.

Agency-Centricity: To begin with public agencies are still agency-centric institutions despite the introduction quality initiatives aimed at providing better services to the clients/citizens through increased focus on the customer cum citizen. Despite the improvements in the public services over the years, the agencies remain very producer-centric. This trait is also reflected in the development of e-Government. To be useful, the agency websites must be designed, operated and improved for the benefit of the public. This general advice is often not heeded in the design of the sites. The websites are replete with corporate information that includes standard vision, mission, objectives and also the client charters. In addition to this, the structure of the organisation and the information of the office bearers, at least the senior ones are a standard feature. It is observed that in high power distance societies such as Malaysia, the all-important civil servants who head the agencies and its various departments are given particular prominence. In fact, sometimes nothing more is available besides the personnel and corporate information. This information is only marginally useful to the public.

Online Services: The primary value of the Net for the government and its agencies is in the extension of the services to the citizens anywhere and anytime through 24/7/365 service delivery. In the case of the Malaysian e-Government, the main objective of e-Government is to extend services to the people via an alternative medium. For this goal to be achieved, the services must go online. The findings of this study are a terrible indictment of the state of online services. Few services are carried out online. Some are partial in nature. The local authorities especially the urban ones are actively seeking to go online. But online payment is a big stumbling block in the transformation.  Recent surveys have shown that Malaysians, just like their counterparts all over the world, are still concerned about the security.

The recent announcement of further delays in enacting the Personal Data Protection Act, the Electronic Transactions Act and the Electronic Government Transactions Act does little to help assure the anxious public about online security. The few online services available are focused mainly on the vendors and contractors. The Treasury’s e-Perolehan (procurement) system allows all government purchases to be managed online. But these systems have not been fully rolled out and many are prototypes that are being tested and refined and will gradually be extended to other agencies of the federal government and later to agencies of the state and local government as well. The development of online services is not expected to move rapidly or smoothly because the e-Government plans at the agency level is not in place.

Interactivity: e-Government has the potential to transform the relationship between the citizens and the government. The Internet allows for the declining interest in government and in democracy to be reversed.  In fact, many observers report evidence, though still isolated, of e-Government reconnecting the public with their rulers.  The findings of this study do not reassure that the government agencies are exploiting the interactivity that the Net provides. The emails posted on the Net are not, in many cases, active. The response to emails of agency placed in the website for general inquiry was disappointingly low. Very few actually responded to the email inquiries. A recent survey of responsiveness of Ministers to email inquiries showed that the political masters fared no better than the agencies under their charge. e-Government without plans, processes and standards are likely to evolve into public relations exercises that lose appeal and interest after the grand ceremonies and fanfare.

The limited nature of Malaysian e-Government vision is symptomatic of the usual reticence shown by public servants to the idea of e-democracy via e-Government. Service rather than democracy is the mainstay of e-Government, at least for now, not only in Malaysia but also on a global basis.

Conclusion

The study paints a rather different picture of e-Government from the annual surveys by different agencies including the United Nations. The Malaysian e-Government, as judged by the websites features and facilities, is still very much in the early stages or phases of e-Government development contrary to much higher placing in other surveys. The websites are very much focused on the agency need to broadcast information about the personnel and the agency. A user orientation is not evident as a general feature. This partly explains why the e-Government uptake is still low among Malaysian.

There is serious information paucity – not much is available and also the problem of information staleness. Outdated information is a common caricature of government websites. Utility of the information is still a major question. The responsiveness of the agency to, for example, an email inquiry, is dismal and disturbing. The agency websites have not actively sought to interact and involve their respective constituencies. This is  not surprising as the national  e-Government Plan emphasises service delivery dimensions of e-Government. e-participation and e-democracy are not on the e-Government agenda.

The evolving e-Government requires greater user centricity to propel e-Government to challenge the conven- tional services delivery as envisaged in the Public Sector ICT Plan. The increasing info-structural facilities will not see a corresponding rise in e-Government uptake unless the agencies aggressively move beyond the broadcasting stage to interaction and even transaction online. To achieve this, the agencies must become more user-centric in the planning and do a lot more on the internal front to develop greater e-Government readiness. The public expectation is rising faster than can the agencies reengineer and transform. The e-Government evolution in Malaysia is uneven with the more public side appearing to move faster but the unseen back office is still to see major changes to allow rapid and seamless integration of services across different platforms and agencies. The dream of fully portalised life event based e-services is still a long way to come.

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