November 2007

DistrictNet

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EGovernance operates at the cross roads between Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and government processes. In order to be successful, e-Governance must be firmly embedded in the existing government processes, must be supported, both politically and technically, by the governments, and must provide users with reasons to use these services.

In this article, we evaluate DistrictNet, an ongoing e-Governance programme in Uganda, which tries to support the decentralisation process at the local government level through the use of ICT. The achievements of the programme are presented and evaluated. On the basis of this evaluation, we elicit lessons that can be used to guide similar programmes at the local government levels in the developing world.

Guiding Principles for Successful e-Governance

The United Nations defines e-Government as “a government that applies ICT to transform its internal and external relationships” (United Nations, 2003). ICT allows a government’s internal and external communications to gain speed, precision, simplicity, outreach and networking capacity, leading to reduced costs and increased effectiveness. In addition, it can equip people for genuine participation in an inclusive political process. Richard Heeks  makes distinction between three domains of e-Governance: e-Administration, which focuses on improving the internal workings of the public sector; e-Services, which focus on improving the relationship between the government and its citizens; and e-Society, which extends to the other domains by focusing on institutional stakeholders to build durable partnerships and social and economic communities. e-Society was not within the scope of the DistrictNet programme.

Successful e-Government depends on several principles, which can be grouped, broadly, into (1) the reasons that governments should use ICTs and develop an on-line presence, (2) the ability that governments have to use ICTs and create that on-line presence, and (3) the reasons for people to use ICTs to communicate with the government.

DistrictNet

Uganda’s DistrictNet programme began in 2002 and has completed its pilot cycle. The programme has officially been handed over to the four pilot districts in February 2007.

DistrictNet’s goal was to improve the transparency of local government and to support decentralisation through the use of ICT. Until May 2005, the programme was fostered by Uganda’s Ministry of Local Government (MoLG), with financial support of Development Fund for International Development (DFID) and International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD). The Districts became fully responsible for implementation of the programme from May 2005.

Implementing DistrictNet was a major challenge from the start, and the rural setting and scale posed some new and unexpected problems. For instance, professional technical ICT knowledge and computer literacy levels were much lower than anticipated. And connections between headquarters and the sub-counties demanded some innovative strategies in terms of connectivity solutions and alternative energy sources.

DistrictNet and e-Administration

DistrictNet has transformed the way important information is processed in the pilot districts. It has had an enormous impact on the government planning in the four pilot districts and can be considered as a unique example of e-Administration in East Africa. At the start of the programme, the basic data was collected at parish level (in hard-copy form) and forwarded to sub-county administration. The sub-county’s responsibility was to collect and compile all data from the parishes, and then forward it to District HQ (Head Quarter). Then, the District HQ, like the sub-county administration, checked the data for completeness and forwarded the hard-copy data to MoLG, where digital recording took place. All data was in hard-copy form, and was physically transported by road. The process is depicted in figure 2.

Several problems occurred in this process. In the first place, the data which was collected at the parish level took a long time before reaching District HQ and MoLG. We observed information backlogs of three to six months. Secondly, data was lost in transport, never reaching the District HQ and MoLG. Indeed, some data was never collected properly in the first place.

For example  in one district less than 20% of the information required for budget and planning reached the MoLG. This implied that in 80% of the sub-counties, the planning and budgeting process was seriously undermined. These two problems guided the programme design.

Currently, the basic data is still collected at the parish level and forwarded to sub-county administration using the same hard-copy standard forms. The first change was implemented at the sub-county level: the eleven pilot sub-counties are now responsible for the digitisation of data. After digitising the data and checking its completeness, the sub-counties then forward the data via email to District HQ, resulting in a timely delivery of the data needed for planning and budgeting purposes. The third change was implemented at District HQ, where District Planners (who were trained to use data analysis tools) now perform data analysis and provide timely feedback to the sub-county administration and the parishes.

A fourth change is in the improvement in lead times for the data’s arrival at MoLG, as the pilot districts are now able to transfer their information electronically to MoLG. Moreover, MoLG can now work much more efficiently and effectively because it is no longer responsible for digital recording, thus allowing more time for analysis and informed decision-making. The process is depicted in figure 2.

In the reverse feedback flow, the decision was made to send relatively little information, using low-end tools, to provide feedback from MoLG to the District HQ and from District HQ to lower local government levels. This feedback mechanism enables lower-level governments to finalise their planning and budgeting processes.

DistrictNet and e-Services

Efforts to offer direct information services to the citizens of the pilot districts began in 2004. In this respect it should be mentioned that Uganda is a strongly decentralised country and most governmental information services (e.g. business licenses, tax forms and information) are already available to the citizens in hard-copy form at the sub-county level. As a result, offering these types of services in electronic form was not among the priorities.

Lessons learnt

To conclude this paper, we want to elicit some lessons learnt from the DistrictNet programme in Uganda.

1. Focus of ICT in government operations: DistrictNet presents a good example of embedding the introduction of e-Government in the larger context of priority development needs in a country (in this case, the government’s decentralisation programme). Improvement in efficiency and effectiveness may be important at a national level, but at an individual level it can also be considered as a threat and thus a reason to resist or even undermine the programme. However, the programme is most likely to achieve good results (i.e. improvements in efficiency and effectiveness) when it is part of the success of high priority development programmes in the country, and where results are benchmarked against national development goals.

2. Think big, but begin small: Gradual and phased implementation of the programme is the key to success. In other words: Think big, but begin small.  DistrictNet has been designed as a pilot programme. The main goal was to build knowledge and gain experience. New programmes should build on these experiences. It is important to integrate this goal in the design of the next phases of this pilot programme.

3. Create feedback loops in e-Governments programmes: In countries like Uganda, civil servants at the local levels are often asked to gather data but seldom receive feedback on the impact of their data-collecting activities. A good feedback mechanism in an e-Governance programme creates a tool to provide the local levels with information, and the improved information position of the officers at the local government levels enhances their commitment to the introduction of  e-Governance.

4. Ability to use ICT in government: Our observations from the DistrictNet programme show that in a development context the ability of local governments to design, implement, use and maintain e-Governance in action should not be over-estimated. This might be an important difference with e-Governance programmes in the developed world. Training and capacity development is key to the success.

5. Stress capacity development as a key success factor: Five types of knowledge and skills are necessary for successful ICT implementation, as well as sustainable e-Governance:

  • Professional technical knowledge to implement and to maintain the technical infrastructure and to anticipate the upcoming of new technologies
  • Professional business knowledge to guide and check the quality of the suppliers implementing and maintaining the technical infrastructure (tendering, quality control, Service Level Agreements) and monitoring the investments in an e-Government programme
  • Computer literacy at the government level, such as basic knowledge about how to operate the computers and their applications, and an understanding of the role ICT can play in the improvement of work processes
  • Computer literacy among users, such as basic knowledge about how to operate the computers and e-Government applications
  • ICT change management skills among management and administrators

6. Recognise that fighting technology takes time: In DistrictNet’s initial stage of implementation, the primary focus was on developing the ICT infrastructure to enable e-Administration and e-Services. Often in e-Governance, the primary focus is on these technical aspects, and the organisational and social aspects are treated with less priority. It takes time to change this technology-focused attitude, and the issue needs to be addressed from the start of the implementation.

7. Strategies for connecting citizens: Connecting the citizens to the programme is probably the biggest challenge, especially with the local government in rural areas. One of the reasons for the success of DistrictNet is that it has been using traditional means combined with modern (ICT-enabled) strategies to distribute information to the citizens. In the excitement of the introduction of new technology, programmes tend to forget to include the traditional means for information distribution, such as radio, television, bulletins, bulletin boards, word-of-mouth and the new channels offered by mobile telephony (e.g SMS).

8. Emphasise that information is a commodity: The success of e-Administration and e-Services programmes relies heavily on the quality of data and information. The availability of quality data and information is too often taken for granted.   The quality of data should be monitored, while the quantity of data at higher levels has to reduced. DistrictNet experiences show that the content needs careful management in order to keep citizens attached to the project. We have noticed that centralised management of local information does not work, as the information is not in line with the local needs and is often outdated or arrives too late to be useful.

Conclusions

DistrictNet can serve a reference and learning model for other e-Governance programmes in a development context. The programme is designed to extend in all three domains of e-Government: e-Administration, e-Services and e-Society. Furthermore, the programme not only automates the existing processes, but also prompts the improvement of processes, notably in budgeting and planning, which have been re-structured and optimised.

Clearly, introducing ICT at the local government level can lead to major improvements in performance; however, the low penetration of ICT skills and equipment in countries like Uganda can set limitations. Governments need to continue their efforts to develop ICT infrastructure nationally and to increase the level of ICT skills among their citizens, and especially to concentrate in their efforts on the rural areas, while development partners should establish more research programmes to ensure the successful implementation and support of ICT.

References

  • United Nations, World Public Sector Report 2003: e-Government at the Crossroads. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York, 2003.
  • Bitwayiki, C., de Jager, A., Building Capacity for Embedding: The DistrictNet Uganda Programme. IICD, 2004 (capacity.org-2004; download available at www. capacity.org and www.iicd.org).
  • Heeks, R., Understanding e-Governance for Development. I-Government Working Papers No. 11. Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester, 2001a. (download available on www.man.ac.uk/idpm)
  • IICD, The ICT Roundtable Process: Lessons Learned from facilitating ICT-Enabled Development. International Institute for Communication and Development, The Hague, 2004. (download available on www.iicd.org)
  • Kintu, M.J.R., Mbeine, E., Output to Purpose Review DistrictNet Uganda. FIT Uganda, 2004 (download available at www.iicd.org).

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