Implementing e-Governance despite the digital divide

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Government plays an important role in the growth and development of a country by promoting high levels of welfare for citizens, ensuring socio-economic cohesion and supporting the functioning of a competitive market environment. It is engaged in a wide range of activities from education, healthcare, and social security to protecting consumers and safeguarding the environment. ‘Private’ efficiencies also depend largely on the efficiency of the government administrations and the public sector.

Government administration and the public sector are today at a crossroads, facing challenging economic and social conditions, institutional change and the profound impact of new technologies. As per one study conducted in the United Kingdom1, public confidence in the ‘civil services’ has fallen from 46 percent in 1983 to just 17 percent in 2000. In the same period, the confidence in legal systems has fallen from 58 percent to 22 percent, and confidence in the Parliament from 54 percent to 14 percent. The plummet in commoners’ faith may be attributed to the fact that now government services are increasingly compared with the services provided by the private enterprises, which are improving much more rapidly than the public sec-tor’s. The improvements in government services are much below the expectations of people.

In the era of globalisation and the Internet, governments are under tremendous pressure to perform more efficiently to fulfill the expectations of citizens. International finance and technology also flow into the country that has better and efficient systems of governance2 . Good practices in many countries show that electronic government is a powerful means to deliver better quality public services, reduce waiting times, improve cost effectiveness, raise productivity, and improve transparency and accountability.

Digital divide and e-Governance
e-Governance may be defined as the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in government to promote more efficient and effective government, facilitate more accessible government services, allow greater public access to information, and make government more accountable to citizens3 .

The present approach in delivery of e-Government services is quite similar to e-Commerce, and is often referred to as “e-Business Strategies for Government”4 . In the present approach, government services are delivered through the Internet ignoring the fact that extreme digital divide exists today among the citizens of the world – around 90 percent of the people in the world do not have access to the Internet. Internet users constituted merely 1.11 percent of the population in Africa while the percentage was 24.4 percent in America, 21 percent in Europe and 42.72 percent in Australia in 20025 . As per the International Telecommunication Union estimates6 India had only 0.72 PCs and only 0.4 Internet users per 100 inhabitants in the year 2002.

Further, the Internet is usually accessed through computers (desktop or note book), which are quite expensive for most of Kiosks needs hardware, construction of computer rooms, and allied investment. Moreover, running and maintenance costs of kiosks are very high, as at least one person has to be deployed to operate the kiosk. In addition, one needs an Internet connection, telephone/ broadband connections, and electricity to access the Internet. The cost of accessing the Net is still very high in most of the countries. Thereafter, rapid change of technology necessitates change of IT equipments, machines and software every 4-5 years, which implies large maintenance and replacement costs.

Language is another barrier in using the Internet, as almost 90 percent of the websites are in English – a language not understood by more than 75 percent of the world’s popula-tion.4 In order to gather useful information from the Internet one needs considerable training and expertise, which is expensive and time consuming. The free flow of information on the Net, particularly explicit adult material, is also one of the major hindrances in the path of the public ‘acceptance’ of the Internet. Then again, factors like economy, education, and culture (along with the aforementioned factors) make the adoption of the Internet quite difficult in most of the developing countries.

The present strategy to popularise the Internet and e-Governance is by improvement of infrastructure (such as telephone density, power supply, roads, etc.), providing education, training the citizens to use the Internet and computer systems etc. However, all these efforts require huge resources, which is scarce in poor countries. Even after the necessary infrastructure is established, people cannot use the Internet till their economic level improves considerably and they get comfortable with ICT. The economic development process is time consuming which means that the citizens of poor countries will not be able to take the full benefit from ICTs for a long period while the developed nations enjoy the benefits of ICTs.

Developing countries are thus trapped in a vicious circle today.  The bridging of the digital divide is an expensive and long-term process. Countries are still struggling with providing basic necessities like housing, power, telecommunication, roads, etc to people. Under these conditions spending money on e-Government projects and development of its infrastructure might appear to be a luxury. However, if the digital divide is not bridged, developing countries may miss the bus of Information revolution as they did at the time of the Industrial revolution – and that can only bring further disparity vis-à-vis developed countries. Therefore, developing countries need an out-of-box solution to partake in the benefits of the IT revolution.

Already mobile phones have emerged as a popular medium for communication in the last decade. As per the data provided by Telecom Regulatory Authority  of India (TRAI)7 , mobile phone users have risen from mere 0.3 million in 1996-97 to 12.6 million in 2002-2003 (April 2002 –March 2003). Mobile phone users doubled in just six months to over 23 million from April 2003 to September 2003. The number of telephone connections in India has crossed 100 million (close to 10 percent teledensity). The spurt in the demand for mobile phones in recent times has the potential to bridge the digital divide.

Good practices in many countries show that electronic government is a powerful means to deliver better quality public services, reduce waiting times, improve cost effectiveness, raise productivity, and improve transparency and accountability.

Learning from the private sector
The private sector is always on the ball in innovating cost effective and popular solutions based on the local factors. Governments stand to learn valuable lessons from private enterprises instead of reinventing the wheel, or learning from the e-Government practices of other countries that credibility of the government. In a mixed economy, such as in India, there are already many private players including MNCs who are making optimum use of ICTs in their business processes. Learning from them could be extremely useful for the government.

ICTs have revolutionised the functioning of banks in the last decade. Competition has ensured that even public sector banks use the latest and best technology to survive in the market. For example, banks are not only providing their services through the Internet, but are also exploring alternative channels such as:

• Anywhere Banking: Most of the banks are now fully computerised and networked. Therefore, it is possible to operate from any bank branch.
• ATMs: Banks are using ATMs for providing various services to their clients like cash withdrawals, cash and check deposits, electronic transfer of funds, e-Payments, ordering for checkbooks.
• Call Centres: Some bank services can be accessed over phone such as an order for bank draft, checkbook, application for and sanction of loan (phone banking).
• Mobile Banking: Customers may know the account balance and access many services through their mobile phones.
• Drop Boxes: Banks have installed drop boxes at convenient locations for collection of dues, checks etc.

The developing South need not wait for the digital divide to be bridged. The following strategies may enable them to move ahead on the path of e-Governance immediately.

(a) IT Compatible Laws: The present laws were drafted for a manual system, which needed manual decision-making and discretion. These laws need to be changed in accordance with the requirements of the new technologies to expedite decision- making. For example, banks could provide loans over phone by accepting computerised decisions instead of going through bank officials, something that is still not permitted in public sector banks due to legal hurdles. Laws are needed to recognise SMS-based filing of police complaints, authorisation for payment of government dues, change of address, application for government benefits, etc., as also similar requisitions over phones,voicemail, fax, and email in addition to the existing methods.

(b) Public-Private Partnership: There are many ways in which the government and the private sector could work towards their mutual benefit. For example, the e-Seva8 scheme implemented by the Government of Andhra Pradesh, India involved self-help women groups for providing various e-Government services. Indian Customs department has, since 1995, involved private agencies like CMC for managing data-entry for import and export declarations filed by traders9 .

The department provides the space and infrastructure to CMC, which runs the data entry centre and charges INR 60 per page of data entry that is equally shared by the partners. Some other useful models could be:

The government could allow private sector-run government offices where only one or two government officers may be posted on ‘Cost Recovery Basis’, to perform statutory functions. Indian Customs has already allowed the private sector to operate Inland Container Depots (ICD) for customs clearance of goods at any place. The custodian pays the salary of the customs officers10 (the private sector charges the traders for their business). This also reduces the salary bill of the government since the government employee is paid by the private sector.

• The private sector can provide railway tickets similar to the airline tickets through the Internet.

• Private Internet kiosks (PIKs) can help importers and exporters to file their customs documents directly through PIKs without the need to file these documents themselves. Collaborations with banks can help the filing of customs documents as well as tendering payments of duties either through the Internet or from banks in a much more friendly and
comfortable environment.

(c) Multi-platform Approach: e-Governance should not only limit itself to the Internet but must include all the mediums of ICT – from fax machines to wireless palm pilot – to facilitate the daily administration of government11 . Many people feel more comfortable in communicating through handwritten letters in their native language rather then typing the text in English. They may be encouraged to write handwritten letters and send by fax to either a common government number or to the fax of the specific department. The fax letter can be scanned and forwarded by email to the respective department. The department can then digitise the letter in English and prepare a text file, which can then be processed in the routine manner. Similarly citizens can also be allowed to send their correspondence orally by getting their message recorded in the voice recorder/ answering machine of the department. The department can prepare a transcript of the voice file and process accordingly. The decision of the department can also be communicated to the citizens through different modes of ICT such as fax, SMS, email, voice message, or by post as per the choice of the citizen. Law must be amended to include all means of communication as a legal document.

(d) Unified Government Offices: This concept is similar to the ‘anywhere banking’ concept of banks. At present all government departments work independent of each other – a citizen has to often approach many departments for getting his work done. Some of these departments may be located near to his home while others may be located in far off places. Once each department is networked individually, they can be networked with each other. Thereafter, the citizen can approach any one government department nearest to his place for getting information and conducting transactions of government business.The citizen should be able to submit his application, requests, and complaints to any government office, which can be electronically transmitted to the concerned department instantly. The receiving government department can take appropriate action on the document and send the order/ permission to the concerned government office. The local government office can also help citizens in downloading the forms, providing information, and filling up the forms.

A Call Centre of Comany

If the digital divide is not bridged, developing countries may miss the bus of Information revolution as they did at the time of the Industrial revolution – and that can only bring further disparity vis-à-vis developed countries.

(e) Mobile Government (m-Government): Many governments have already started using mobile phones to provide e-Government services to their citizens. For instance, the government of Malta is providing a number of e-Government services under the category of m-Government12 . The service enables the citizen to receive notification of acknowledgements, status-change of customer complaints, information of court deferment, notifications for license-renewal, examination results, and notification for Direct Credit Payments from the Department of Social Security, among others via SMS. The public will also be able to avail services like acquiring birth, marriage or death certificates from the Public Registry, paying for the same via mobile telephone, and having them delivered at home; ascertaining bus schedules; notification of job opportunities to individuals who have selected specific areas of employment; reporting incidents or relevant information to the police force, receiving notification of social security credit advice, and even electoral voting information! (The Sheffield City Council), via SMS.

(f) Interactive Voice Response Systems (IVRS): Interactive Voice Response Systems (IVRS) are extensively used for common and structured transactions like knowing information about ticket reservation, knowing the bank balance, authorizing a transaction, knowing the position of an application or complaint, and authentication of user for secured transactions. The Indian Railways’ information service on confirmation of tickets, positions of trains, etc. is operated on the IVRS21 query system.

(g) Public Information Kiosks: an information kiosk is a personal computerbased device that provides an interface medium between users and a service/ information provider. Public Information Kiosks (PIK) are installed by governments to provide information, self-service, and customer convenience to the citizens. Kiosks in public places provide new, convenient points of interaction between government agencies and the public, besides bridging the digital divide by allowing Internet access to the hitherto disadvantaged populations. PIK’s can also provide drop box facilities to drop letters/ payments for any government department similar to the ATMs of the Banks.

(h) Government Call Centres: Many Citizens may find it much easier get the desired information by help of Government Call Centres (GCC) similar to the private sector and MNCs. The user can get information by dialling the GCC and choosing from the standard menu options in different languages. If the query is not covered in the standard menu of IVRS,the citizen can choose the operator/executive for answering the queries. If the query is simple, the executive may search the information from the government website and provide information to the user orally or via SMS or Voice mail. The executives can also allow the user to carry out financial transactions subject to identity verification over oral instructions. If the query is specific or not available on the net, he may forward the call to the expert of the concerned government department. The information could then be provided to the citizen either immediately or with a deferred timeframe. Similar queries could be registered with the GCC, and replies sent to the user through SMS, Voice mail, or by post.

(i) Mobile Government Offices: Many banks have started the concept of mobile ATMs located in Mobile Vans, which help the citizens to transact right at his/her home at the specified hours. ICICI bank launched its mobile ATM service in December 20021 in Mumbai, India. The mobile ATM was connected to the central database of the bank through GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) technology, which enables real time information exchange through wireless media, and can perform all the functions of a bank branch. The government can employ similar mobile offices, which would be connected with the network for delivery of the services to the remote villages of the country. The citizen can conduct their transactions (government) from the mobile offices right at their village.

The world is passing through the era of IT revolution. The use of ICT is necessary for private as well as public sectors to reduce costs and improve services. However, due to many reasons like lack of infrastructure, education,and economic backwardness, developing countries are facing the digitaldivide and are unable to reap the fruits of this revolution. In this article many methods are suggested based on the lessons learnt from the successful application of IT in the private sector, and successful e-Government initiatives. Inspired initiatives could provide the benefits of e-Governance to every citizen despite of the digital divide. e-Governance would attract more foreign investments and technologies to these countries to improve their economies, and gradually bridge the digital divide.


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