Meeting e-Government challenges in Asia Pacific countries
Asia-Pacific countries are adopting public sector reforms to better compete in the regional and global economy by strengthening markets and individual choice and in turn economic growth and poverty reduction. As part of these reforms, Asia-Pacific countries are making headway in e-Government: the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to promote more efficient and cost-effective government, facilitate more convenient government services, allow greater public access to information and make government more accountable to citizens. The following will examine two issues: (i) recent e-Government progress and challenges in Asia-Pacific and (ii) the practices regional governments follow to meet the challenges, while maximizing the benefits.
E-Government is expanding in the region on the back of rapid increase in penetration of ICT. There are over 250 million Internet users in Asia-Pacific, more than any other region and growing at close to 40 percent a year. There are 560 million mobile phone subscribers, more than twice the number in 2000. Republic of Korea is ranked number one in the world in broadband use, with Hong Kong, China, Taipei and Japan also in the top seven.
Yet despite the rapid growth, ICT access is highly uneven across and within countries. Hong Kong and China has 13,500 times the international bandwidth per inhabitant as compared to Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Internet access costs 15 times more in Solomon Islands than in Iran. Relative to incomes, the cost is 1250 times more in Cambodia than in Singapore . A similar disparity exists with respect to mobile phone usage. Philippines, for example, has 3 times the number of mobile phone subscribers as Indonesia, relative to population. If this gap in mobile penetration continues, the result of this factor alone would be a one per cent higher long-term growth rate for Philippines.
Differential access to ICT is mirrored by wide dispersion in e-Government. The Republic of Korea, Singapore and New Zealand are rated by the United Nations among the top 13 nations in terms of e-Government readiness, while the five lowest are all Pacific Island countries.
Recent e-Government progress and challenges
Many e-Government case studies have provided anecdotal evidence of a number of positive results that emerge out of it. Amid all of these, five most important results that are being identified are – citizen participation, efficiency, effectiveness, service integration and combating corruption. The following paragraphs will emphasize on each one of these results with an in-depth look into the opportunities and challenges involved.
There are many cases where ICT systems help enable citizen participation. For example, the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism posted in 2003 on its website a study pointing out extravagant houses and luxury vehicles owned by government officials who can’t explain how they paid for them. Partly as a result, over 100 officials are being investigated, with charges filed against some of them.
There are many innovative approaches to increase Internet access to poor citizens. “Radio browsing” is used in Sri Lanka and Philippines, where listeners call or write in their questions and the answers obtained online are broadcast in local languages. The People First Network in Solomon Islands links 18
solar-powered computers in rural areas by short wave radios with a server connected to an Internet link in the capital city.
Asia Pacific countries
One challenge facing many countries is that English is the lingua franca of ICT; there are an estimated 2200 languages used in Asia and only 20% of Asians can use English. Making e-Government widely accessible to citizens requires addressing this challenge. Asian writing systems are varied and far more complex than English and designing digital fonts for any one of them is a massive challenge. Yet progress is being made. For example, in 2003, a character-based font was released for the Urdu language. This potentially allows 60 million speakers in 20 countries to use their language in computer applications.
E-Government innovations often promise cost savings and/or increased tax revenue and there is evidence that this is being achieved in some cases. For instance, in the Indian state of Gujarat, pre-paid cards, electronic weighbridges, video cameras and computers were installed to improve assessment of road taxes and penalties for overloading of trucks crossing the border and to reduce corruption. As a result, revenues have increased to pay for the IT investment in four years. The gains could be much greater if further reductions in corruption could be achieved.
Efficiency gains can also accrue to citizens in terms of reduced waiting time and less money spent on bribes. The Department of Revenue in the state of Karnataka in India has computerized 20 million records of land ownership and makes them available at kiosks throughout the state. The state government paid the investment cost and a small fee charged by the kiosk operators covers running costs. Citizens save time and save from not having to pay bribes. The system is being expanded to include other information such as ration cardholders, pensioners, wholesale market prices and weather information.
In addition to efficiency gains, ICT-enabled reforms have yielded other benefits, including faster and more accurate response. For example, in Central Asia a national epidemio-logy service introduced ICT systems for public health data. Shortly after being intro-duced, the system uncovered a rise in diphtheria cases. By increasing coverage of the vaccination program and introducing revaccination, coverage levels rose from an average of 88% to 99% by 2000 and diphtheria case levels had returned to normal.
In a different type of example, the Beijing city government’s website allows visitors to select from categories such as government services, laws and regulations, news center, links to other government departments etc. Users can join an electronic forum to get answers to questions such as how to move ones’ official residence to Beijing in order to work there. ICT can also play an important role in coping with disasters. For example, in the recent Tsunami, fatality rates were reportedly found to be much lower in Indian villages that had ICT penetration.
Jurisdictions such as Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China have comprehensive systems where web-portals or smart cards integrates information and services from various government agencies to help citizens and other stakeholders get seamless service without needing to know about the respon-sible government agency. Thus, users can obtain services across different geographic levels of government within the same functio-nal area as also across different functions. As an example of the latter, a citizen can submit a change of address on her driving license and the change is automatically registered with the health, elections and tax departments, thus avoiding the need for multiple filings.
New systems also allow direct access to transaction or customer accounts held in different parts of government. For example, Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam has taken the lead in that country in working to simplifying administrative procedures faced by businesses, as a way of promoting investment. A “one stop shop” for business license applications has been established, whereby businesses can apply online and thereby initiate action from all the concerned agencies. These ICT-enabled reforms have inspired simplification of administrative procedures in many other districts and communes throughout the country through “one-stop, one-door” models.
For successful e-Government, countries need to adopt the right policies and practices with coherence among different areas, along with supporting organisations and work force.
Many think that e-Government can reduce opportunities for corruption. While this is sometimes the case, it can also have no effect at all or may provide for new corruption opportunities.
Enhancing e-Government can reduce opportunities for corruption by helping to measure performance better, facilitate outsourcing and contestability of public functions, reduce transaction costs, enforce rules more strongly, reduce discretion and increase transparency. However, computerization may also provide new sources of corrupt incomes for ICT professionals. For some staff, new systems may instill the fear of getting caught and restrict their access to sensitive information. Yet, same systems may provide new opportunities to ICT-savvy staff.
With these caveats, there are some promising, anecdotal cases. For example, in Seoul, Republic of Korea, the OPEN system helps to get transparency in city administration by preventing delays in processing of licenses and other government documents. Prior to introduction of the system, applicants often had to pay speed money; now processing is a matter of public record on the web. If officials are unnecessarily delaying documents, citizens can complain against them.
In another type of example, the Hyderabad (India) Metropolitan Water Supply & Sewerage Board uses its Single Window Cell (SWC) to reduce corruption for new connections. The application process is centralized in one, public place, with applications recorded on computers that are difficult for corrupt officials to alter. Staffs are motivated to provide good service with distinctive uniforms, modern offices and individual computer terminals. The service improvement has been praised extensively in the media, which further improves staff motivation.
Meeting the challenges, while maximizing the benefits
The biggest challenge faced by the countries of Asia-Pacific region in promoting ICT and e-Government is getting the institutional and policy environment right. Each country needs to consider elements such as leadership, regulation, financing, human resources and political acceptability. For successful e-Government, countries need to adopt the right policies and practices with coherence among different areas, along with supporting organisations and work force.
Heads of state and other top officials have a crucial role in putting reforms on the policy agenda and in determining its relative importance as compared to other priorities. The focus should be on the decisive factors of maximising political advantage and minimising political risk. This principle is true for e-Government initiatives as well. Other, related success factors observed in e-Government initiatives in the region includes a capable and sufficiently funded office to oversee implementation, a data collection system to monitor progress and assess impact, proper benchmarks that are reviewed regularly to ensure relevance for changing needs of technology, management and common IT standards.
Countries need to consider a number of other issues in order to increase ICT access and ensure success of e-Government. This includes an integrated policy approach and an appropriate level of regulation to ensure affordable ICT access and an attractive environment for private investment in the sector.
A key determinant of e-Government success is the level of competition achieved in telecommunications. Progress towards competitive markets is typically fostered by a competent ICT regulator, which to some degree is independent from the operators and from the government policymakers. Some regulators get financing independent of the government budget and are able to recruit and retain competent staff.
Although regulatory capture is always a risk, particularly in small, less-developed economies, some Asia-Pacific countries have built up effective regulators and highly-competitive ICT markets, thus lowering e-access costs and helping to get a critical mass of users. Philippines, for example, made significant progress in liberalizing its economy in the early 1990s and hence today it has highly competitive providers of mobile cellular and Internet services along with a rapid growth in mobile penetration, as cited earlier. On the other hand, fixed-line telephone service in Thailand is provided by a government monopoly, with productivity levels less than half of that in USA and having highest long-distance call rates in the region. Partly as a result, Thailand is ranked lower than Philippines in the UN e-Government survey, although its per capita GDP is more than twice that of the Philippines.
Adequate financing is another requirement for e-Government and there are many ways to achieve it, including support from official donors, private sector, central agencies, user agencies, NGOs, advertising and fee-based revenue. Annual telecommunications investment in the Asia-Pacific region is estimated to be close to $36 billion for 2003 and government spending on information technology just over $10 billion. The main funding is raised by telecommunications companies and governments themselves, with only a small portion financed by aid. In the next few years, it is expected that Asia-Pacific countries will increasingly follow the example of other regions and set up electronic production networks, where, information requests, license renewals, tax payments and e-procurement are outsourced to specialist public and private organisations. For instance, the Hong Kong government web-portal is entirely financed and maintained by a private company, thereby reducing the cost and risk to the government. Malaysia’s e-Perolehan government procurement system is a build-operate-transfer scheme led by a private company – Commerce Dot Com Sdn Bhd. Countries in the region may also want to consider the experience of the US government, where public and private partners share the savings and revenue coming from privately-financed, ICT investments.
ICT and e-Government implementation is most effective when appropriate skills and HR systems are developed in government and user organisations support it.
ICT mainly benefits citizens who are healthy and literate, as already suggested above through the case studies presented. At higher levels, ICT and e-Government implementation is most effective when appropriate skills and HR systems are developed in government and user organisations support it. Viet Nam, for example, faces considerable challenges in raising skill levels of the work force to make the strategy work. A recent survey rated Viet Nam’s workforce second from the bottom of 12 leading Asian countries in terms of high-tech proficiency. Prospects may improve because of the strong value placed on education by families and efforts of the government programs to train 50,000 ICT professionals at university level by 2010 and rapidly expand Internet connections to schools and villages.
Organisational factors are also important to make effective use of ICT. In addition to the need for computer literacy and management support as discussed already, employee involvement in implementation is critical, along with an organisational culture fostering trust, experimentation, teamwork, information sharing and participation. The hierarchical, command-and-control, collectivistic cultures in many government organisations in the region may help to explain the slower adaptation of ICT by governments in comparison to private businesses and non-governmental organisations. Other factors slowing down adoption in the region’s public sector include work habits such as the paper trail required for approval processing; concerns about security; confidentiality of information; and resistance to organisational change.
The e-Government experiences in Asia-Pacific have improved our understanding of what works and what doesn’t, what practices are transferable and under what conditions. However, rigorous evaluation of reforms is rare, with few scholarly works measuring the performance improvement and citizen empowerment attained or the value-for-money achieved by necessary expenditures. Fully cognizant of the methodological challenges, greater investment is needed in more extensive research on how to achieve high performance by the public sector through e-Government in Asia-Pacific. Such research would lead to better prescriptions and a better return on the considerable investment in reform by governments and international agencies.