Believing in Connected Government : James Shoon Loi Yong, Director, Public Sector Programs

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e-Government is an area that is constantly changing. One can find many   innovative ways in the deployment of e-Government applications across Asia.  There is rarely any “one-size-fits-all” theory being implemented, argues James Shoon Loi Yong, Director, Public Sector Programs – ASEAN, Cisco, in an interview to Anuradha Dhar of egov.

What is your perspective on the emerging trends of e-Government in the ASEAN region?

e-Government is an area that that’s constantly changing. Although strictly, e-Government has been around since the early days when IT was first introduced in government functions, I  think the turning point was really when the popular web arrived and when government  bodies began to leverage on the power of the Internet. Across Asia, you will find many  innovative ways in which e-Government applications have been deployed. I am very clear  that there is rarely any “one-size-fitsall”. I often highlight this fact, when I am advising my  clients in governments, that when they look westwards – say towards the US, Europe – at the  many promising applications there, that seem to be very successful, they should also  remember that Asia has unique challenges which may need to be tackled in unique ways. Asia is a very heterogeneous region with a diversity of languages, religions, cultures, government systems and so forth. In that respect, it is happening to find when you go to  different countries how they have evolved their own unique and innovative systems and  models to cater for their own challenges. Cities, say like Singapore, where you have very  urbanized population, there you have a wired society and literate society, where computer and Internet penetration is high, they have a certain way of doing things. But if  you try to transplant the complete Singapore model into another country, you will find more often than not, it faces problems and fails. Each country needs to realise its own challenges and find solutions to these challenges.

A second perspective that I want to propose is that the developing countries and the developed countries tend to be very different. In Asia, when you talk about the developed countries,  you’re probably referring to Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. In China and India, the cities are very advanced, but when you go to the countryside the scenario is radically different. So developing countries need to basically find their own models that work and to tackle the issues of their rural population. I think India is a fascinating example with some unique projects, like Bhoomi, e-Seva and so forth. The western world would never think of as it is not relevant to their circumstances. The third perspective is that we have reached a  point whereby more governments have gone through a first cycle.

That first cycle was a cycle of websites and was in a way a bit cosmetic. I think we are in the stage, maybe a second or third cycle, where the original projects have either passed the test of time or failed miserably, and people are re-looking at the lessons learnt. I think this is the time in some countries, where government leaders and administrators are putting a lot more critical assessments to find applications that can meet the real need of their constituents.

I  think ASEAN countries are moving at different rates, each at its own pace. There are many e-Government rankings, e.g. by the UN, Brown University, Accenture etc., which offer plenty of interesting content. Government leaders often peruse such ranking tables, and ask “Are we ahead of our neighbors?” This I feel is not the right question to ask. The right  question should be, “Is there anything I can learn by a country which has a similar  environment as mine, and from where I can borrow some good practices to adopt?” Within  Asia, one tends to look towards Korea or Singapore as leaders in e-Government. But if you observe what they are doing, their basic focus is on servicing a largely urbanized population.  If you ask me, there are many good success stories in various states of India, as well as even in the major cities in China where they customize the applications to cater to their own requirement.

What are the key factors that public sector should bear in mind while implementing e-Government solutions?

In our conversations with e-Government leaders and practitioners in different countries who have spearheaded e-Government initiatives, we have basically presented them with a stark statistic that a huge majority (60-70 percent) of e-Government projects globally, actually fail, or do not meet the objectives they set out for themselves. We took that fact and went around talking to various e-Government leaders asking them of their experience of deploying all these projects, what have they found some of the things that if more focus is placed on them, the probability of success rises.

We got a range of responses that can be categorized into four main areas. I think, in implementing e-Government, obviously the first one to consider is the SERVICES.  e-Government leaders should ask: Are the services provided the ones most relevant to my constituents? Not simply the services that my neighbouring country provides, or the leading e-Government countries provide, but services, which I know my constituents (i.e. citizens and businesses) really need. Because I am close to them, know them and therefore understand their real issues. So, when I provide services I can customize them according to  the needs of my constituents.The second area for e-Government is about EFFICIENCY AND  EFFECTIVENESS and use of technology to improve processes, to streamline, and to do more with less. The third area would be TRUST BUILDING – are the e-Government projects being implemented helping in the trust building prospect for the government. In this regard what we hear from the people we interviewed is that trust is a short form for saying that at the end of the day the systems of e-Governance that we do ought to strengthen trust between the constituents and the government.

The fourth area is what we call POLICYLINK. An e-Government project should have a goal and some how that goal should be linked back to the national agenda. Whether that is in areas of environment, national competitiveness, improved healthcare, public education, and so forth. Very often when you drill down into an e-Government project and ask what is it for,  it should not be just for the sake of technology, but for, say for example, processing the documents faster. Why? You just keep asking why. And with the better projects, you find you are striving for a higher-level goal – at a department, ministry or national level. The projects that are not so good will show disjointment. Even if the project achieves its goals, it probably does not meet any higher-level goal. Linking the e-Government goals to the national policy/  agenda, is therefore an important criteria. Service, efficiency, trust building and policy link are therefore, some of the key factors that are important to pay attention to while implementing any e-Government project.

What is your opinion regarding importance of publicity and awareness generation among the public about e-Government services?

Publicity and awareness generation ought to be part and parcel of any e-Government initiative. It is critical when deploying a system to communicate to the public – to inform them that the system exists, what the benefits are and how they can make use of it. At the same time, it may be timely to deliver some kind of training programme for the community on this. Some countries skip this step or do not put enough emphasis on it, and as a result the response to their e-Government services is lackluster. On the other hand, when Singapore embarked on its e-Government program, there were a lot of such training courses being conducted. But Singapore is a small country. When you are talking about a country as large as India, you need to have a totally different way of doing this.

 What do you think of the m-Government (mobile government)? Is it going to happen?

I think this will gradually but most certainly happen. Our lifestyles are definitely more mobile these days. Just look at how many mobile devices some of us carry every day,  Governments need to cater to a mobile workforce so mobile government will certainly come about. I do not think it is here yet. I certainly think that people are quite used to sending SMS  and all that, but they do not think interacting with the government very much in most Asian countries.

Though, Philippines is one exception. Philippines often refer to itself as the ‘SMS capital of the world’. The number of SMS’ sent per capita in the Philippines exceeds anywhere else in the world. Indeed Filipinos use their mobile phones more for SMS’ than for making voice calls. If sitting in a taxi in Manila, at the back of the seat, the taxi company’s SMS number is often provided, which you could send a complaint SMS to if the driver is driving erratically or not providing good service. That is one example of how widely the SMS is used there.

You would think that places like Japan would have wholly adopted this. I interviewed some of the Japanese officials who are spearheading this, and found that they have started considering m-Government seriously, on the back of private sector successes like NTT DoCoMo. Today, however, mobile phone usage in Japan is more for communication and entertainment, than government interactions.

How keen do you think are the governments of the Asian region towards public-private partnerships (PPP)?

I think most Asian governments have taken a keen interest in what public-private partnerships can offer in terms of government. Government over time, I think, has realised,  in the words of Osborne and Gaebler, that its primary role is to steer the boat, and not to row it. But if you look back in history, government has done both steering and rowing. The policy or the steering function of the government is something, which it can never outsource, but the rowing function may be outsourced. Also, for reasons of national security, there are certain functions that a government can never outsource. But there are many functions that are mundane, that can and probably should be outsourced to private companies, if they can do it more efficiently and can give government greater value for money. Countries like  Singapore, Hong Kong, Brunei have already begun outsourcing to private companies.  Thailand is considering PPP as a possible model for future projects. So countries in Asia are really at different stages, but I think most of them have an interest in considering e-Government outsourcing.

What are the Cisco’s initiatives in public sector in all these countries of Asia and what is its future plans?

Cisco Systems is a premier networking company. Our public sector initiatives come under the umbrella name of Connected Government. We emphasize a lot on connectivity – connecting people, communities and organisations inside and outside government to put people at the centre of responsive networks of knowledge, service, trust and accountability. This is not just branding. If you read a lot of writers, they have basically recognised that one of the key success factors of government efficiency and effectiveness is when you get good connections within the government agency. Traditionally, government agencies have worked very much in silos. If you can achieve even a modest level of integration across different agencies,  it can lead to tremendous productivity improvement. If one were to ask what is the “killer application” of e-Government, my answer would be information sharing. Think about it, how  many government today have agencies A, B and C are collecting the same information in  their own database, information about you for instance, it can help in the registration department, help in the taxation department, health department who knows how many integrity issues are across these departments. But I think you have tremendous efficiency improvement already. Cisco is very much into connecting organisations – both in the private and public sector. So, that is one aspect of connectivity. Any market survey would  reveal that Cisco is the market leader in connectivity and collaboration. Cisco is strong not  only in wired but wireless solutions as well. We cater to wireless less solutions for both  enterprises and consumers. We recognise that world is moving towards mobile workforce.  People want to work/study/play wherever they are, and not be tied to fixed locations. So, wireless technology is going to be a very key part of a lot of public sector initiatives, whether in education, healthcare, public safety and so on. We play a major role in the public safety domain. The way we look at it is from the standpoint of emergency response to disasters –  either man-made or natural. In case of such emergencies, what you need to do is to evacuate people, care for the injured, quickly set up a command center whereby the police, firemen and other civil defense units can coordinate and communicate with each other. So, we play a  major role in public safety and having equipment that withstand sand, high temperature,  dust or smoke, whereby in case of any emergency the system can be operationalised instantly.

Would you like to mention briefly your success stories in Asia-Pacific region?

In Singapore, the biggest IP telephony (also referred to as Voice-Over-IP) installation is in a  local university, the National University of Singapore. We have implemented 5,000 IP phones across the whole campus. The users are very happy to get the flexibility and added services. In the past the concept was ‘a phone is a phone, is a phone’. But now phone is not just a phone because you can integrate it with your voice mail and other applications. There are many other countries, which are using our IP phones. Most of the institutes of higher learning in Singapore are using wireless.

 Is there any particular strategy that you are going to adopt to increase Cisco’s market share in the public sector?

Ours is an ongoing set of strategies. For some years, Cisco Systems has taken very deliberate steps to hire people who are not so ‘technology focused’ as they are “industry domain focused”.  Cisco realised quite long ago that it needed to evolve from a company that was equally good at conceptualising solutions for different domains as it was on technology innovation. The public sector was one such area where Cisco engaged consultants, ex-consultants or government people, brought them to Cisco to share with others so that they better understand how things are done in government, what the key challenges are, what are the national priorities and so forth. Through that we can better serve the needs of the public sector. This is the first strategy. The second is, Cisco has sponsored a number of research studies focused on things like e-Governance, collaborations and connectivity in either education or health care, to understand and add to the existing body of knowledge in these areas. This is very significant.  For instance, we have sponsored a ‘chair’ in Oxford University for several years focused on e-Governance. The third strategic activity that Cisco conducts is a constant stream of conferences and seminars around the world. We have supported an APAC Public Sector Summit in China for the past 3 years, where we bring together not just people from China but from the whole region as well as experts from Europe, North America and Australia.  Practitioners come and simply share their knowledge. All this provides an opportunity for  Cisco to listen to what are the key concerns and challenges of different countries and hopefully we can take it back and built it into our new products and services.

What is your opinion about different governments’ spending on IT in this region?

I think the governments’ spending on IT has so far continued in a robust, upward trend. The organisational mindset is gradually changing from thinking of IT as expenditure, to IT as an investment, helping to enhance the value of the organisation. This is the shift that should  happen in every economy.

 Please tell us briefly about the future plans of Cisco.

Cisco Systems will continue to focus on these strategies that I cited, evolving them, sharpening them, at the same time broadening and deepening the base of knowledge and industry familiarity. What Cisco believes in is Connected Government, in which is built the notion of productivity, effectiveness and greater public value through connectivity,  collaboration and a variety of innovative solutions.

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