e-Government in Developing Countries


The benefits of the information revolution can be fully realised only if governments play a central role in this transformation.  It is imperative that they reassess their roles and functions, both to transform the way they function and how they relate to internal and external actors. To play this central role, governments need to begin by embracing their own transformation. This is not an easy task in any country.  But it is in developing countries where the institutional context is most challenging: weak governance and democratic institutions, high transaction costs in dealing with public agencies, and corrupt practices.  Understanding this institutional context is necessary to move e-Government beyond ‘window dressing’, to manage the underlying institutional change process, and to realise the potential benefits of transformation.

Most developing countries have so far focused on the relatively easy phase of e-Government, developing websites, piloting a few applications, and putting these services online. But as governments shift from computerisation of isolated applications to deeper transformation, process & service innovation, and back-end cross-agency integration, the challenges of e-Government shift from technology management to political and institutional leadership and change management. As e-Government programmes mature, countries move beyond concern about front-end electronic delivery of services, and start to rationalise and integrate back office processes and the entire value chain, and to fully integrate e-Government into the governance framework and activity of each sector and agency.

There is also a mindset shift from inside-out, agency-bounded perspective to outside-in, client perspective of service delivery. In the process, the role of e-Government leadership institutions also changes from top-down solutions to playing catalytic roles for service innovation and integration. The aim is to facilitate public service reform and innovation at all levels of government, institutionalise and scale up process innovation, promote collaboration across boundaries, engage more stakeholders and disseminate best practices and thus achieve deeper transformation and sustainable, public sector performance improvements.

Whether e-Government will bring about transformation processes or merely reinforce existing power structures and governance systems is a key political and societal choice. We propose that public sector reform efforts should harness the strategic role of new technologies as enablers of public sector transformation, as indispensable instruments that open new options and enable the creative design of reform processes, better adjusted to the challenges faced by governments today.  This is the tough next phase of e-Government programmes in most countries.

The proposed transformative role of ICT in the public sector is indispensable to address some of the most important flaws of governance and public sector institutions in developing countries. It is also essential to prepare governments to confront the challenges of globalisation. Governments face a rapidly changing world in which information flows freely. This challenges the capability of a government to control activities even within its own borders. The competitive pressures of the global economy, demand immediate action. A common scarcity of public sector resources coupled with an increased demand for social services is building increasing pressures on governments and unstable democracies. Already inefficient government organisations are stretched even more by choking budgetary constraints. Embracing new technologies as transformation tools is also crucial for transparency, anti-corruption, and decentralisation efforts. It is also critical to have timely access to information to support decision-making at all levels, to train the new generation of civil servants, and to manage a growing volume of contracts and partnerships.

e-Government is essentially a political, not a technical project. Managerial and institutional reform must accompany technological change. e-Government is conditioned by the political and institutional context of its application—more than by other concerns such as technical standards and infrastructure. Understanding the political and institutional nature of e-Government provides the key to seeking appropriate measures and entry points to realise the transformational potential of ICTs for governance and public service performance.

This article first draws on the experience of the private sector in realising the productivity potential of ICT investments.  It then examines the differences in realising similar productivity improvements in the public sector and singles out the role of incentives and leadership in this process. It focuses on key transformational roles of ICT in the public sector: It then analyses the international benchmarking scores for the majority of developing countries and points out that they are lagging or falling behind the developed world. It identifies the policy challenges and proposes a new paradigm for public sector reform and a shared vision of a connected and transparent government. The focus of the paper is not on specific applications or countries, but on providing a global perspective for sharing and scaling up successes and moving beyond these exceptions to government-wide transformation.

Lessons from the Private Sector

It is useful to draw on the experience of the private sector in emphasising the importance of institutional innovations and managerial improvements to realise the productivity potential of ICT investments. Businesses, particularly in advanced countries, have moved in stages in using ICT in their operations and transaction, from mere automation of isolated processes, to improved access to information, to re-engineering and integration of various processes, to knowledge management and fundamental transformation of relationships along whole value chains.  Moving along these stages was enabled by increasingly proactive leadership and managerial innovations. Experience has shown that productivity increases were marginal, compared to the costs involved when ICT investments were not accompanied by managerial improvements and institutional transformation. Productivity improvements became substantial only when business organisations co-invested in ICT and managerial and institutional innovation.

A recent study conducted by McKinsey of 100 companies in industrial countries quantify these differences in productivity and provide insight into the potential role of ICT in improving performance in the public sector organisations when combined with managerial improvements and institutional reforms (Figure 1). Additional spending on information technology can raise productivity, but only in well-managed companies.

While this lesson holds much promise for public sector modernisation and transformation, it is not easily transferable.  The pressure of market forces and profit making provides clear incentives and bottom lines for business organisations.  Managerial innovations have moved slowly into the public sector, particularly in developing countries. Reforms and change in public organisations require public pressure, political commitment and an authorising environment.  Fortunately, ICT can do more than increasing productivity;   it can enhance transparency and accountability, and thus can generate more pressure on public sector institutions to reform and innovate.

The image of modernisation and the appeal of ICT as a key to the future may also attract political leaders to invest in the new technologies to facilitate difficult transformations. e-Government can thus become a tool not only to redesign processes and substantially increase productivity of the public sector, but also to improve governance and facilitate broad and sustained institutional reforms.

Roles of e-Government in a developmental context

e-Government models being replicated in the developing world were inspired by the pioneering initiatives in developed countries, especially Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. While these initiatives have inspired similar efforts in developing countries, they have ignored the fundamentally different initial conditions of their public sector.

Current approaches to e-Government in developing countries result in delivering services online without internal process changes or deeper public sector reforms.

The current crisis of political institutions and democratic governance, in many developing countries can be construed as a unique opportunity to review the framework that inspires and shows how new technologies can assist and guide in designing an integral reform process of the public sector.  The current democratically elected governments of the Latin America region are particularly vulnerable to charges of corruption and of failure to deliver basic public services in equitable fashion. Social and political forces are exerting strong pressures for decentralisation while economic forces are exerting pressures for integration with the regional and global economies.

For governments in the developing world plagued with inefficiency and corruptive practices, using new technologies to improve delivery of information and services is a key step forward. But the analysis of current e-Government initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean will show that these efforts are not enough to improve a country’s chances of effective insertion into the global knowledge economy. To make a difference, information technology ought to become increasingly central to governance and public sector  reform.

e-Government may have the potential to generate enormous benefits in four critical areas of special relevance to developing countries: i) transformation of public institutions and service delivery; ii) promotion of transparency; iii) enabling of effective decentralisation; and iv) increment  of global competitiveness and integration.

i)  Transformation of public institutions  and service delivery

How is this different from the mainstream approaches to e-Government? A new vision of e-Government would begin by assessing current capabilities and determining the new roles of government. How new technologies can enable the new roles or transform the way a function or service is delivered.

ii)  Promotion of transparency
Employing new technologies as tools of transformation can assist governments to fight corruption and also to institutionalise transparent public sector practices. In addition to providing information to all interested parties, digital transactions can be traced from origin to point of delivery, and the time it takes to complete them can be accurately measured. All decision-making processes are “visible” in the virtual realm, separating individual action from routine processes, and creating new levels of accountability.

iii)  Enablement of effective decentralisation

New technologies can support effective decentralisation and expand its benefits without undermining  integration or stability of weak states. They create new relationships and enable collaborative work across time and distance.  They create better conditions for the decentralisation of resource management as integrated financial information systems (IFMS) allow for shared and timely management of information, traceable transactions, and the implementation of various accountability measures.

iv) Increment of global competitiveness and integration

The potential of full e-Government transactions across borders remains unexplored. The use of online services to better support the diaspora can range from voting online to mobilising knowledge and networks for export opportunities, to initiatives to capitalise on over US$ 450 billion in remittances over the next decade.

A very interesting set of options emerges when considering the impact of e-Government reforms on business environment. New technologies applied to the transformation of government procedures among trade partners have the potential of lowering transaction costs between government and business. In turn, this can increase the competitiveness of local industries as well as attract foreign investment. New technologies can be invaluable instruments in the design and implementation of seamless customs and border crossing transactions, lowering transaction costs and providing support to the business sector to effectively integrate into global markets.

e-Government across borders would involve collaborative endeavors among developing countries in the daunting task of building the strategic infrastructure of the knowledge society.  It would help adopt compatible and adequate regulatory environments, and promote horizontal knowledge sharing to facilitate the development of the information society at the regional level. This is also an effective strategy to deal with the emergence of webs of governance as ‘in the contemporary information age the decisions that deeply affect citizens are often made by entities (such as other governments, NGOs, MNCs) that exist at least in part outside the citizen’s home country’.

Benchmarking Developing countries e-Government initiatives

The World Economic Forum publishes a “Global Information Technology Report” (GITR) with the objective of tracking progress of about one hundred countries’ preparation to function in the “new economy”. This progress is measured using a Networked Readiness Index (NRI) that combines availability of infrastructure and maturity of the regulation framework with both the actual level of readiness to use ICT and the actual level of usage by individuals, businesses, and government. (Table 1)

One conclusion from GITR rankings is that there is common progress among developed countries, and a few middle income countries who leapfrogged into advanced e-Government,  but much slower advance for the majority of developing countries at the bottom of the rankings. In the Readiness Subcomponent, the rankings for Government Readiness is lower than the country’s overall NRI.

Another conclusion emerges from analyzing the rankings of Government Readiness and “Government Online Services” part of the Government Usage subcomponent.   Most of the countries score higher on “Government Online Services” than on Government Readiness. This indicates that the approach to e-Government has focused on front-end online services, but little use of technology by government in re-designing and transforming back-end processes.

For the last four years, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and its Division for Public Administration and Development Management has published the results of a Global Survey on e-Government (GSE-G), providing analytical comment on the level of readiness and access opportunities of its member countries.  In 2005, for example, the United States ranked number one in the world, with a score of 0.9062. The world average for 2005 was 0.4267. The GSE-G indicates progress has been made since 2003 in terms of consolidation and improvements on e-Government programmes in some of the developing countries.  But the great majority of countries remain at the initial stages of development, offering only limited information about government agencies and processes, and a very small percentage of transactions in 2005.

An analysis of various benchmarking of country and e-Government readiness indicates: The Networked Readiness Index (NRI) worldwide rankings shows the great majority of developing countries are lagging behind in the implementation of adequate measures to promote readiness and the actual use of ICT in the acceleration of the development process.

When analysing the subcomponents of the Networked Readiness Index, scores for both government readiness and government usage are significantly lower than the overall country NRI in most cases. Low e-Government readiness is a clear drag on the countries’ networked readiness and their integration into the global economy The comparison among rankings for “government readiness” and “government services online” clearly indicates that governments have placed emphasis on establishing a web presence and offering services online. However, the evolution of e-Government initiative remains at these initial stages.

In terms of service delivery, there has been some advance in the lower stages of e-Government evolution. Most countries have not progressed beyond informational websites and few transactional services.

Policy Challenges

Constraints to adopting and adapting best practices range from weak coalitions and political will for sustained public sector reform, to lack of qualified human resources to lead the process, bureaucratic resistance,  to weak ICT governance and inadequate legal and policy framework.  Although these challenges are common to developing countries, they stand in stark contrast to progress in telecommunications liberalisation and technological competencies in many countries, including India and China.

Adopting best practices require a committed team to lead the effort. Foreign consultants without specific knowledge of the legal, normative and organisational constraints in the country cannot lead the process.  The existing bureaucracy needs to be mobilised to provide the necessary information, manpower and feedback for implementation.  Yet, civil servants, their managers and other key stakeholders are often excluded from the initial design, practically guaranteeing their lack of cooperation through the implementation phase. And finally, sustainability is key, beyond the initial phase of a pilot or a single e-Government application.

External coalitions for e-Government and public sector reforms are needed to complement the efforts of internal change agents and public managers.   But in many countries civil society organisations are weak or exclusively focused on own service delivery.  Private sector associations may be engaged in short term narrow interest lobbying.  Universities and think tanks in developing countries remain ivory towers, distant from action.  Public servants remain averse to such cross-sector coalitions.   Yet,  public sector reforms demand sustained efforts and such efforts demand strong cross-sector coalitions.

Lack of a cadre of e-Leaders

As with any transformation process, the role of leadership is crucial to success. In the particular case of e-Government, leadership has been lacking at the highest political levels.  The great majority of initiatives have been managed by mid-level managers. Ad hoc committees were created to work with and guide the technical staff. In most cases, there are plenty of rhetorical references to the role of new technologies have for development, but very little guidance on realising this potential. Most political leaders have only a limited understanding of the potential role of new technologies in public sector reform, and others see no political incentive in embarking on such a demanding reform process.

Most governments in the region have left in place a traditional MIS organisation centered on technology management, usually one per ministry or agency. These departments are usually headed by a systems’ analyst or similar mid-level staffer, in most cases possessing technical but no managerial skills.  They are usually disconnected from the executive levels and have limited understanding of the sector or business strategies of the ministry.

e-Leadership is needed at many levels. e-Leaders include the political, executive and legislative branches, and within government, several layers of management that are informed about the role of information and communication technology as well as the business strategies or institutional processes that such technologies should support or transform. These leaders are not just technology mangers or chiefs of the MIS organisation. They are a hybrid breed of leaders who understand both the demand (business or development) side as well as the supply (procurement and delivery) side of  ICT.

Many countries are trying to address the e-leadership gap. Korea has given early (as early as 1998) and special attention to creating such a cadre, with the CIO office close to the minister and with enough authority in areas of budgeting and restructuring. In some countries like Turkey, these leaders within government agencies are called ‘transformation teams’, and in Sri Lanka, ‘Chief Innovation Officers’, to emphasise the process innovation and transformation roles of ICT. Many countries have recognised this challenge rather recently, but for most, a coherent response has yet to emerge. However, providing appropriate labels for this new cadre may be helpful, but not sufficient turn CIOs into a powerful force for ICT-enabled change and transformation. e-Leaders need to be recruited, developed and equipped with the necessary skills, attitudes, knowledge and experience to lead institutional and process change.

Weaknesses in civil service

The need to reform the civil service is on the regional agenda. Embracing new technologies to transform the public sector requires that information tools be in the hands of the service providers and not just the technology savvy staff. But public service providers too must be motivated to innovate and improve services and be skilled to play their new roles.

e-Government should be viewed as a joint investment in ICT, process re-engineering, and the corresponding skills and proficiencies for public managers to manage change and knowledge processes and for knowledge workers to play their new and empowered roles. Moreover, mobilising citizen demand for better services is a key to create the pressure and incentives for public managers to adopt new practices.

Limited funding resources

The integrated reform approach recommended here requires considerable investments in the technology platform, training of human resources and creation of access channels for citizens for online services.  This calls for a review of resource allocations, especially those earmarked for isolated information systems that can be now combined around shared priorities and needs. The budget process is often short term and fragmented across established sectors, with little incentives for joint investments in shared information infrastructure and data bases.  Priority setting and resource allocation are seldom guided by results or based on a continuous feedback of the reform’s success.   Public sector managers have looked exclusively to funding from the government or donors for e-Government projects. Public-private partnerships to mobilise financial resources and private sector know how should be effectively tapped.

ICT governance challenges

Most legislators, public sector leaders and specialists in the region have yet to engage effectively in creating the necessary policy environment for a networked and connected government, including policies concerning privacy and security. Most governments also need to improve the quality and reliability of their technology infrastructure to enable back-office process transformation and integration, government-wide information sharing and citizen-centric service delivery.  Decisions about technology are currently left in the hands of technical staff, with very limited or nonexistent leadership and guidance from the political level. When the top political authority in the public organisation gets involved, it is because of the amount required and not to promote a debate on whether the chosen technology contributes to the strategic objectives of the organisation. This results in a series of expensive technology acquisition decisions.  Lacking standards, ICT governance framework, and top management involvement in setting priorities or enforcing standards typically results in a completely fractured technology platform, rarely driven by current priorities or future vision of public sector reform.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The choice of whether or not governments ought to embrace new technologies in the transformation of the public sector no longer exists. The reform of weak, inefficient and corrupt political institutions of the developing world is not possible without deeper understanding of the role of information and communication and taking account of the strategic role of ICT in development.  Just as the transformation of the global economy was made possible by ICT, the transformation of governments, especially in the developing world, needs to rely on information technologies as the new enablers of reform.  In the meantime, investments in ICT without corresponding investments in institutional reforms and process changes will lead to limited benefits and unrealised potential. Only when e-Government involves joint investments in institutional and technological change, would deep transformation of the public sector and significant payoff from ICT be possible.

How should this new e-Government vision be implemented?

There will be as many models to inspire this transformation. The following recommendations draw on key lessons learned from leading countries.

Informed and Committed Leadership: e-Leadership should be nurtured at the highest political levels by raising awareness about the potential transformative role of ICT in government and the role of leadership in realising this potential. But e-Leadership must go deeper and cut across all sectors of society. NGOs can provide such leadership and encourage information proficiency and ICT entrepreneurship among the communities they serve.   They should be encouraged to articulate community needs for e-Government services and help build pressures on governments to become transparent and responsive. Leaders of think tanks and academic institutions should engage government and provide the intellectual leadership for reform.  Perhaps most critical is the creation  and continuous development of a cadre of CIOs who are able to bridge the gap between the political and executive levels who manage the development strategy and public reform process, and those responsible for managing the supply and absorption of the new technologies.

Incentives for Reforms and Sustained Institutional Change: It is important to manage expectations about e-Government programmes and their ability to impact the life of ordinary citizens in the short term.   Often there are ‘killer’ applications  that could have wide and powerful impact such as the computerisation of land records and making land certificates available to the millions of small farmers in Andra Pradesh. But many investments in e-Government will take long gestation periods to show results and these are often of institutional, infrastructural and transformational  nature.  Since e-Government is about transformation and will inevitably encounter resistance and doubts, it is important to balance investments between those ‘low hanging fruits’ or quick impact applications, and those investments necessary to build the platforms for wider impact and transformation.   Prioritisation and phasing of investments should thus take account of the incentives and time horizon of various stakeholders to ensure adequate incentives for a sustained public sector reform process. A compelling long term vision, one that excites politicians, citizens and civil servants, is often an essential ingredient to overcoming painful transition costs and temporary setbacks.

A Vision, a Strategy, a Plan and a Budget: The e-Government strategy needs to be embedded in public sector reform strategy, and vice versa. Most critical aspect of this is to prioritise ICT applications across sectors and levels of government in line with the overall public sector reform strategy, for example, to facilitate decentralisation, promote transparency and accountability, extend and improve public services to rural areas and the poor,  etc. Once such priorities are set, then ICT can be integrated with mutually reinforcing measures to change polices, skills processes, investments,  and incentives  in support of  these specific reform objectives.

An Adequate Enabling Environment: Enabling policies need to be addressed at the highest political level in order to create the appropriate environment for a networked society. These include: opening markets to competition to improve connectivity, improving opportunities for citizens’ access to new technologies, investing in the necessary education and training resources to improve the workforce, and addressing infrastructure needs. Many of these policies and enabling conditions cut across sectors and ministries.

Private Sector Participation: In many countries, the private sector is further ahead of government in deploying ICT for their own business process transformation and service delivery. Its experience in deploying ICT can be adapted and shared with governments. Private sector participation in e-Government projects should mobilise not only private financial resources but also private sector expertise in project management and business process re-engineering. The highly-successful Chilean online public procurement, for example, is operated by a consortium that includes Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and the local private sector company, Sonda. Private sector participation can further reinforce the drive of policy makers and public managers to change the bureaucratic culture of government into customer-focused service.

Evaluation and Performance Measurement: In most countries, information on actual allocation of resources or government expenditures is not widely disseminated, and very hard to understand. Performance and outcome measures are seldom monitored. Yet, monitoring of progress and evaluation of development impact of e-Government programmes are critical to scaling up innovations and learning from success and failure.  Monitoring and evaluation should be designed upfront, as an integral part of overall e-Government strategy. Learning and accountability should be embedded into pilots and overall programmes. This is particularly critical for a transformative role of e-Government, as changes are more complex and benefits diverse and unpredictable. Participatory approaches to monitoring and evaluation should be encouraged as they engage clients and users of e-Government services in learning, provide continuous feedback for timely adaptation and demand-driven investments, and help citizens apply pressures to realise the benefits of reforms and investments