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Digital Dialogue and Divide - Promoting E-Government for Regional Development

Dr. Johann-Christof KüchemannIssue:Latin America IV 2001
Article no.:6
Topic:Digital Dialogue and Divide - Promoting E-Government for Regional Development
Author:Dr. Johann-Christof Küchemann
Title:Deputy Manager, IDB Department of Sustainable Development
Organisation:Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), USA
PDF size:24KB

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Article abstract

It all started with the ARPANET, a military-oriented research network launched by ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States Defence Department, which ultimately gave rise to the Internet. ARPANET began to use the TCP/IP protocol in late 1982. This protocol permits separate networks to interconnect and operate as a single integrated network. Thereafter, use of the Internet spread to government and universities in the United States and has now become available to all citizens. Yet this has generated another problem in our modern society: the digital divide.


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The Digital Divide The digital divide is a term used to describe one aspect of the glaring inequalities that exist in modern society. Eliminating or reducing these inequalities calls for, among other things, a social vision of information and communication technology. Its success will depend on the participation and support of players in both the public and the private sectors, including government, the academic world, civil society, the telecommunications sector and NGOs . The use of information and communication technologies permits citizen participation and helps to create a more democratic society. Such participation, at the same time, requires that citizens commit themselves to identifying problems and seeking solutions. As with the dramatic changes brought about by electronic commerce, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) are beginning to recognise the importance of creating electronic government. The number of Internet users today is barely 6 per cent of the world population, a fact that has led governors and administrators around the world to find ways to save their countries from what is called 'digital illiteracy'. Lack of access to information technologies and know-how can be a severe handicap when it comes to improving the social welfare of countries and their citizens. It is clear that most citizens of the more 'digitalised' countries can easily access information thanks to the existing infrastructure, their knowledge (educational level) or work skills. In contrast, citizens of other countries are held back by economic, technical, educational and social obstacles. This is the 'digital divide' that government leaders are trying to tackle by making access to the net 'a universal service for citizens'. Yet the question is not one of access to the Internet, but rather one of converting information into useful knowledge-the launch of a new regional era. Concerned with the issues surrounding globalisation and the digital divide, some governments have taken initiatives to prepare national strategies that will help to create a knowledge-based society and stimulate economic and social growth for efficient, equitable and sustainable development. This effort has been reflected at various events of the last few years that have produced declarations recognising the need to promote technology in the context of economic and social development for countries of the region. The Declaration of Florianopolis recognises information and communication technologies as the central focus of a knowledge-based economy, and the foundation for new forms of organisation and production worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), through its central departments and divisions such as ICT, have been working to strengthen links between Latin American and other countries, by seeking out successful experiments that can be readily replicated in LAC. For many years, the IDB has been financing and promoting projects in LAC in specific sectors such as education, health, finance, agriculture and environment. These projects frequently include information technologies, now recognised as a specific sector, as one of their components. In recent years, the number of IDB projects with an IT component has risen sharply, reflecting in large part the economic, social and political reforms that have taken place. The growth of a market economy, and the process of democratisation, depend upon both access to information and communication technology (ICT) and information. In this context, LAC countries have acquired knowledge and experience that allow them to take the initiative in expressing their needs to multilateral institutions such as the IDB, with respect to new information technologies. More recently, countries of the region have repeatedly expressed their political desire to use ICT as a means to achieve their development objectives. Those expressions have included the Declaration of Florianopolis, the Declaration of the Presidents of South America, the Summit of the Americas, and the European Union, Latin America and Caribbean Summit, in which heads of state and government of the region have declared their desire to accelerate government efforts, with the participation of the private sector and civil society, to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the information society and the knowledge-based economy. Electronic Government When we speak of electronic government, also known as e-government, we must begin by defining it: let me explain why. There are many ways of defining electronic government. If we look at how different institutions define electronic government, we will see that every institution has a slightly different focus. Some define e-government as the use of technology simply to facilitate the exchange of information and the provision of services. The Information Technology for Development Division of the IDB defines electronic government as the ability of governments to provide services electronically, to enhance the efficiency of public management and to improve services to citizens in a more transparent framework, and not simply as using traditional electronic procedures (for example, faxes). This of course implies creating content, on one hand, and ensuring the existence of adequate ICT infrastructure, on the other. E-government is emerging along with the new economy, and we are therefore dealing with digital, rather than analogue, generations of telecommunications. For example, we cannot say that we have electronic government simply because we receive documents by fax. Electronic government is based on a more horizontal architecture, created from the bottom up, that provides linkages and access and systematic interoperability to information from the different institutions of government. The final outcome will be the creation of a virtual place and a single address where all beneficiaries (civil society, government, the academic world, the private sector) will converge to access and exchange information from different physical locations. For example, a user will not necessarily have to know in advance which agency is responsible, or where he should go to get a driver's licence, at the time he requests the information or application. A system of e-government can strengthen the public sector and create a stronger bond between government and its citizens. It is important that everyone, everywhere, recognise and understand the many functions of government in order to ensure effective collaboration between access to information and the function of information and communication technology. The justification for e-government is its efficiency. We may say that the public sector has the potential to enhance the overall efficiency created by establishing proper channels for collaboration between public and private organisations. As well, there is a direct relationship between the function of government as user of information and communication technologies and its capacity to formulate economic development policies from the viewpoint of the knowledge economy. Governments that become adept in the use of these technologies in order to operate efficiently and improve their services are better placed to stimulate and contribute to the debate on policies for the knowledge economy. The provision of online services will help governments and citizens alike, while reducing the cost of services and making them available to everyone. E-government has the potential to integrate, into a single efficient and co-operative community, a whole range of social groups-citizens, providers of goods and services, contractors, other government institutions and international agencies. When we speak of integration into a single efficient and co-operative community, we must not think that this involves merely the capacity to send and receive e-mail. E-government goes much further. In the new economy, ICT will let computers at government institutions interact with the systems of other public or private organisations and establish effective communication and co-operation. An example of this is the modernisation programme for the Comptroller General's Office of Chile. The programme's objective is to improve management systems. The efficient and effective systems at the Supreme Administrative Control Agency is an example. It calls for the decentralisation of functions, by distributing them to the regional level, as part of the process of reforming government administration. This decentralisation process depends upon an integrated communications platform that will allow decentralised sectors to communicate and exchange information with each other. Thus, information originating in each of the Regional Comptroller's Offices can be stored at a central point where it will be processed and integrated with other-existing-information. In this way, better use can be made of resources and the agency's operational capacity increased. Information in the system can also be made available to other government institutions such as the Ministry of Finance and the Office of the Presidency. IDB has co-operated in promoting successful e-government experiments in Latin American and Caribbean countries, which have begun to improve their public administration by expanding their capacity, processes and techniques for electronic government. The IDB has been expanding its institutional capacity and expertise, working with a growing number of countries to understand how electronic government can be instituted in light of each country's conditions. The IDB's ICT Division, through its digital democracy programme, acts as a facilitator for the e-government effort. Digital democracy channels the growing demands of member countries, creates alliances with other institutions and governments, encourages regional dialogue among institutions about the different aspects of e-government, and co-ordinates inter-American co-operation. The programme works to strengthen democracy by expanding the capacity for electronic government. We see four potential client groups for electronic government systems: the government itself, government employees, the private sector, and the citizenry. One of the most important aspects of an electronic government system is its ability to bring government closer to citizens. While technology can facilitate this link, many governments have been unaware of how to take advantage of its benefits. Fostering dialogue between citizens and government is not the only solution for achieving closer links between them. Another way is to make governments more accessible. Examples of this aspect include posting an Internet page for information searches, providing information on changes in regulations and the bodies producing them, or allowing the public to express their concerns and have them heard. Benefits of Electronic Government An e-government system offers a great number of benefits, including lower costs, greater efficiency and quality of service, more effective communication between citizens and government, enhanced management efficiency and transparency as well as greater citizen participation and commitment. Some aspects of e-government, based on our experience, seems to provide the greatest benefits: - Electronic procurement-makes the process transparent, fair and competitive; - Tax collection-provides greater efficiency and reduced tax evasion; - Budgetary management-streamlines procedures and reduces risks; - International trade-removes or lowers barriers to integration; - Administration of justice and public security-co-ordinates efforts among the police, the courts, the prisons and the hospitals; - Citizen participation-oversees and monitors the process of government. Government plays an essential role in the process of change. It must provide the leadership in making proper use of information and communication technologies and serve as a catalyst for development and innovation in the use of these new tools. The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have launched many programmes to reform their public administrations and to enhance the capacity, the processes and techniques of electronic government. A government's online services should be designed for flexibility so that they can adapt to growing public demands and the continuing progress in information technologies. The best approach is to offer concrete services that evolve with experience and the lessons learned from similar undertakings at the national and international levels. Governments can establish a climate that facilitates the creation of wealth and serves as a catalyst for creativity. This is a time when government figures and the private sector must demonstrate their leadership. New technology can be of tremendous benefit to national and local economies. This leadership is already emerging, and electronic government is already becoming reality in many developed and developing countries around the world. Governments will need to give strong support to private investment, make joint investments, deregulate monopolies and reinforce the private market in the communications sector. This does not mean that we should rush blindly ahead in creating electronic government without first understanding the essential requirements and procedures for implementing it. Before any programme is undertaken, all the social, technological, political, economic and environmental risks must be thoroughly considered. It is also important to understand the capacity and resources of the country or the municipality where the programme is to be implemented. To this end, governments should start to develop their e-government strategies and methodologies on the basis of previous 'e-readiness' studies. We have recently begun to use these new tools and are acquiring new transactional platforms. Conclusion Training is also required to keep people from being marginalised as they were by industrial society. As a start, we recommend providing training to senior managers in the public and private sectors so that they can, as a second step, establish joint strategies and policies for economic development and restructuring. Making progress with economic transformation will require a joint effort on the part of all players: government, private business and civil society. This document was prepared with the help of Eduardo Rodal, specialist in electronic government in the Information Technology for Development Division (SDS/ICT) of the IDB.

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