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Asia-Pacific gears up for e-government opportunities
Madanmohan Rao reports from the Government IT conference in Bangkok
Despite the general IT downturn and economic pessimism, the mantra of e-government seems to be catching on quite fast as country after country launches national IT plans, forms IT thinktanks, and delivers a range of services online ranging from e-tenders and tax filing to business permits and driving licenses.
Speakers, delegates and exhibitors from across Asia, Europe and the U.S. gathered in Bangkok recently for the annual Government IT 2001 conference and exhibition, hosted by Reed Tradex (www.reedtradex.com); the main focus this year was on e-government practices in the Asia-Pacific region.
Singapore, South Korea, and Australia are currently at the top of the Asia-Pacific scorecard in terms of effective conceptualization and implementation of e-government services.
Singapore is often regarded as having the world's 'most-admired government portal,' having evolved rapidly from basic Web presence and interaction features to transactions and full transformation. Its projected offerings include e-procurement, CRM applications, personalization, polling, voting, and wireless services by 2005.
Australia made a commitment to the information economy at the prime ministerial level right from 1997 onwards, said John Rimmer, CEO of Australia's National Office for the Information Economy (www.noie.gov.au).
NOIE is benchmarking Australia's IT performance with 16 countries based on take up of key information economy technologies, adoption of broadband access in the home, price of Internet access, and take up of online services.
Currently, 72 per cent of adult Australians have access to the Internet, 50 per cent of Australian households have Internet access at home, and 25 per cent of adult Australians have accessed government services online. 95 per cent of large businesses are now online, and about 65 per cent of small businesses; 1.4 million Australians are paying bills online.
NOIE champions the use of e-business among SMEs - for instance, for helping the pharmaceutical industry drive down transaction costs by harnessing the Net.
The Australian government currently contributes AUS$2.9 billion to R&D innovation under the Innovation Action Plan. "Governments must use e-commerce as a catalyst. Governments play an important role because of their reach and influence, and must demonstrate their investment and commitment," advised Rimmer.
Lessons learnt by NOIE on the e-government front include the importance of migrating from Internet services silos to integrated offerings, resolving cross-jurisdictional issues, generating momentum from early successes, and carrying out customer research.
"Governments must be prepared to manage for uncertainty. Strategic policy direction guides a flexible portfolio of responsibilities, not an inflexible blueprint. E-government is not an after-thought, and requires durable solutions. Governments in the Asia-Pacific must collaborate on issues like security, critical infrastructure protection, criminal misuse of IT, and legal infrastructure," Rimmer urged.
APEC has already set "paperless
trading goals" to reduce or eliminate the need for paper-based
"We have recovered rapidly from the Asian economic crisis of 1997 and are currently positioned as among the Top 20 of the world's information societies," said Suk-Jae Lee, director of South Korea's National Computerisation Agency (www.nca.or.kr).
South Korea is currently No.1 in the world in terms of adoption of online stock trading, MP3 downloads, broadband access, and e-banking. The country has 30 million cellphone users, 22 million Internet users (half the total population), broadband access to 7 million households, IT exports worth US$51 billion (30 per cent of total exports), and an IT sector which accounts for over 50 per cent of the GDP.
The CyberKorea 21 plan includes boosting national information infrastructure (connectivity from 155 Mbps to 40 Gbps in 144 regions), online government procurement (to save over $250 million), promoting the IT sector, and providing affordable access and IT training to SMEs and marginalized sectors of society.
A single window for e-government
in South Korea has been created (www.egov.co.kr), over 55 per cent of government
Challenges remain in reducing overlap of information systems, accelerating mindsets of sharing, and creating effective online channels for dealing with citizen grievances. Korean citizens are already quite progressive in the use of online activism, and have used the Net to rally against corruption in government (eg. www.NGOkorea.org).
Other notable performers in Asia on the e-government front include Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia, as well as some of the state governments in India.
"Our Digital 21 strategy includes creation of a world-class e-business infrastructure via the Cyberport flagship project, fostering an open and competitive telecom market, implementing e-tendering by government procurement departments, and providing professional IT training for citizens," said Alan Wong, director of the IT Services Department for the Hong Kong government.
A one-stop site (www.ithk.gov.hk) has also been launched, as well as community cyberpoints or telecentres for wider Internet access. "All citizens are now required to carry smart cards for personal identification; these cards are also useful as an e-purse and for delivering government services," Wong said.
Further down the road, the Digital 21 agenda (www.digital21.gov.hk) aims to make Hong Kong a lucrative market for third generation mobile services, and an exemplar for the Internet2 initiative.
"In the coming decade, we aim to move from being a dynamic adopter to a potential leader in the ICT domain," said Chadamas Thuvasethakul, director of Thailand's National IT Committee Secretariat, drawing on analysis in the UNDP Human Development Report 2001. This would include increasing the proportion of "knowledge workers" from 12 per cent in 2001 to 30 per cent by 2010.
Thailand formed the National IT Committee (www.nitc.go.th) in March 1992. The
Electronic Commerce Resource Center was established in December 1998 -- and as part of the e-ASEAN initiative, the APEC E-Commerce Training Center was established.
The E-Thailand strategy also included SchoolNet (a national school informatization action program, which has brought over four thousand schools online), and GINet (the Government Information Network).
As of mid-2001, Thailand had 7.75 million fixed lines, a teledensity of 9.71 per cent, 4 million mobile phones, and PC penetration of 2.4 per cent. Internet access was started in Thailand in 1991 as a research network funded by NECTEC (National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre). There are 18 commercial ISPs and 4 non-commercial ISPs. The Internet user base is just over 3.5 million users (or 5.6 per cent of the total population). International bandwidth is about 570 Mbps.
As part of a growing move towards e-government, awards were instituted in the year 2000 for best IT usage by government officials. In 2001, work on the government portal ThaiGov.net was initiated, with a phased rollout of offerings ranging from basic information (eg. investments, statistics) and business services (company registration) to online payments (filing of taxes) and e-procurement (by public sector agencies).
Online payment of electricity bills and SMS services targeting crop information for farmers are some of the services being rolled out for urban and rural Thai citizens.
Key challenges for e-government in Thailand are informatisation of local governments, overcoming the digital divide (through better access, low-cost PCs, IT training), and the juggling of priorities between agricultural, industrial and information sectors.
Another southeast Asian country with ambitious e-government initiatives is Malaysia, though its much-touted Multi-Media Super Corridor (MMSC) project has lost considerable steam over the past couple of years.
"The K-Malaysia 2020 plan entails evolution into an information society by 2005, a knowledge society by 2010, and a value-based knowledge society by 2020," said Ramesh Kumar Nadarajah, manager for strategic intervention at the National Information Technology Council of Malaysia (www.nitc.org.my), which was established in 1994.
The conversion of the "IT ripple into a tidal wave" will require a tri-sectoral convergence of governance models for the public, private and community sectors, Nadarajah said. Malaysia's Subang Jaya 2005 initiative includes improved broadband Internet connectivity, community learning in educational institutes, local e-business services, and the creation of a government portal (www.sj2005.net.my).
MIMOS Berhad, a government-owned ICT R&D corporation, has launched a non-profit organization called NISER to address core ICT security issues in Malaysia.
"A key lesson we have learnt is that it is vital to consult local communities and involve them in decision-making in government and private sector initiatives on the e-government front," advised Nadarajah. Innovative solutions are not dependent just on cutting-edge technology, but on widespread consultation to tune in to community needs.
Asians tend to pin a lot of expectations and demands on their governments, and so government agencies have a lot of responsibility via such initiatives especially in Asia, he observed.
"The ability or inability of societies to master technology, and particularly technologies that are strategically decisive in each historical period, largely shapes their destiny," he said, citing Manuel Castells' "The Rise of the Network Society."
"Technology does not determine society. Neither does society script the course of technological change. Many factors, including individual inventiveness and entrepreneuralism, intervene in the process of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and social applications, so that the final outcome depends on a complex pattern of interaction," according to Castells.
IMPROVING THE SCORECARD
While much attention tends to focus on e-government success stories, a lot can be learnt from the shortcomings and failures as well.
"Many e-government services fail to address the creative element in terms of the design, marketing and user analysis of their online offerings," said Srikanya Mongkonsiri, COO of Thai Web solutions firm AD4Portal.
The "Four Is" of digital media design include interface (intuitiveness of elements and icons), identity (branding and trust elements), interactivity (citizen inputs), and information architecture (task-specific workflows).
Special attempts must also be made to leverage Internet strategies during natural disasters, health emergencies, and military conflicts -- to ensure security, mobilization of relief funds, and provide assistance.
Mongkonsiri also urged government agencies to design informative services for younger users, who would constitute the citizenry of tomorrow.
Weera Areeratanasek, regional manager for BEA Systems, observed that it is common to see e-government portals that seem to link various agencies and give the appearance of integrated services - but the back-ends are actually siloed.
Security of e-government systems also needs to improve - particularly in the wake of the September 11th terror attacks in the U.S., said Alex Chiu, regional manager for Internet security firm Entrust (www.entrust.com), whose clients include the Spanish Mint, government of Canada, California Highway Patrol, UK National Health Service, and People's Bank of China.
"Security agencies as well as state and local law enforcement officials need to have the capacity in realtime to intelligently share information and also address public concerns," he said; this calls for multiple, secure, interoperable links.
Another emerging area is the use of artificial intelligence techniques along with knowledge management systems so that governments can actually become knowledge providers to their employees and citizenry.
"Pattern recognition techniques like integrated analytics or i-analytics can help in this regard for uses ranging from fraud detection and invoice validation to equipment configuration and demand forecasting," said Chatpon Auaungkittikun, consultant at Computer Associates.
One common myth which is creating insecurity among some government officials is that less employees will be needed once e-government has been implemented. "This is wrong; the truth is that more people will be needed, but the quality of service can improve considerably," said Manish Agarwal, managing director of KPMG consulting in Singapore.
"In fact, e-government systems can actually be architected as the catalyst for the country's IT sector development via public-private partnerships which benefit the entire economy," he advised.
E-government planners should think big, start small, scale quickly, and eventually transform - not just "pave over the cowpath," Agarwal said. Marketing and incentives should be used to drive adoption of e-government, he advised.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
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