Paperless government not yet a S'pore reality

Singapore's public sector makes strides in pushing online transactions, but consumer comfort with hardcopy documents impedes paper-free vision, says analyst.

SINGAPORE--The public sector has made strides toward nurturing a paper-free culture, but its interaction with a myriad of stakeholders means it will take years before a true paperless government becomes a reality, observes an analyst.

Alex Kim, research director at IDC's Government Insights, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview government agencies across Singapore have generally reduced requests for hardcopy documents to be submitted in order to process transactions.

Paperless transactions are currently available in the government's interactions with various stakeholders, including citizens and businesses. These initiatives are part of the Singapore government's aim to offer its services online.

However, Kim noted that IDC does not expect public sector environments to be totally free of hard copies due to interactions with "a myriad of stakeholders; where each different stakeholder may practise different standards", or have different expectations of transacting with the government."

"In 15 to 20 years, things may change dramatically but it will take some time due to the cautious nature of public sector agencies in adopting new technology practices," she explained.

The Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS), for instance, provides paper transactions "as an option for taxpayers who may not be IT-savvy or are still not ready to embrace the electronic mode", even though the government agency "encourages" taxpayers to transact electronically, Kim said.

The IRAS offers a number of e-services for individual and business taxpayers, according to a spokesperson. Tax e-filing, one of its most popular online transactions, was introduced in 1998 and has risen steadily over the years. This year, close to 1 million or 91 percent of individuals in Singapore filed their tax returns online.

"Currently, while taxpayers receive hardcopy notices and letters from IRAS, they can also access myTax Portal to retrieve their tax notices and letters in [electronic] softcopies," the spokesperson said in an e-mail. "For e-transactions such as e-filing, taxpayers have the option to save the transaction in a softcopy or print a hardcopy for their own reference."

Another public sector agency Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board, which manages the country's employee savings fund, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail the demand for online transactions continues to grow while the demand for hardcopy transactions has been decreasing.

Last year, the CPF Board processed 41 million e-transactions, up from 39 million in 2007, according to a spokesperson. Conversely, paper-based transactions fell from 1.6 million in 2007 to 1.4 million last year.

E-services not only lower the proportion of hardcopy submissions but also reduce the number of supporting paper documents, said the CPF Board. For instance, the "majority" of physical forms required under the online Residential Properties Scheme system, which processes private residential property transactions, has been converted to electronic forms, the spokesperson said.

Another service Web-Linkup, allows the government agency's business partners such as local banks, to obtain electronic statements from the CPF Board when their customers submit applications to the banks that require CPF statements as supporting documents, she added.

"A few" services, however, still require the submission of hardcopy documents needed to process transactions. One such example is the application for hospitalization insurance coverage under a healthcare scheme administered by the CPF Board, as it sometimes requires "medical reports and other hardcopy supporting documents".

Cultural, logistical barriers
According to the CPF spokesperson, about 97 percent of transactions it handles can be processed electronically and the Board continues to review the feasibility of digitizing its remaining paper-based transactions. However, she noted, it may not be practical or timely to offer all transactions online.

"The CPF Board has previously looked into the feasibility of introducing electronic nomination (eNOM). This would require a two-factor authentication with SingPass and Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) for the transaction to be secure.

"Currently, the cost of using PKI is high and proliferation rate is low. The Board will reevaluate eNOM when the technology for the authentication system is cheaper, more mature and more widely used," she explained.

Concurring, IDC's Kim added that cultural and legal issues pose as barriers toward wider digitization. "For example, in education the move toward digitalization of textbooks and online assessments face challenges such as copyright infringements. In healthcare, patient privacy and security issues are key hurdles for several e-health initiatives," she noted.

Across the public sector, there has also been various efforts to reduce hardcopy documentation as part of its internal processes, Kim added. For instance, processing of payments to government suppliers is carried out electronically via the Vendors@Gov portal. The Singapore government has also been calling for tenders for projects associated with the development of paperless systems such as TradeNet, which serves as a platform for public and private agencies within the shipping and logistics community.

The IRAS spokesperson said the Authority's in-house IT system or Inland Revenue Interactive Network, incorporates technologies such as imaging and workflow management. IRAS staff are, therefore, have the tools to work "in a largely paperless online work environment".

For instance, hardcopy documents such as forms and letters are converted to digital format and stored in the system. "Where appropriate, work items are then created electronically and automatically routed to officers-in-charge for action," she added.

IDC's Kim noted that in tandem with the efforts of the public sector to promote Web-based government-to-citizen and government-to-business transactions, the proliferation of "mobile and light storage devices" such as netbooks, smartphones and e-book readers, may influence mindsets and help bring about a greater shift toward a paperless society.

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