Asia speeds up e-government efforts

Slowly but surely, more countries increasingly relying on Internet to transact with businesses and citizens, with smart cities poised to emerge as next wave of e-government service ecosystem.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor on

As more and more markets across Asia get wired up, governments in the region are implementing or enhancing e-government programs to better serve a growing digital public.

Globally, there has been greater emphasis on developing e-government initiatives as administrations look to boost their competitiveness, transparency and efficiency, noted David Siah, senior director at CrimsonLogic's e-government business division.

At the same time, there is also rising expectation from citizens for government agencies to modernize government-to-citizen services as well as improve and make e-citizen services more accessible, Siah said in an e-mail.

According to Bash Badawi, Asia-Pacific director of IDC's Government Insights, one significant e-government trend in the region within the last two years is that there has been a greater emphasis on more citizen-centric services. "When designing and deploying services, the governments in Asia-Pacific focus more on what the citizen needs in a two-way communication," he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview.

Another prominent development is the use of social media. Governments, said Badawi, are now embracing social media, albeit, "slowly and cautiously".

"Following events in the Middle East, more and more governments are monitoring social media networks to identify areas of improvement, engage the younger generation and use the medium itself to communicate with the citizens," he explained.

Public value should guide IT decisions

Governments must have a more holistic view of value, compared to the private sector, and not allow dollars and cents to dominate the discussion around returns on technology investment.

Anthony Creswell, deputy director at the University at Albany's Center for Technology in Government, noted that the value proposition for governments is "much more complicated" as they have to deal with the many different stakeholders' ideas of value.

Speaking to ZDNet Asia on the sidelines of the SAP Future State Summit held in Singapore last week, Creswell explained that when it comes to IT adoption, public sectors have a tendency to allow economists to "capture the [ROI] argument".

"If economists control the definition of what returns on investment (ROI) is, then you end up with an economic matrix and that can often lead to under-investment because you can't justify all of the IT investments simply on the basis of financial ROI," he pointed out.

"So the challenge there is to build the credibility and receptiveness in policy makers to indicators of value that go beyond financial."

At the same time, governments are also hampered by the lack of data to assess how people's lives are affected by their government's IT expenditure, he said.

"Part of it is a big data problem, and part of it involves getting the right data sources and the right observation and measurement tools," noted Creswell. "But also, it's [about] building the political will to take all that into account and take some risks with using a broader idea of value."

Siah also pointed to the rise of collaboration and citizen engagement. "Governments are...shifting from being administrators of e-government services, to playing a larger role as facilitators in delivering and engaging citizens in using these services."

As part of efforts to engage digital constituents, focus has also been placed on enhancing the online experience.

The Hong Kong government, for instance, has taken steps to allow user customization at its GovHK one-stop portal for online government information and services, said a spokesperson from the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO). In December 2010, it launched MyGovHK to provide individuals with "personalized and integrated access" such as setting up shortcuts to access their most frequently used services, customizing of user interface and configuring preferences for the type of public information they wish to receive.

With a MyGovHK account, users are able to access all their registered public services via a single set of username and password and do not have to switch between government service accounts and Web sites.

Making services better
The OGCIO spokesperson also revealed that the Hong Kong government initiated a pilot scheme earlier this year to share public sector information with the private sector via the Data.One portal. Currently, geo-referenced public-facility data and real-time traffic information, which include snapshot images and journey-time data, are already available on the Web site.

"Since the launch of the portal in March 2011, some popular mobile applications have already been developed by the public, leveraging data made available on the portal," he said.

Steve Hodgkinson, Ovum's research director for IT in Asia-Pacific, noted that Hong Kong, under the leadership of the OGCIO, is a highly advanced ICT market with a "well-structured and comprehensive digital economy strategy".

In an e-mail interview, Hodgkinson told ZDNet Asia that significant funds have been directed toward research and development, as well as technology flagships such as the Cyberport and the Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks.

"E-government is an important factor in the digital economy plan and the government has 90 percent of its services available on an e-channel," he said. "[Hong Kong] is now looking to take e-government to the next level via enhancements to allow greater interaction with citizens."

The government has also focused on digital inclusion via education and providing community access to broadband, and implemented measures to support small and midsize business in the adoption of ICT, he added.

Singapore, the analyst noted, is also highly digital and recognized as a leader in e-government.

The city-state has topped the annual Waseda University World E-government index since 2009, with the latest results released in January 2011. Singapore is slated to launch a new e-government masterplan later this month when the country hosts the E-gov Global Exchange in conjunction with ICT events including CommunicAsia.

According to Hodgkinson, Singapore has emphasized vertical sector transformation, nurturing young talent, as part of its digitization journey. It has a National Infocomm Competency Framework that identifies strategic infocomm competencies required for both general and specific sectors, with programs implemented to develop such skills locally, he said.

Siah revealed that CrimsonLogic, which in 1999 developed the eFiling System--the world's first paperless civil litigation system--for Singapore, is currently developing a replacement system. The Integrated Electronic Licensing System (iELS) will have new capabilities and enhanced functionalities such as template-based filing, integrated due diligence, case and data validation with agencies, case management, and tracking and resource management.

Gradual shift for others
E-government initiatives are also aplenty elsewhere in the region, though not necessarily at the same scale or sophistication.

In China, the government has made some inroads to rolling out e-government in the form of Digital Guangdong, with Shenzhen selected as the first city to trial e-government services, said Hodgkinson.

Frank Levering, Asia-Pacific research manager at IDC's Government Insights, noted that some markets in Asia are kickstarting e-government initiatives by equipping the public sector with ICT technologies.

Thailand, for instance, has announced plans to connect inter-government agencies across the country, at least, via e-mail and simple services. "They have also indicated their ambition to have an intelligent e-government foundation rolled out by 2014," Levering explained. "In February this year, they repeated that objective and announced efforts to connect isolated offices via e-mail, conferencing and cloud applications."

Malaysian authorities, he added, are also steadily expanding e-services and have spent recent years creating a comprehensive e-government portal to support such initiatives.

"Vietnam's Danang has recognized that the next phase of e-government development will not be possible without ubiquitous, affordable broadband available to all citizens."
-- Steve Hodgkinson,
Research director, Ovum

Siah also pointed to opportunities in emerging countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. He noted that CrimsonLogic recently provided consultancy services to Vietnam, and has signed a contract with the local government to develop a national security IT infrastructure for the country. "When fully implemented, the National Authentication Framework will enable users to access an array of government services using a single electronic identity, bringing them greater convenience in their transactions with the government," he said.

According to Hodgkinson, "smart cities" is a new focus for the implementation of e-government strategies. Digital city strategies, he added, offer a breath of fresh air to stale e-government programs--many of which have reached a plateau in recent years.

The Chinese government, for instance, has started emphasizing the importance of smart cities, with tier 1 and 2 cities in China beginning to analyze the feasibility of smart cities, said the Ovum analyst. "They believe that the smart city is the key means to tackle the financial crisis, stimulate industrial structure adjustment and upgrade urban cities," he added.

Data, infrastructure issues
E-government efforts, though, are not without their challenges.

Hodgkinson said the lack of ubiquitous Internet connectivity for citizens "continues to be the major challenge" for many countries in the region.

"Most governments are making good progress with putting services online, but these services are not available to all citizens because not all citizens have access to a computer or the Internet," he pointed out. "Danang in Vietnam, for example, has won awards for the quality of its e-government initiatives over the past decade but is now in the midst of implementation of a Metropolitan Area Network funded by the World Bank because it has recognized that the next phase of e-government development will not be possible without ubiquitous, affordable broadband available to all citizens."

IDC's Badawi pointed to the lack of openness as another stumbling block. This is manifested in the reluctance to share data between government agencies and the lack of support for Open Government Data Initiatives. "The old paradigm is still prevalent, [in which you] take a service available offline and put it online and call it e-government--which is the wrong approach," he noted.

However, even as more services are put online nd more prefer to transact on the Web, it is unlikely that governments can afford to completely do away with traditional channels anytime soon.

The U.K. government announced in late-2010 that it is planning to move online the majority of its applications for services by 2013, where in some cases, non-Internet channels will be closed or consolidated.

IDC's Levering said making the majority of applications for government services purely Web-based currently "isn't feasible in any area or country worldwide, and Asia is no exception". Even in countries with high Internet penetration such as Singapore and Hong Kong, there are still vast numbers of the population who do not know how to get access to or use online services, he explained.

"A steady and selective process to migrate services to an online platform...makes most sense," he said. "A supporting ecosystem of alternative processes will have to co-exist for an undetermined lengthy period, although added benefits could help to win favor for the online process more rapidly.

"Such an approach will work across Asian countries, even though the time needed will vary significantly in direct relationship to the broad availability of cheap and reliable access to the Internet," he added.

Hodgkinson concurred: "What we will see is a gradual transition from face-to-face and over-the-phone channels to online channels, as citizens become more connected and more accepting of online services...and indeed as whole societies transition to a preference for digital services because they are better, faster, and cheaper."

The Hong Kong OGCIO spokesperson noted that while more transactions in the economy are now performed via the Internet, there is still public demand for traditional channels such as postal, phone and counter services.

"To best serve the public, we are providing various channels for accessing government services to meet different needs of different people," he said. "We will continually examine the possibility of rationalizing different delivery channels according to what customers need and value in future."

According to a market survey the OGCIO conducted last year, the Internet is the preferred channel to transact with the Hong Kong government, accounting for 55 percent of all access to government services.

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