E-govt services to see 'dramatic change'

Legacy infrastructure and processes hindering governments' move to more technologically advance IT systems, says Microsoft executive, who also notes that many still ironing out challenges in quest to move services to cloud.
Written by Tyler Thia, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Governments around the world would like to move from their legacy infrastructure to more effective, unified IT systems yet many are ill-equipped to do so, said a senior Microsoft executive.

Craig Shank, general manager for Microsoft's interoperability group, explained that many of today's e-government portals and backend systems are a digital implementation of their paper-based predecessors. While this leap into the digital age has resulted in a slightly more efficient mode of communicating with citizens, it is still not a "transformative" system, he added.

Furthermore, the public sector is facing a similar data deluge that its private sector counterparts are experiencing. These two factors are impeding the timely access of relevant data to citizens, the executive pointed out to ZDNet Asia at the sidelines of a technology forum held here Tuesday.

Shank's observation reiterates the fact that citizens perceive governments to be unresponsive online. According to an earlier survey conducted by the U.K.-based Economist Intelligence Unit, businesses and citizens point the finger to unresponsive public officials as the reason for the slow adoption of e-government services.

While acknowledging that there's "quite a bit of work to be done", Shank expressed confidence that the world will see a "dramatic change" in the way e-government services are delivered in the future. To achieve this, though, all parties involved ought to be looking into issues such as specific interoperability between existing and new IT systems as well as the re-architecting and redeveloping of new systems to achieve transformation, he added.

For instance, new technologies must respect legacy systems, particularly the data that sits in existing databases.  To address this challenge, the Microsoft executive recommended "some level of capability" that can cut horizontally across multiple government systems to access the various silos of information.

He cited how the Portuguese government merged four identity systems into one as a positive example. The exercise involved the project partner taking the original Linux, mainframe and Windows server systems to build a horizontal layer that was able to access data in all the systems. With this unification, citizens can now, for example, use their driving licenses to access health care services, he stated.

"That's the kind of [transformation] we can anticipate seeing going forward," Shank observed.

Asked if emerging markets are less receptive toward such IT transformation, Shank disagreed. He pointed out that besides Asian countries, Latin America, for one, is very keen on harnessing innovation for the future.

"[However,] I think each market has its own specific sets of challenges that it will have to deal with, and there isn't a single solution," he surmised. 

As with most technological advances, there is no fixed timeframe but he advised that it will be a journey that spans beyond 5 or 10 years.

Cloudy prospects
Another area of interest for governments is cloud computing, the general manager noted. For the public sector, such a deployment will increase efficiencies, provide cost savings and become a driver to make IT systems more heterogeneous and nimble, Shank said. 

However, challenges surrounding data storage location, access, jurisdiction, law enforcement, privacy rights and security issues are pressing matters that no one has answers to, he noted.

"Today, there is the possibility that one can be trapped in an absolute impossible situation with cloud computing, where data responsibilities of its stored location is in direct conflict with the data responsibilities where the services are being developed," Shank observed.

He did add that Microsoft is actively engaging governments in the region on these challenges, but there are certain "hurdles" that will have to be ironed out before governments jump on to the cloud bandwagon.

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