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Electronic Government Going Global

6 min read

Samuel K. Moore is IEEE Spectrum’s semiconductor editor.

The Stockholm Challenge is something of a Nobel Peace Prize in information technology (IT). The annual award is given to meritorious information and communications technology projects in the categories of culture, health, education, e-business, environment, and e-government. This year’s winners, selected from a field of 101 finalists, will be announced in Stockholm on 10 October. Wayne Hanson, editor of Government Technology International, has been a jury coordinator since 1999, and this year headed the jury for the e-government prize. He spoke with IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Samuel K. Moore on 17 September about the state of e-government worldwide.

How do you define e-government?

How I define it is quite a bit different from how it’s defined in other places. E-government started with just putting brochure-type information on the Web or a picture of the governor or mayor. It gradually evolved into the ability to download forms, and now the public can do transactions. But e-government is more than just putting up a Web site. It’s taking some of the processes, information, and services of government and making them available all the time to everybody who has access to a computer. It makes government more transparent, more responsive, more service oriented.

E-government is government that’s using the Internet and information technology to serve the public, to perform its functions more efficiently and effectively, and taking advantage of the capabilities of IT to redesign processes and priorities.

What’s changed in e-government since you began your association with the Stockholm Challenge jury?

A few years ago, countries such as Egypt were just putting in a basic infrastructure, laying fiber, putting up some Web sites, and so forth. At the start of this fiber project, I think only 3 percent of the population had computers. It might seem foolish to go to all that expense to put in fiber and start doing Web sites, when no one’s going to use it. But obviously that changes. Governments that have looked forward to the future—like Egypt, Ireland, and some others—are suddenly making great gains, because they already had the infrastructure in place.

Recently, there were several projects in Sweden and Egypt, designed to help bring people born in those countries, but living abroad, into contact with their countrymen. In Egypt, they log onto a Web site and can find a mate, teach their children about the culture, find language instruction, all kinds of things that connect them to home, culture and roots. The Swedish project was designed to keep Swedish children in other countries connected to Swedish schools and friends.

E-government starts off with basic infrastructure—something as simple as a telephone or Web site—and then moves to things like back-office connectivity and co-operation between agencies, and finally it starts to really change the way things operate and enables all sorts of new things to happen.

Is there a qualitative difference about the kinds of projects in the developed world versus the developing world? Or are they just a couple years behind?

In some cases they’re a long way behind. The [Stockholm] Challenge evaluates projects from Sweden, Canada, and the United States as well as projects from rural areas of South Africa, and Asia. So you need some kind of standard to apply to how you look at these projects and evaluate them.

The Challenge has done that by asking: ”How much impact could this have on that society?” For example if [the Registry of Motor Vehicles] in Massachusetts puts driver’s license renewals on the Web, that has some effect. On the other hand, there’s ethnic violencein the Solomon Islands, one of the finalists in the e-government category. They’ve hooked up some solar-powered computers over short-wave radio in order to get e-mail between the various islands in order to get a dialog going and reach some sort of agreement. You look at that and say, ”That has potential for a very significant impact!”

One project that just astounded me a few years ago was in a rural area of South Africa, without even any electricity—it was basically subsistence farming. A number of the parents there had heard about the Internet and wanted it for their kids, because they’d heard it was the future. They managed to get some funding through the World Bank (Washington, D.C.). [With that] they put in a gasoline-powered generator, a satellite hookup for the Internet, and a few computers. So they got hooked up to the Internet and they ran cable down the road to each school. You look at that, and you have to say: ”Man, they don’t even have electricity or running water, and yet somehow they looked at the Internet and said: ’This is important. We want this.’” Suddenly they had a facility for printing brochures, for finding out what was happening in the rest of the world, all kinds of things. With only one computer in each school, access was pretty limited. But talk about some changes occurring! That’s the importance of electronic government and electronic education and everything else that government controls, regulates, or operates. It’s sort of a basis for the future. The more people that get connected up, the better this planet is going to do.

Could you give some other examples of how the developing world is using e-government?

India is a great case study. A country that not only has educated English-speaking people, but a lot of engineering and technology people. And yet there’re parts of it that are really poor, without even telephone service.

I love looking at those kinds of projects. There are a few finalists from India this year: Bhoomi, Drishtee (short for Drishtee-Soochna Aapke Dwaar, or Connecting India Village by Village) and e-Hyderabad (or empowering citizens of Hyderabad and Secunderabad using IT). Take Bhoomi, for example. Land records are important in the rural areas, not only for buying and selling property, but [land ownership] is really woven into the social fabric. Previously to get access to a land record you had to go to someone in the village in control of land records. And according to the people who wrote the project up, you had to give people money under the table in order to see your own land records. [So Bhoomi] set up kiosks around the rural areas where you could log on and get access to land records. Now there are 177 government-owned kiosks in the state of Karnataka [in the southwest of India]. [Bhoomi] said they’d eliminated corruption and red tape in the issue of land title records and [the system] is fast becoming a backbone for credible IT-enabled government services for the rural population.

They’re starting out a lot like we did in the United States before we had easy access to the Internet. Forward-looking governments set up kiosks. For example, in California, there was the Info/California kiosk (a now defunct e-government system for the state of California). They can be hooked up with a satellite or they can be hooked up with a local-area network of some sort. They are a sort of intermediate solution. Info/California disappeared as soon as the Web ramped up. Then a lot of governments went from kiosks to Web sites because they were cheaper to maintain, and obviously international access was very desirable.

But a lot of developing countries are doing kiosk-based things now, and some of them are very interesting.

Another example is Mexico. Four or five years ago we interviewed Vicente Fox when he was the governor of Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico. He said that people often don’t trust government, especially in Mexico. To try and restore some faith in government in the Guanajuato, he put all the financial records up on the Internet. When we interviewed him , he said he’d like to get one computer in each school. He was looking for donations of old computers. That’s where it starts: computers, schools, kids start to get used to technology. They grow up with it, and then it fans out. As kids go into government and public life, they start to use those tools.

Do you see any other important trends for e-government?

The biggest trend happening in the U.S. is a move toward intergovernmental cooperation. You have to get government agencies out of their boxes and cooperating on a large scale. A lot of that got accelerated by 9/11, especially in law enforcement, public safety, and public health. So you’ve got to have systems that are compatible and work together. To some extent the difficulties have been side-stepped with middleware (which manages the interaction between disparate applications across the different computing platforms).

Middleware to hook systems up is one way. Metatag standards are another. (Metatags specify a document’s properties and contents such as who the author is). I know that the state of Washington sidestepped a lot of turf issues by putting out a standard metatag set that local governments could opt into and use as well. So when you go to the AccessWashington Web site [https://access.wa.gov/] and put a question in AskGeorge (its search engine) that has to do with local government, then local information pops up. If it’s county, county will pop up. If it’s state, state will pop up. They’ve gone through a lot of trouble to include everybody in the search engine.

Probably the best [way to integrate government], though, is to get people cooperating and working on a large-scale enterprise basis.

To Probe Further

For more on e-government, see https://www.centerdigitalgov.com

To see this year’s crop of e-government finalists go to https://www.challenge.stockholm.se/

For an analysis of electronic voting see ”A Better Ballot Box?,” IEEE Spectrum, October 2002, pp.46–50.

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