Without bridging the digital divide eGovernance projects will not be effective

Muhammad Amir Malik

eGovernance, especially in developing countries, is looked upon as means to change the very concept of eGovernance resulting in empowerment of the citizens and increased transparency in public dealings by the governments; increased efficiencies in delivery of public goods is an inherent underlying assumption. The big question is that what actually we want to do by adding the letter ‘e’ in front of various words. The main objective of it is just only computerizing the manual process running from last so many numbers of years or we want to improve it without changing the way of processing. The term ‘eGovernance’ is one such term. eGovernance allows direct participation of constituents in government activities. The main objective of the eGovernance models is that better use of information and makes a clear transparency in government-people transactions. It also creates a platform for profitable participation of government in business transactions. Customer relationship management gives better service to the citizens in less time and costs as well as better utilization of space by paperless work environment. Different departments of the government can also communicate very effectively which infect give benefits to the society and helps in the growth of a new economy. Also, a citizen can avail multiple government services from a single point. While looking at these advantages from the eGovernance, we also have to take care about all challenges which play a big role in success of eGovernance system. Some of these challenges are Lack of Integrated Services, Lack of Communication between different Departments, Lack of Key Persons, Population, Establishing Person Identities, and Different Languages.
eGovernance success and failure therefore depends on the size of gap that exists between ‘current realities’ and ‘design of the eGovernance project’. Analysis of eGovernance projects indicates that several dimensions are necessary and sufficient to provide an understanding of gap stand between reality and design – Information, Technology, Processes, Objectives and values, Staffing and skills, Management systems and structures, Time and money. In many well-meaning projects, and duplication of the manual processes in the IT environment was seen as major reasons for the end users/citizens not associating any value addition with the projects and looked upon eGovernance as an unwelcome addition to the hurdles to be crossed before getting ‘the work done’. Similarly lack of horizontal integration also means that eGovernance projects would continue to deliver services in a fragmented and unsatisfactory fashion resulting in the end users having to approach a multitude of government agencies thus defeating the promise of ‘less government in your life’. Moreover an ambiguity about the very concept of eGovernance results in many government entities categorizing eGovernment projects such as office automation and inventory management as eGovernance projects. Thus vast sums of money are spent on computerization activities without giving the eGovernance related benefits to the end users.
Currently in several developing countries, eGovernance is the buzzword in the corridors of power in governments and the international donor agencies. Vast sums of monies are being promised and given to implement such schemes. However a close scrutiny reveals, startlingly, that the preference for IT components such as the hardware and software changes dramatically for similar projects within the same country in the same period of time. This is sometimes reflected in a kind of a secular trend resulting from an unstated agenda or a conscious shift. It is also seen that often the Acquisition and implementation processes are not monitored in an effective fashion and deliverables are often less than the specifications. However due to a hurry to ‘get things going’ the projects may be operationalized even when they are not fully ready.
Moreover it is not only in the Acquisition and Implementation but also in the Delivery and Support areas that excessive dependence on the developer(s)/vendors is seen resulting in large outgo on revenue expenditure while the untrained work force of the government entities sit idle. Additionally there is often poor control over outsourcing. In many projects at the system development stages, especially when the user requirements were being made, there was no effective communication between the users to share the domain knowledge with the system developer(s). This was particularly true for projects which were being implemented as a result of individual initiatives emanating from the top of the management hierarchy. In such cases the developers also felt answerable to none except the management at the very top. This soon caused even the enthusiasts at the operational level to lose interest and the projects were implemented by ‘going through the motions’. This led to the development of systems which were inherently deficient and soon ran to the ground after the change of guard at the top management level. Even where the systems became operational and were hailed as success stories poor change management controls meant that over a period of time they completely stopped doing what they had set out to achieve.
It was often seen that there was clearly stated commitment from the Political establishment in several developing countries but continuous resistance by a section of the executive and other stakeholders adversely affected by transparency brought in by eGovernance. eGovernance is a catchy slogan which translates into ‘power to the people’ and paints a picture where the omnipotent computer(s) would take over all those functions of the state which entail an ‘unnecessary’ interaction of the common man with a government official. This immediately attracts the fancy of the citizens who are also potential voters, and look forward to a corruption and discretion free system where each individual is treated according to transparent rules. This enthusiasm for IT enabled eGovernance allows the governments to announce and lunch mega eGovernance schemes which often translate into large scale expenditure on hardware and software. In developing countries, these are often associated with lack of transparency in acquisition and creation of technological and physical infrastructure, an irony since the projects themselves seek to increase transparency in the eGovernance mechanisms. However there are also strong vested lobbies which feel threatened by this transparent eGovernance and many a times they were seen to do anything to either discredit a new project or not allow it to take off at all. Though the bogey of unemployment resulting from computerization is long dead but the resistance continues as it has been realized that automation of backend procedures would eventually result in eGovernance.
There is always the risk of the implementation of eGovernance projects being so prioritized as to benefit only a certain section(s) of the society. Additionally eGovernance delivery mechanism may not account for the existing digital divide. This would cause even the most well intentioned initiatives not achieving the objectives. Though innovative methods were seen, especially such as eGovernance kiosks to help citizens, the fact remains that without bridging the digital divide eGovernance projects may not gain critical mass to be effective. Successful eGovernance implementation is about – End users need identification, Business Process Modification, Use of Information Technology and most importantly committed government intent. Deficiencies in any of these would result in eGovernance projects failing to achieve their objectives. The eGovernance projects should define a set of business processes and Technology standards to be followed throughout the government enterprise, providing services which are citizen centric, standards based interoperable, transparent, flexible, secure, result oriented and dynamic. A clear understanding of the problems associated with eGovernance system will help tackling them during planning and implementation.