Internet in the service of democracy: a UNESCO survey of e-governance in 15 countriesParis - The introduction of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in government processes is fostering a closer relationship between citizens and states, pushing official bodies towards more transparency and accountability.
They are also posing a challenge to traditional decision-making structures. Such are the main conclusions of a recent joint study by UNESCO and the Commonwealth Network of Information Technology for Development (COMNET-IT) on e-governance in 15 countries.
Every year before finishing their military service, some 270,000 soldiers from the Republic of Korea sit for an exam organized by the Defence Ministry to test their skills at searching the Internet, leading in some cases to the awarding of a diploma.
In Seoul, an inhabitant can track the way the administration is handing his or her case on-line, getting information about when it has arrived, to which department and, when, if it is rejected, why. The city government's Open Procedure Service boasts such a high level of transparency that citizens can follow the work of civil servants on a daily basis.
In Estonia, where 90 percent of civil servants are equipped with personal computers, the government organizes it working sessions on-line. Paper documents for these sessions have been replaced by digital ones. Over the past eight years, the country has allocated one percent of its budget to ICT development in the public service. By the end of this year all municipalities should be connected to the Internet.
In Tanzania, the government computerized its payroll system, covering some 280,00 civil servants. This process led to the unmasking of many phantom jobs.
One of the most visited Internet sites in Canada - with more than seven million monthly hits - is the government's official web page (http://canada.gc.ca). The sites includes the National Job Bank, a comprehensive data base of job offers across the country. The resources of some 460 organizations from the public health sector are grouped in the Canadian Health Network (http://www.canadian-health-network.ca), providing on-line access to reliable and comprehensive information on health.
E-government refers to the growing use of ICTs in the development of society. Little by little, these technologies are changing the ways in which State, private sector and civil society interact.
A telling case is how civil society, NGOs and professional associations are harnessing the Internet to mobilize public opinion in an attempt to influence decisions that directly affect them. With the Open Plaza service, for example, South Korean citizens can freely criticize government policies as well as politicians. This service is accessible on-line to all citizens, who can use it to communicate directly with the president, governors and senior officials. Several National Assembly members experienced the repercussions of this new service first hand, losing their seats in the general elections of April 2000.
The same year, in Mexico, the newly elected government of President Vicente Fox launched an initiative via the Internet to encourage citizen participation in the design of the National Development Plan for the period 2001-2006. Opinions, proposals and expectations were collected on some one hundred themes from the federal level right down to individuals. Based on 117,040 questionnaires received by Internet and mail, a list of 196,854 proposals was drawn up. Mexicans residing abroad sent in 43,000 proposals. After they were collated and analysed, some were included in the objectives and strategies of the national plan.
However, in many countries, low levels of education and poverty still bar large swathes of the population from accessing public information and participating in these new democratic practices. Acting on this, several governments have launched far-reaching training programmes.
Malaysia plans to create a Multimedia University where curricula will include courses on information management, knowledge and computer programming. The country faces a rising demand for highly qualified workers and professionals , especially in the ICT sector and manufacturing industries.
In the Republic of Korea, computer technology is now compulsory in primary school and broadband Internet access permitting fast transmission was provided to 200 localities in one year. A programme to supply free computers and Internet access for five years to 50,000 underprivileged children is under study.
In India, the language barrier poses a formidable challenge to providing electronic public services. With roughly one billion inhabitants, the country has two official languages (Hindi and English), 18 major languages and 418 officially listed languages. Optical Character Recognition technology should be developed and perfected since many local databases are written in local languages.
While there is demand from business and the private sector for e-government facilities, the advantages are much less obvious to large proportions of the population in many countries. Even when the infrastructure does exist, illiteracy, high transmission costs, access difficulties or linguistic barriers bar significant numbers from taking advantage of electronic facilities. Tanzania, for example, counts two personal computers and five telephone lines for every 1,000 inhabitants. In 1999, there were hardly any Internet service providers in the country.
This context places governments before difficult choices. In Botswana, a country that has an enviable telecommunications network both in terms of coverage and product diversity, authorities consider that access to information technology, specifically the Internet, remains too scarce to justify further investment in developing new e-portals for public services.
In other countries, the Internet is slowly but surely gaining ground. In Morocco, where there are more than 200,000 Internet subscribers, there are some 1,800 providers and cyber-cafés, and the market is expanding rapidly. Since 1991, computer sales have increased unabated, thanks partly to a cut in import duties, which in January 1996, fell from 42.5 percent to 17.5 percent. Moroccans own some 200,000 personal computers, which represents a market penetration of 0.7 percent.
The report, Country Profiles of e-Governance (UNESCO 2002) was prepared at UNESCO's request by the Commonwealth Network of Information technology for development/COMNET-IT, a foundation sponsored by the Commonwealth Secretariat and the government of Malta. It covers Botswana, Canada, Estonia, Hungary, India, Jamaica, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, and the United Republic of Tanzania.
Contact: Asbel Lopez
Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section
Tel: (+33) (0) 1 45 68 17 07