New global research into the development of online government has acknowledged the recent advances of Asian administrations in the use of the web to deliver services and information. The Global E-Government 2004 Rankings, produced by Brown University’s Centre for Public Policy, has placed Taiwan and Singapore as the world’s top two e-governments. This is the fourth successive year that the rankings have been published, and in that time Asian governments have seen dramatic improvements in their positions.
According to Darrell West, Director of the Centre for Public Policy and author of the research, the results demonstrated the Asian region’s strength in depth. Not only did Taiwan and Singapore come first and second, but the wider Asian region accounted for half of the top ten countries.
“E-government is thriving in Asia where a number of governments have made rapid progress at integrating technology into the public sector,” says West. “Leaders in this region deserve credit for making electronic government a top priority.”
What the survey surveyed
This year more than 1900 web sites in 198 different economies have been assessed over the summer (June- August), making the survey the most comprehensive to date. According to West, the EGovernment Rankings are not intended to be a qualitative assessment of the effectiveness of service delivery - instead it is a quantitative gauge of the volume of agencies deploying information online. Likewise this survey does not quantify the degree of citizen participation in the services offered. Government web sites were evaluated for the presence of various features dealing with information availability, service delivery, and public access.
Singapore has long been a poster pin-up for the region’s e-government efforts, and according to West, the country’s eCitizen portal provided “a substantial wealth of information and services, ranging from making government payments to more unique options such as online dating services.”
Likewise Taiwan makes regular appearances alongside Singapore in any global shortlist of e-enabled administrations. This year the territory managed to take over the top slot from Singapore thanks to great usability, frequently updated content, and advanced personalisation options, says West. However, for the first time the rest of the rankings suggest that other administrations in the region are following hard on the heels of the two pace-setters.
Based on the rankings for all Asian countries, the region came second only to North America, beating Western Europe into third place.
“Both China and Hong Kong moved up in our global rankings this year,” says West. “China went from 11th to 6th place this year out, while Hong Kong improved from 19th to 11th place. China has put a substantial effort into online government and is making more electronic services available to its citizens and businesses.” West also drew attention to the rapid progress South Korea has made - leaping 55 places in the rankings to 32nd this year. The initial rush to place government agencies on the web is now being followed up with the provision of services uniquely tailored to the online environment, notes West.
Looking back over the last four years of research the biggest change has been the number of government sites offering electronic services. In 2001 only 8 per cent of government web sites had online services. This year the proportion has risen to 21 per cent worldwide. Progress is being made an integrating technology into the public sector – and much of this progress is occurring in Asia.
“A number of governments around the region have made impressive progress at adding new services,” explains West. “As citizens are able to order books and financial services online, they are coming to expect electronic service delivery from the public sector. Among popular items are online tax filing, ordering birth and death certificates online, and being able to purchase business permits online.”
“Governments are showing steady progress on several important dimensions, but not major leaps forward,” cautions West. “On several key indicators, e-government performance is edging up. However, movement forward has not been more extensive in some areas because budget, bureaucratic, and institutional forces have limited the extent to which the public sector has incorporated technology into their mission.”
Although the Asian region has made substantial progress over the past year, globally the pace of progress is slowing. This points to a degree of maturity in e-government infrastructure; future efforts will seek to build incrementally on user awareness and the flexibility of government departments to reinvent their services and processes for online.
“Budget problems in some countries continue to stymie efforts to add online services and improve the functionality of government web sites,” admits West. “Perhaps in areas where progress is lagging, it makes sense for governments to form regional alliances so they can achieve economies of scale in the use of technology. This will certainly help spread the costs of new technologies out around a much bigger base and help to close the global digital divide between countries.”
Asia scored good marks for usability, content and multilingual options. However that’s not to say that there isn’t room for improvement. Over the last year a number of Asian administrations have adopted a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ approach to getting administration online. Relatively low usage rates suggest that more needs to be done if government is to successfully leverage this low cost service channel.
“Several Asian countries are ahead of the United States and Canada at bringing broadband service to their people. This makes it easier and quicker to access new applications, and supports putting interactive technologies online,” West explains. “What some Asian countries can learn from North America is the importance of privacy and security in online transactions. Citizens want to be reassured when they use electronic government that their transactions are confidential. There also needs to be greater attention in some places to making web sites accessible to the visually impaired. Web sites should be designed to further access by all people, regardless of physical condition.”
As Asian governments seek to exploit the web to improve citizen access to public services there is always the risk that poorly-executed online initiatives will suffer by comparison with the web-based service of banks, airlines and other private sector organisations. Yet to do nothing is clearly not an option.
“You can’t turn back the clock, you can’t ignore the internet. Asian citizens and businesses clearly value the opportunity to transact government services round-the clock,” concludes West. “They will therefore appreciate the convenience of online government- and will reward administrations that deliver that convenience.”
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