Sunday, August 16, 2009

Adopt E-Governance to Drive ICT Penetration says World Bank

Unlike most other ICT reports, this one doesn't come out every year. So, when the World Bank released its Information and Communications for Development (IC4D) Report 2009 a few weeks ago -- three years after the Bank's first ever report on ICT -- expectations were high. Many were looking forward to something enlightening, or at least something that would spark some new thinking.

Instead, the report dwelled on what at least half a dozen similar reports have said over the last year; and that is, access to affordable high-speed Internet and mobile phone service are the key elements for economic growth and job creation in developing countries.

In fact, when studied closely, its central theme looked somewhat similar to the earlier one as well. It too harped on the fact that ICT plays a vital role in advancing economic growth and reducing poverty.Still IC4D 2009 is interesting for pulling out a significant aspect of e-government -- which is often overlooked -- by highlighting that e-government is an ideal tool for jump starting ICT penetration in any country.

According to the report, being the most cited and high-profile of all ICT applications in many countries, e-government could be the first tool that a country can use to lead the way for mainstream ICT applications.

"Our research for several years in countries across the world has revealed that e-government could be a key driver for the penetration of ICT in almost any country regardless of its ICT infrastructure and ICT penetration," Randeep Sudan, World Bank's e-government specialist and one of the authors of IC4D 2009, told Digital Communities.

In fact Sudan adds that the first priority of a government in a country that does not use ICT enough should be the adoption of e-governance.

"E-government spurs ICT penetration in two ways," he said. "For one, when a government embarks on e-government, it needs to develop applications, people to maintain to maintain the systems, and a lot of support from the local ICT sector. All these help in developing an IT infrastructure as well as providing opportunities for the local IT sector."

"Secondly, by streamlining administration processes through e-government, the country becomes a more attractive destination for IT investment."

The report adds that the world is fast moving towards knowledge-based activities. Since ICT is the foundation of a knowledge based world, it is imperative then for developing countries to improve and increase ICT use and application.

However, adoption of e-government is not an easy process. World Bank has found that both developing and developed economies are struggling to understand the difficulties, constraints, and uncertainties of e-government and how best to handle them.

Some of the most challenging issues faced by developing countries are translation of a broad vision into specific policies and regulations; developing ICT infrastructure in commercially less-attractive provincial and rural areas, as well as low-income groups in urban areas; ensuring robust performance from new large-scale information systems; and very importantly, tackling the scarcity of talent.

Thus, "in order to realize development gains from e-government investments, a sufficiently influential institutional structure that attracts strong commitment and support is essential", says the report.

But besides increasing ICT penetration e-government has significant other benefits, says the report. Some of the important ones include reduction of transaction costs and processing time and increased government revenues; reduction of corruption and abuse of discretion, and most importantly, the potential to access public services at home or at a local center which also empowers women and minorities groups.

E-government is not just an important ICT development tool for developing countries, but it could also be an effective tool for increasing ICT penetration in developed countries as well.
"Let us take the case of US, where although ICT penetration is high, e-government could still be used to improve that penetration further," says Sudan.

The Bank has found that a large section of the population in the US, specially in rural areas still do not possess a computer at home, or access the Internet from home.

"Availability of government services in the electronic format will drive a local government to engage its residents for using those tools. That in turn will help the community in rural areas to get with ICT tools and also realize the potential of ICT to get better services," says Sudan.
For local governments though, Sudan suggests an approach to e-government that is a little different from that of the central administration. Instead of focussing on just efficiency, local governments should put more focus on those applications that could have the highest impact on ICT inclusion, he says.

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