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Tech Ineffective Without Government Reform

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By Shihoko Goto

UPI Senior Business Correspondent

Published July 11, 2005



WASHINGTON -- Technology can help government improve efficiency by making it easier for citizens to file official forms and cutting back on paper requirements, but e-government can only be as effective as officials are willing to make structural changes within their own organizations. In short, success in e-government requires an overhaul in business strategy.


That was the conclusion of a conference on e-government hosted by the Salzburg Seminar last week. The non-profit organization arranged for nearly 50 government officials and academics from a slew of countries as diverse as Israel, Ghana and China to join bureaucrats from the European Union to discuss how governments can make maximum use of technological advancements to improve their efficiency and performance.



Although most countries -- including those that restrict free speech, such as China, and those with severe financial constraints, such as Mali -- are willing to embrace the potential of e-government, few actually understand what electronic governance entails. This was the argument of Bill Edwards, managing partner of Gov3 in London, a consultancy group, and former director of e-communications in the office of the e-envoy in the British prime minister's office.


The single biggest mistake governments tend to make, Edwards said, is to focus on the hardware, such as which computer system to use, and on the software, such as which product to buy to cut the costs of public service, rather than think through what the objective should be: to improve communication with the public.


He said even in wealthier countries such as the United Kingdom it is important above all else to ensure that poorer people, as well as the aged, non-native English speakers and other disadvantaged groups, are becoming computer literate and going online as well.


Edwards also said a critical task in making e-government effective is to understand the reason for providing services online and listen to the members of the public who will make use of those services.


David Molchany, chief information officer for the government of Fairfax County, Va., said governments need to commit to accept the changes resulting from the use of new technology. For instance, precisely because Fairfax County has invested steadily in information technology, the government has capped the expansion of its bureaucracy. As a result, even though the population of the county has increased by 28 percent since 1999, the number of local government employees has remained unchanged, and they are required to utilize the technological investments made by the county.


"Citizens are customers ... who want a return on their investments," Molchany said.


He said new technology has allowed his jurisdiction to address its citizens' needs more effectively, not only by providing online resources for information and filing necessary paperwork, but also by producing better feedback on what services are needed and what could be improved. He said e-government's success is due less to what computer systems are introduced than about listening to what citizens want, and being prepared to cut staff and communicate among themselves to provide better services, becoming more like a client-oriented private company.


The cash-strapped countries could gain from implementing successful e-government systems, which could encourage them to focus on wiring their entire populaces, rather than focusing only on their wealthier segments. The problem is if a government is not prepared to become more customer-oriented, e-government actually could threaten its survival.


One Chinese official told United Press International, on condition of anonymity, that his government was less inclined to be concerned about listening to what its citizens wanted, even though it was prepared to invest rapidly in modernizing its bureaucracy. He acknowledged, however, that as more and more citizens become wired, the pressure on the government to listen to its people will grow -- although he said it remains unlikely "the government will be proactive in listening."



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