The spread of ICT devices has been remarkable. Given that the Internet did not came into public use until the 1990s, it has totally changed the rules of the game as the corporate world knew it. It has been the most vigorous catalyst of change and has been totally instrumental in creating deep social and organizational changes in a way that is nothing short of a paradigm shift.
The private sector, for instance, which initially championed ICT, delivered the efficiency and value to both the business and the customer. Businesses such as Amazon, eBay and AirAsia are all companies that we or our friends use on a regular basis to buy or sell goods and services online.
There are also many old traditional companies such as Marks & Spencer, British Airways and Walmart that have felt the need to change their business model by making the Internet a core part of their growth strategy. The changes include online shopping or having an integrated supply chain with automated stock inventory.
Other sophisticated business changes that need a mention relate to outsourcing of certain activities. The United States and some European countries have outsourced certain business functions to create efficiency and improve financial value. Variations of the outsourcing ideas have also found a take-up by small professional businesses.
For example, in the United States a doctor might see a patient in the evening and carry out some medical tests that are then sent electronically to a company in a country where it is still a working day. The receiving doctor interprets the results, writes a report and sends it back to the doctor in the United States. In the past, it would have taken days to complete this kind of activity, but now it’s over in a few hours. Further, the outsourcing cost and benefit of interpreting the results and typing it up as a finished report within tight deadlines is a lot cheaper and simpler than getting those activities completed in-house. The Indian multinationals Infosys and Wipro have created huge businesses out of leveraging technology, time zone differences and human capital.
The US government, while a late entrant in the utilization of ICT, has become a major user of ICT. Having noticed and learned from the private sector about the value and customer satisfaction that technology can generate it is not difficult to see why the government would have stirred activity surrounding the online provision of government services, sometimes dubbed e-Government.
The key reason for e-Government is the government’s need to modernize itself. The e-Government initiatives that most are now pursuing are driven by a desire to reduce transaction costs, raise tax revenue, improve efficiency in service delivery, create an environment of trust and transparency, encourage economic growth and advance any public reform agenda it might have.
Some of the most relevant examples of e-Government initiatives include Bhoomi, a program in the Indian state of Karnataka that is designed to computerize land ownership records. It has proved fairly successful in reducing the corruption inherent in the land acquisition process. Administrative corruption was reduced by taking away the discretion to delay or deny by automating the process, keeping a traceable electronic record of transactions and increasing the accountability of public officials.
Online income tax is being carried out by many countries, including in Asia. Singapore started its program in 1992 by introducing an imaging system to electronically process the paper-based income tax returns filed by the citizens. Over the years, the system has been improved to allow tax returns to be completed over the phone and now over the Internet, the ultimate aim being to link the information in various government agencies related to earnings, deductions and so forth.
E-Procurement generates value by increasing transparency and probity by keeping a traceable electronic record of government transactions online. It contains three key components: information and registration, e-purchasing and e-tendering. The e-procurement initiatives across various countries vary in the extent of computerisation of processes depending upon the need and requirement of governments. The Chilean and Philippine e-procurement systems focus on the first component of adequate public notification and oversight and provide complete information on procurement operations. The Mexican e-procurement system goes one step further and allows bid submission by vendors and reverse auctions. The Korean government has incorporated a comprehensive e-procurement system as one of the pillars of e-government in the country.
The efficiency gains through e-government projects are impressive in terms of cutting the number of steps involved, shrinking the time required, and reducing the number of agencies that need to be consulted.
It is, however, a little odd that, despite so many benefits of e-government, many developing countries do not yet have a comprehensive set of well functioning e-government programs. Of those that do exist, they seem to focus and gyrate around tax collection and procuring goods and services. That is not to say that other types of e-government do not exist; they do, but the emphasis always seems to be on financial benefits.
There is also the problem of access to technology. Information is determined by connectivity, capability and content, with connectivity being the biggest challenge to the development of the information society. The digital divide — the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not — is growing. Further, the digital divide is no longer merely about the count of haves and have-nots; it is now also about the quality of the access to technology.
Other external factors that impede the development and uptake of e-government are legislative, regulatory, technological and access barriers to name a few.
Regardless of the hurdles and challenges, it is time for Asian countries, including Indonesia, to go beyond basic e-government offerings, where simply publishing basic but perhaps adequate information on the Internet is the norm. Indonesia has now moved into a higher economic gear, where it will be scrutinized for its record on corruption, its business development environment, its regional progress, its existence of robust regulatory frameworks, as well as its citizen inclusion in the process of governance.