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E-Government: Lessons and Opportunities

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

E-government has been a buzzword for at least a decade. Too often the term is overused to the point of becoming meaningless, a way for politicians or technocrats to convince stakeholders that they are innovating. Yet e-government is an important aspect of a nation's development, one that offers great potential for increasing citizen participation, reducing corruption through greater transparency, and even enhancing a nation's industrial competitiveness.

Asia-Pacific Business and Technology Report recently sat down to discuss e-government with Kim Young-sik, an e-government consultant currently working with the Korean Software Industry Promotion Agency. Kim's career began at IBM, where he worked for 23 years. After retiring, he volunteered for two years as an e-government consultant in Nepal. Working with the Nepalese National Information Technology Center under the Ministry of Science and Technology, he helped create the developing country's e-government master plan. In 2008, he was invited by the government of Afghanistan to help develop their initial e-government strategy as well.

"So many countries helped Korea during the war and after; it is important for us to give some back now," Kim explained when asked why he has spent his retirement working in developing nations. For a country like Afghanistan, e-government may not seem to be a high priority; basic infrastructure and the safety of the citizens are certainly paramount. However, computerization can play an essential role in such an environment. With billions of dollars pouring into Afghanistan, corruption becomes a rampant problem. With computerized accounting, though, transparency helps to eliminate at least some of the opportunities for fraud. Furthermore, given the continued struggle with Taliban forces, information security is a serious consideration, requiring a thorough strategy to protect assets as well as personnel. Information and communications technology (ICT) can also dramatically increase the delivery speed and accuracy of essential information, which, in turn, can lead to better safety and the development of civil society.

"In Afghanistan, I was mainly focused on capacity building. [...] ICT is not an objective in itself. It is a tool to improve all sectors."

Asia Pacific Business and Technology Report asked Kim to illuminate Korea's implementation of e-government, and to highlight lessons that ICT leaders and technocrats in other countries can use in their e-government strategies. Korea's status and condition in the decades following the Korean War in several ways mirrors conditions in many developing nations. Thus, the models for growth that Korea has experimented with can provide valuable insight for expanding civil society and industrial capacity in the developing world.

"I was born just after the Korean War and I grew up in this very poor situation. When I went to Afghanistan, when I saw them, it was like my younger days. I want to contribute myself for [developing] countries; maybe after 10 years or 20 years, they can be like Korea, or even better than Korea."

E-Government in Korea

Korea has been widely praised in international circles for its e-government implementation. Over the two-plus decades since informatization began in Korea, the nation has received numerous awards for various systems under the overall e-government umbrella. The National Procurement System won the UN Public Service Award in 2003 and Global Excellence Award for the public sector at WCIT 2006. The e-Customs system was selected as the best practice model at the 2001 UN Anti-corruption Forum, and was awarded the World Customs Organization Trophy in 2006. These are just some of the accolades the Korean e-government strategy has received. To understand how the Korean model became a world-class system, one must explore the system's history.

Stages of Implementation

While the Ministry of Science and Technology had been supplying computer systems to various departments since 1967, Korea's e-government experiment truly began in 1986 with the building of a digital infrastructure. Several important laws were passed to direct these initial moves: "Computer Program Protection Act" and "Supply and Utilization of Computer Network Act" in 1986 and the "Software Development Promotion Act" in 1987. The first forays into e-governance were centered on computerizing information. In particular, documents and data related to residences, real estate, vehicles, employment and economic statistics were entered into computer systems within the relevant departments or ministries over a period of years. Tensions with North Korea, likewise, necessitated computerization of security and military facilities and procedures.

Networks were often isolated from one another at this stage, and different organizations within government used various software packages and systems. Furthermore, these software and hardware choices were almost entirely imported from abroad as the domestic industries were still nascent. The main priority in this initial stage was building capacity.

The term "electronic government" first appeared in an American government document in 1993. That same year in Korea, plans were implemented for the so-called Information Superhighway, and in the next year the Ministry of Information and Communication was formed to oversee national network usage and ICT matters.

In 1995, Korea began to dramatically increase its IT infrastructure with the "Broadband Korea" project. The rapid deployment of a high-speed optical fiber backbone has made Korea one of the world's most connected societies and also increased the need for greater e-government solutions. The Framework on Informatization Promotion Act, also in 1995, established a committee to steer e-government initiatives.

From 1997-2000, the foundations for real e-governance were laid. During this time, government ministries began putting online various procedures related to the national tax service, patent management, customs and the issuance of passports. In 1998, with the election of President Kim Dae-jung, the first official government homepage went online.

Full-scale implementation of e-governance solutions began in earnest in 2001 with the National Assembly's passage of the E-Government Act. This Act stipulated 11 key initiatives for e-government including transparency measures such as electronic procurement systems as well as offering many more government-to-citizen (G2C or sometimes G4C) services.

Since 2003 the Korean government has launched 31 projects under the "e-Government Roadmap." With the Roadmap, Korea's e-governance can be said to have reached maturity. Usage of government services online has increased considerably. Turnaround times in many diverse areas have been reduced significantly. For example, since 1993, the time required for imported goods to pass through customs has dropped from 23 days to 3.54 days in 2007. Summary trials have gone from taking 120 days on average before computerization of the court system to three to five days currently. Government HR systems can process applications in two minutes now, as opposed to three hours before e-governance systems were introduced. By any measure, Korea has improved government efficiency through the use of online services and digitized information.

When Korea first began building its ICT capacity in the mid-1980s, there was no overall strategy behind initiatives within various ministries. As Korea's capacity increased and citizens became more wired, a guiding strategy was required to continue moving forward. Initiatives and mandates such as the E-Government Act of 2001 and the e-Government Roadmap in 2003 helped to shape these initiatives into an all-out digitization of processes, applications and information delivery. The guiding principle of the Roadmap is to become the "World's Best Open e-Government" through:

  • increasing online public services to 85 percent

  • entering the top 10 for business support competitiveness worldwide

  • reducing visits for civil service applicants to three per year and

  • raising the usage rate of e-government programs to 60 percent.

"Today, we are moving from 'e-Korea' to 'u-Korea," Mr. Kim noted. Having achieved a matured e-government environment, there is now a transition to so-called ubiquitous computing. "Anytime, anyplace, anyone can have access to government-to-citizen applications."

Of course, as ubiquitous computing becomes a reality, "there are many side effects. But we have to manage it. [...] There are more positive sides than negative. We have to manage it by education or policies." These side effects are related primarily to concerns about privacy and human rights. For example, a proposed national identification card that would have increased the ability of the government to monitor citizens' activities and movement had to be withdrawn due to protests. Finding a balance between efficiency and protection of rights is a central challenge in any e-government strategy.

India and e-Governance

India has made strides in several areas in the current decade. A national IT task force was established in 1998 to oversee e-government efforts. The national government passed the National E-Governance Action Plan covering the years 2003 through 2007, offering the foundation and impetus for long-term growth of e-government. Several other initiatives, acts of parliament and so forth have been enacted in recent years as well. State elections in 2004 and 2006, necessitated some revisiting of plans. Budgets for e-government projects have been increased from US$5 billion to $8 billion from 2005-2010.

State governments have also instituted e-government systems as well, but these efforts have varied from region to region. Various e-government projects around the country have been initiated to deal with unique problems to those states. In some rural areas, Public Access Internet Kiosks have been set up to allow downloading government forms and interact with government services without having to travel long distances. Projects focused on agriculture, like Project Bhoomi and Project Gyandoot, have allowed states to address specific issues and make administration more efficient as well as improve the quality of lives for the farmers there.

There are several challenges facing India in terms of e-government implementation. According to the 2008 UN E-Government Survey, India is currently ranked 54th in the world in terms of e-government readiness; Korea, by comparison is ranked sixth. While India's economy has grown considerably over the past several decades, large portions of the population remain in poverty. The country's large population, coupled with regional distinctions, poses certain problems as well. According to UNICEF statistics, India's adult literacy rate is 66 percent, meaning large portions of the population would not even be able to use online resources effectively.

India is considered an e-government leader in the developing world. Case studies from India are often cited as best practices due to the creative use of limited resources. Efforts to reduce corruption and collaboration between the public and private sectors are also strengths of India's e-government model.

According to Oleg Petrov of the Global ICT Department of the World Bank, there are still areas where India can improve its e-government experiment. The Indian private sector is very powerful and creative. Utilizing the private sector even more would allow India to significantly strengthen its e-government policies. The government also has an outdated 'silo' model in place. More horizontal integration would allow for greater efficiency and data sharing between departments and states. Finally, there is unevenness between states in terms of their e-government initiatives. Some states have sophisticated strategies and roll-outs, others are several years behind. Knowledge and solution sharing across states and nations can help alleviate this issue. Furthermore, infrastructure is weak in some areas, especially outside the major metropolitan centers.

"I visited many developing countries. [Whereas] in Korea, we often act without too much thinking, in developing countries, there is too much discussion and no action. There are many case studies now from other countries. We can see what will be the result if some action is taken," Kim explained. There are many good examples of developing countries making great strides in e-government. Vietnam and Indonesia have moved forward in many areas. Both countries have worked with Korea and with KIPA, forming MOUs and establishing joint projects together.

There is a great potential for collaboration between India and Korea in e-government development. According to Kim, there are several ways for these two nations to work together: government level MOUs; joint projects for global standard solutions like ASYCUDA (UN brand custom application) through KIPA; development staff; student scholarship exchange; leverage to SAARC & the East Asia Region; detailed studies of mutual e-government projects and best practices; IT/E-Gov conferences; online/offline magazine publications; joint study and implementation to overcome the digital divide; and the promotion of independent forums. There are significant benefits from such collaboration for both India and Korea. As India's e-governance programs expand, transparency will further reduce corruption; efficiencies will increase and thus reduce turnaround times for applications and other processes; and overall technological capacity will increase. As capacity increases, the private sector benefits as well. For Korea, collaboration with India expands markets for Korean firms, allows beneficial knowledge sharing and technology transfers and enhance Korea's prestige and 'brand' recognition.

The IT industry has a very low barrier to entry, and for poorer, developing nations that cannot afford the huge investments needed to build domestic manufacturing sectors, software and application development can be a much smaller investment with high returns. When a country begins investing in e-governance, it expands the domestic ICT capacity as well.

"Anyone who's moderately intelligent and has a laptop can produce software," Kim added.

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