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E-governance

Great opportunities

by Maja Bott, Bianca Clausen

In depth

Thanks to information and communication technology, Ghana could boost customs revenues substantially.  has allo

Thanks to information and communication technology, Ghana could boost customs revenues substantially. has allo

More and more people in developing countries and emerging markets use mobile phones and computers. This trend opens up new possibilities for improving governance. State agencies can use online platforms to foster democracy, transparency and citizens' participation.

Experts have long understood that poor governance is an important obstacle to development. The report by the UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the post-2015 development agenda acknowledges this fact. One of the goals it states is to “ensure good governance and effective institutions”. Accordingly, good governance will probably move even more into the focus of international development efforts. 

Now is the right time to pay good governance the attention it deserves. In developing and emerging markets, more and more people have access to information and communication technologies (ICT) – especially to mobile phones.

According to the World Bank, three fourths of the world population now use mobile phones. Enhanced mobile connectivity is driving dramatic changes in business and society particularly in developing countries (note essays on pages 67, 70, 72 and 74).

The mobile revolution allows countries to leapfrog traditional stages of development. Mobile phones and social media open up entirely new ways for civil society to organise, process information and participate in politics. New technologies fuelled the so-called “Facebook Revolutions” of the Arab spring (see essay on p. 58). They also helped non-governmental organisations and local people raise emergency aid in Haiti.

Digitalisation has increased citizens’ expectations of their governments. People are now calling for greater transparency and accountability. They want to participate in public life and demand better services from government agencies. Information about political decisions or spending by local or national governments can easily be made available online, allowing citizens the opportunity to comment by e-mail or text messages.

Governance that is supported by electronic devices is referred to as electronic governance, or e-governance for short. It offers a variety of possibilities to significantly increase the efficiency and performance of public administrations. Such options serve to promote development in poor countries. Thanks to e-governance, state agencies can reduce the cost of providing public services. Accordingly, they can expand and improve services for citizens (especially the poor), but also for businesses in the long term. When standard procedures are automated, for instance, many of the opportunities some civil servants exploit for petty corruption can be eliminated.

 

Fighting red tape and corruption

In 2000, Ghana introduced an integrated customs clearing portal, which increased efficiency by significantly reducing turnaround times and bureaucracy. The digitised system automated the interaction between trading companies, the customs authority and all other relevant parties. An unexpected result of this innovation was that Ghana managed to increase its customs revenue by about 50 % in the first year after the portal was introduced. Revenue increased by an annual average of about 23 % in subsequent years. Today, the portal is used not only by customs and port authorities, but also by commercial banks, the Central Bank of Ghana, shipping and air cargo companies as well as other players in the import and export business.

Similarly, e-governance can make an important contribution to decentralisation, land registry systems or the electronic introduction of social insurance. Moreover, there are benefits for credit bureaus and public registries: India is currently implementing the largest voluntary biometric identification programme in the world: over the next few years, all of the country’s 1.2 billion citizens will be able to obtain a personal, universally-accepted identification card (ID). 400 million people are already using the new IDs. Apart from information like the card holder’s name and date of birth, the IDs also contain three biometric identifiers: a photo, an iris scan and fingerprints.

In the future, the IDs will allow India’s citizens to exercise their civil rights better and access public and private services more easily. Thanks to this programme, many people will be able to uniquely identify themselves for the first time, which is particularly important to India’s poor. In the past, a large number of people were denied access to social services because they could not supply adequate identification for authorities to verify their eligibility (see Ipsita Basu in D+C/E+Z 2013/11, p. 410).

Moreover, e-governance has a great potential for increasing government transparency, improving accountability and fighting corruption. Brazil offers an impressive example. During her 2010 campaign, President Dilma Rousseff vowed to battle corruption. In May 2012, she passed a law that requires the salaries of all public employees to be disclosed. A month later, the new transparency portal http://www.portaltransparencia.gov.br published the earnings of approximately 700,000 civil servants who work for Brazil’s Federal Government.

The data were astonishing: 88 % of public-sector employees earn more than people working in the private sector. While physicians earn less than € 1,000 per month on average, the starting salary for attorneys working in the Senate is over € 7,400. With a salary of approximately € 6,200 per month, President Rousseff earns slightly more than a municipal nurse in the city of São Paulo, whose monthly take-home pay of € 5,700 is 12 times higher than that of a comparable job in the private sector.

The disclosure of such enormous discrepancies significantly increased pressure for greater transparency in other areas of the public sector as well. Brazil’s citizens are very interested in this kind of information. In its first month of operation, the web portal received over 10,000 requests for information from citizens, and the web service could answer about 70 % of those queries.

 

More public participation

E-governance enables the state to respond better to citizens’ needs and increase people’s satisfaction with government services. In addition, the people can participate directly in governmental decision making and public service delivery. Mobile phones and computers allow citizens to be much more involved in the planning, review and evaluation of public services and infrastructure projects.

“Crowdsourcing” is an internet-based method of directly involving citizens in the provision of services. This approach improves government efficiency particularly in countries with weak administrative structures. For instance, the Kenyan NGO Ushahidi has developed a technology that enables citizens to conduct a “live mapping” of crisis situations. It can also be used for monitoring elections and other public and private activities. People use their mobile phones to send relevant information to a central online platform.

Citizen initiatives use crowdsourcing to monitor elections, fight corruption and even control street traffic. Ahead of Egypt’s 2012 presidential election, initiators taught 15 trainers and 75 coordinators how to use crowdsourcing software. The trainers then passed on their knowledge to 2,200 voluntary election monitors, who sent in over 17,000 reports and 25,000 brief news items from all over Egypt during the election. These reports were immediately and automatically published to an interactive map (http://www.egyelections.org/english/).

In the aftermath of the Arab spring, private initiatives began using direct reporting from citizens to replace information services that were previously provided by the state. In Cairo, for instance, the traffic police suddenly stopped working in early 2011, which led to longer and longer traffic jams. In response, drivers began regulating the flow of traffic themselves. They still rely on the app Wasalny (www.wasalny.com), which shows drivers their optimal route in regard to current traffic conditions on Cairo’s main corridors. At any given moment, the best routes are automatically calculated based on data supplied by drivers.

Wasalny actually does more than simply monitor government activity in real time, as is needed for election monitoring. Wasalny allows a large number of citizens to actively provide an everyday service that was once the responsibility of the state. As of December 2013, Wasalny had received 1.6 million reports.

In order to promote political devolution in Togo and Rwanda, the KfW development bank is currently designing and supporting pilot programmes that will allow citizens and municipal administrations to communicate directly with each other. The idea is to enable citizens to send text messages to a web platform to report problems like damaged schools, roads and water pumps or cases of corruption. They can also make their own suggestions for improvement. The messages will be collected in a database, validated and published. Representatives from government authorities will publicly respond to the reports in interactive radio shows, among other communication channels.

By allowing citizens to directly observe government agencies’ actions, the programme will exert public pressure for improved governance at all levels. In Togo, the experience made in pilot tests was promising (see KfW supplement in D+C 2014/01, p. 6)

 

Risks of e-governance

Though electronic governance has great potential, there are also risks. E-governance projects can only be successful if the partner government assumes responsible ownership and competent leadership at the highest level. Another issue is that many citizens do not have access to information and communications technology beyond simple cell phones. The so-called “digital divide” can prove hard to bridge, especially where the poor only have simple mobile phones, but lack more advanced digital devices. In such settings, they may fast become unheard.

Questions about IT security, data protection, privacy, freedom of expression and democratic oversight must also be considered during the set-up and use of electronic systems. For good reason, data security and civil rights are controversial issues regarding the new IDs among India’s civil-society activists. The same systems that facilitate citizen participation and access to information could potentially also be used to manipulate public opinion and control the people, if the above challenges are not met.

If, however, e-governance is applied in a systematically and democratically controlled manner, the approach can boost poor countries’ governmental performance. The poor in particular are likely to benefit from better and more equal access to basic government services.  

Maja Bott works for the KfW Development Bank in Frankfurt. [email protected]

Bianca Clausen also works for KfW in Frankfurt. [email protected]