South Korea has led the world in how governments have used ICT to give citizens and businesses better access to public services during the economic downturn, according to a United Nations survey. Korea edged out the United States in the 2010 UN E-Government rankings, marking the first time an Asian country has topped the bi-annual table.
The survey, which was completed in December 2009, charted the role e-government has played in increasing public trust, boosting transparency through the free sharing of government data, and speeding up public service delivery and regulatory reform at a time of economic crisis.
Korea rose five places on the last rankings, in 2008, ending the dominance of Scandinavian countries. Denmark and Norway, second and third, respectively, in 2008, fell to fifth and sixth. Sweden, top in 2008, fell out of the top 10 altogether.
Yoon-seok Ko, Senior Researcher at the government of Korea’s e-Government Department, outlined a few of the reasons for Korea’s e-government successes to FutureGov: “One is that we have focused on finding out better ways to improve citizen participation. For instance, the Korean government launched an information disclosure system, which shares administrative information on citizens’ claims, and the e-People system, which handles citizens’ complaints against the government.”
“Second, we have put a lot of effort into building international collaboration. The e-government paradigm changes so fast that one country cannot cover or adopt all new technologies as they emerge. So the Korean government uses international collaboration with other countries, both advanced and advancing nations, as one of the best tools to figure out which new technologies need to be adopted and what policies the government needs to work on.”
Australia was the only other country in Asia Pacific to feature in the UN’s ‘Development’ table, which measures “the capacity and the willingness of the public sector to deploy ICT for improving knowledge and information in the service of the citizen.”
However, New Zealand, Japan and Singapore also joined Korea and Australia in the UN’s ‘E-Participation’ chart, which gauges how well a country improves a citizen’s access to information and public services.
The report noted that since the last edition of the survey, in 2008, governments have made “great strides” in developing online services, especially in middle-income countries. And although the cost of telecommunications infrastructure and staffing continue to hamstring e-government progress, “effective strategies and legal frameworks can compensate, even in the least developed countries.”
“Those that are able to harness the potential of expanded broadband access in developed regions and mobile cellular networks in developing countries to advance the UN development agenda have much to gain going forward,” the report read.
Asian countries have traditionally fared worse in the UN survey than they have in the other three most widely cited e-government reports. The UN report uses information outreach, access and usability, service delivery capability and citizen participation as the core of its methodology, and only Australia, South Korea and Singapore have featured in the top ten since survey began.
Singapore, which topped the Waseda University International e-Government Ranking in 2009, was last in the UN top ten in 2004. The citystate just missed out in the 2010 table, coming eleventh.
The Waseda University table, dubbed the “Asian perspective” on e-government, focuses on a country’s network preparedness, interface-functioning applications, management optimisation, national portal, how e-government is promoted and whether or not there are CIOs in government.
Last year, Singapore became the first country to rank top in five of the seven years of the survey. Also featuring were Japan (in fifth), Korea (sixth), and Taiwan (eighth).
Asian countries have also performed well in the Brown University Global E-Government Survey, which rates government web sites for disability access, existence of publications and databases, privacy and security policies, contact information, and the number of online services.
In the last ranking, three of the top five spots were taken by Asia; South Korea, which topped the table, Taiwan and Singapore.
E-government rankings have been subject to criticism in recent years. Detractors have pointed out that as e-government activity grows over time, the key issues – and, hence, the demand for benchmarking data – change, so such tables are increasingly redundant.
Dr Leong Mun Kew, Chief Technology Officer and Deputy Chief Information Officer of Singapore’s National Library Board, told FutureGov: “In the early stages of e-government, it was useful to see who’s at the top and why, and copy them. But as things develop, and become more sophisticated, a single index not only abstracts but starts to conceal important information.”
Consultancy firm Accenture shelved its annual global e-government rankings in 2006. Antoine Brugidou, Global Managing Director, Public Service, Growth & Strategy, told FutureGov that e-government is no longer a reliable way to measure the effectiveness of the public sector.
“We felt that the rankings had lost their meaning. We were measuring quantitative data – the number of services online and the performance of that service, which was effective at the beginning of e-government. But comparisons became more complex as e-government evolved and matured in different countries.”
These differences are being exacerbated by the economic downturn, Brugidou added. “Government is being asked to do more with less. Yes e-government will help. But there is now more emphasis on process re-engineering, mergers of agencies and the performance of the public service.”
For this reason, Accenture reworked its eGovernment Leadership ranking into a new index that focused on citizen expectations of public governance. “There is still a lot of social sensitivity around. Government is having to react to that. So we created a survey that focuses on public service outcomes, engagement and accountability.”
Laurence Millar, FutureGov’s Editor-at-Large and the former Government CIO of New Zealand, noted that the methodologies of all the surveys face challenges. “It is not helpful to focus on the detailed rankings. It is like the Tour de France, with a number of countries in the peloton, pulling each other forward and moving together.”
“I have always looked at the top 20 – the leading bunch of countries – and all the countries I would expect to be there [in the UN ranking] are present.”
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