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Central Government, Digital Inclusion, Policy

UN defends relevance of e-government rankings

The United Nations has refuted suggestions that its E-government Survey has lost relevance in an era of increasingly diverse e-government ecosystems. The survey’s director, Haiyan Qian, told FutureGov that the rankings continue to serve as a guide to more efficient, open and transparent governance, and help public sector modernisers “put money in the right places” and avoid commonly made mistakes.

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“The way of doing things may vary from country to country, but the principles of e-government are the same,” said Haiyan Qian, Director, Division for Public Administration and Development Management, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which produces the survey. “Reducing cost and improving efficiency, transparency and accountability with services that are inclusive. Those that follow these principles do well in our rankings.”

In a recent interview with FutureGov, Dr Leong Mun Kew, Chief Technology Officer and Deputy Chief Information Officer of Singapore’s National Library Board, said that while rankings were useful in the early stages of e-government to see who was top and copy them, e-government models are now so complex that league tables are no longer comparing “apples with apples”.

Qian said that the survey aims to provide a global view of how governments are using ICT to improve public service delivery based on best practice and lessons learned, and is not about rankings per se. “Of course we draw some conclusions on the positive and negative of e-government systems, but the main purpose of the survey is to alert countries to areas where they can improve, and avoid repeating mistakes others have made. In a time of economic crisis, this is particularly important.”

“We are not telling countries what they should do,” she added. “They know their own challenges, priorities and constraints. But it is useful for them to know what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

There were mixed fortunes for Asian countries in the 2010 UN E-Government Survey, which haven’t fared well in UN surveys historically. Korea was the star performer, climbing six places on the last ranking in 2008 to top the table. Singapore rose 12 positions into 11th, and Bahrain jumped from 42nd to 13th. Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia held respectable positions. However, Japan, China, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and, most spectacularly, Pakistan, all fell in the rankings.

Qian said that while the region [Asia] fared well overall, issues of complexity in Asia’s biggest countries have slowed progress. Large, developing countries such as India, China, Indonesia and Pakistan embraced e-government late, and it is taking them longer to catch up. “It is the tortoise and the hare scenario,” she said. “It is not that these countries aren’t progressing. It’s just that others are progressing faster.”

China was one country that has struggled to provide inclusive services in its hurry to embrace e-government, said Qian. “The [China] government promotes lots of policies and services, but it can take time for them to perculate from central to local government level to reach those who really need them. In some cities, such as Shanghai and Bejing, e-government is very advanced. Other parts of the country are working hard to catch up. If such efforts continue, I am sure positive results will follow in years to come.”

While Qian noted that much progress has been made in Asia since the survey started seven years ago, there was still much to do to bridge the gap between government and citizens. “It is sometimes still the case that ICT is seen as a threat - that if government systems are too transparent, they can be too closely monitored. Which is why without strong leadership, ICT can too easily be sidelined,” she said.

Those leaders that see ICT as opportunities, empower themselves with the tools to bridge the gap and build trust with their citizens by reaching out and listening to them more often, so as to make public policies and deliver services better customised to their citizens’ needs.”

International cooperation is key to pushing e-government ahead on a global level, Qian concluded. “Countries like Singapore and Korea have been good at sharing their e-government experiences and raising the bar beyond their borders. I hope others follow suit.”

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