China’s e-government infrastructure, which is growing at a similarly brisk rate, is falling behind in its capacity to ensure that all Chinese enjoy the fruits of e-government.
In the recent United Nations E-Government Survey 2010, China dropped seven places from the last rankings in 2008, despite the central government having spent billions on e-government projects over the last two years. In an interview with FutureGov, Haiyan Qian, the UN’s Director, Division for Public Administration and Development Management, singled China out as a country that has struggled to provide inclusive services in its hurry to embrace e-government.
She said that although the Chinese government promotes lots of policies and services, it takes time for them to work their way through from central to local government level, and to those who are supposed to benefit from them.
China has, probably more so than any country in the world, an opportunity to use ICT to involve its most far flung citizens, from the farmer in Hunan Province to the cockle-picker in Hainan Province. Qian points out that China’s efforts to expand its e-government infrastructure are commendable, but more can be done to ensure that more people have access to the flurry of government services that have sprung up online - or are given new ways (such as mobile) to access and use them.
Yes, let’s not forget that China is probably the country in which making e-government work is more difficult than anywhere. But this should not be used as an excuse for slow development.
Wang Feng-Ming, Deputy Secretary-General of Municipal Government of the northeastern Chinese city of Hengshui, told me that e-government initiatives have the habit of creating “digital islands” because only some cities benefit from, and know how to make use of, opportunities created by e-government initiatives devised by the central government.
This does not only lead to economic and social inequalities in China’s urban landscape, but also its rural areas. Farmers and countryfolk are only just beginning to feel a flavour of a digital age that has passed most of them by in the decade since e-government began in China. ICT can warn farmers of bad weather, give them intelligence on market prices and keep them up to date with the latest farming technology.
In this regard, China would do well to examine how its great rival, India, is faring in its efforts to close the digital divide in the countryside. No, India didn’t do particularly well in the UN E-Government Survey either (dropping six places into 119th; China is ranked 72nd). But that was for its efforts between 2008 and December 2009. India’s ‘e-Panchayat’ project will see close to a billion US dollars spent on improving service delivery at a local level in 2010.
A similarly large amount will be pumped into e-governance projects in China in 2010. Here’s to hoping that China’s e-government adventures in the year of the Tiger bring benefits to all, not just the fortuitous few.
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