Boosting "digital democracy" throughout the world

Boosting "digital democracy" throughout the world

A conference in Brussels was told that the “digitilization” of public services can help bridge the “digital divide”. The meeting heard that some people are still mistrustful of so-called “e-government” services, preferring personal contact when filling in forms and carrying out other formalities.

However, the success of some schemes designed to promote “digitilization” of services could help make public administration more efficient and transparent, it was said.

Francesco Grillo, of the leading Italian think tank “Vision”, told the conference, “There is enormous potential for this and it is something all governments should consider.”

The meeting, organised by le Centre d’Informatique pour la Région Bruxelloise (CIRB), was presented with the findings of an in-depth study by Vision into current e-Government schemes throughout Europe.

The World Bank defines ‘e-Government’ as “the use by government agencies of information technologies that have the ability to transform relations with citizens, businesses, and other arms of government.”

It says “These technologies can serve a variety of different ends: better delivery of government services to citizens, improved interactions with business and industry, citizen empowerment through access to information, or more efficient government management.”

However, the conference was told that the ability to use technological means in public administration and in the delivery of public services is “not yet consolidated” and “it seems that in Europe “ICT has lost some of its steam.”

The report drafted by Vision , an independent charity, goes on, “At the same time, the sentiment of mistrust in public institutions throughout Europe has been dramatically increasing in recent years.”

The European Commission has said that 38% of the EU-28 population is defined as ‘non-believer’, that is, those with a “systematic distrust” of the public administrative structure, which has "failed in delivering efficient and transparent public services to the citizens."

The conference heard,however, that one example of “good practice” is a pioneering scheme in Azerbaijan where an e-Government scheme has proved a huge success with the local population.

It was said that the “Azerbaijani State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovations” (ASAN) initiative has “served as a very successful tool to increase the transparency of public administration and the efficiency of public services delivery.”

As part of the scheme, introduced in 2012, there are nine “one stop” centres in the country delivering a whole range of public services from financial advice to information about renewing a driving licence or ID card.

It includes a “mobile service” which has benefited more than 135,000 citizens,many in outlying areas, up to now.

The conference was told that the one-stop-shop ASAN scheme “simplifies, streamlines, speeds up and opens up” public services ranging from passport renewals to tax inquires and company set-ups.

The ASAN scheme has also been commended by several international organisations, including the OECD and the European Commission, which recognised its importance ‘as a visible measure against corruption and to increase transparency.’

Today, nine ASAN centres operate in the Baku region and its surroundings and more than 4 million citizens have taken advantage of around 240 types of public services provided in them.

The report said, “What’s even more impressive is the fact that the time of average service delivery at these centers was estimated at 11 minutes.

Azad Jafarli, director of international relations for ASAN, said, “The introduction of more efficient measures in delivering public services not only helps to increase trust in the public administration but it also reduce economic costs through modernisation of delivery methods."

To tackle the relative underdevelopment of e-Government services in Europe and also reinvigorate the EU economy by increased use of such digital technologies, the workshop heard that the European Commission has created the so-called European Digital Agenda, one of the seven initiatives contained in the Strategy Europe 2020.

Efficient use of e-Government is among these targets and is gauged in the Digital Agenda Scoreboard on e-Government published by the Commission in 2014.

The objective of the Agenda is to ensure that half of the population (50%) will be able to use e-Government and 25% of population will be able to return forms electronically by 2015.

In 2013, the percentage of the population in Europe using e-Government had reached 41.5%, down from 44% in 2012.

Only 9 out of 28 countries (Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, France, Lithuania, Austria, Slovenia and Belgium) are currently above the 2015 target of 50%.

In Romania, Italy Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, online services are used by less than a quarter of the population.

In Italy, Poland, Germany and the UK, the Vision report says a “very slow change or even a decrease” in the usage of e-Government has been registered during the last year.

The conclusion of the Digital Agenda Scoreboard of 2013 on the use of e-Government in European countries says that “e-Government take-up by citizens is growing more slowly than any other online applications and is indeed stagnating in a number of countries.

“Clearly, neither the potential savings in administration costs nor the potential benefits to citizens are fully exploited.”

The Vision report said that the first 17 world e-Government development leaders are also among the top 20 less corrupt countries (Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden and Norway occupy the highest positions in both.

“Thus, the general trend shows that there is a negative correlation between e-Government development and the level of corruption,” it concludes.

The comments are broadly echoed by Kamran Agasi, director of the innovation centre at ASAN, who said that many in his country now leaned “naturally” towards the services it provides.

“We do not pretend that it is a solution for everything but it has become so successful, a hub if you like, that we are now taking on board other services, such as public utilities, mobile phone companies and even tourism services.”

Vision also looked at e-Government usage in other countries, including the UK and Italy.

It says that the level of e-Government is “more developed, more widely used and more available” in the UK than in Italy.

In 2013, it said 21% of Italians made use of the Internet for e-Government services. This shows an increase from the 19% in 2012 but it still remains much below the EU average of 41%. 10% of citizens submitted completed forms; up from 8% in 2012 but considerably below the EU average.

On the other side, the British results are “at square” with the EU average.

“In fact, in the UK, the percentage of citizens who used e-Government services and of citizens who sent filled forms in 2013 (41 and 22, respectively) is distinctly close to the EU average (41 and 21, respectively).”

By Martin Banks

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