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Member of the European Commission responsible for Enterprise and the Information Society
"eGovernment - Providing better public service and wider participation for citizens"
IDEA (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) Democracy Forum 2001: Democracy and the Information Revolution
Stockholm, 29 June 2001
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. What is eGovernment and for whom?
In the past decade, there has been a lot of talk of the supposed "withering away" of the state in the face of globalisation and the so-called new economy. Especially the breakthrough of information technology and the Internet have stimulated the view that the tasks of government could or even should be reduced to a minimum.
Let me make it clear: this is not my belief. I do believe we certainly must encourage entrepreneurial initiative and empowerment of citizens. Yet, I see no withering away of the state.
Rather, the state has a strong role even in the new economy in facilitating economic growth and social inclusion, which indeed go hand in hand in the new economy: only digitally literate people can reap all the benefits the information revolution can provide. That is why tackling the Digital Divide is such an important task for us all.
As a matter of fact, the information revolution can provide the governments and administrations all over the world, in the developed and developing countries alike, with better tools to empower citizens and serve them better. That's what eGovernment, or eDemocracy, should be all about.
What does eGovernment mean to us as citizens? Essentially, it is better to be online than in line in front of a government office. As one study put it in a nutshell, "Citizens can now purchase a car online, but must stand in-line to register their new vehicle".
eGovernment means using the Internet to deliver quick and interactive public services for citizens. Achieving productivity gains in the public administration. Cutting the red tape of enterprises.
But eGovernment goes beyond services. Transparent and interactive administrations bring citizens closer to government. Participation in the democratic process is stimulated.
More philosophically, this means that eGovernment includes two complementary aspects of each of us as citizens. On the one hand, we are seen as the well-informed and better-served citizen. On the other hand, we are regarded as the participative citizen.
eDemocracy is thus a natural part of the eGovernment strategy. In essence it implies putting the citizen at the heart of government.
Placing citizens and businesses at the centre in this way challenges the public sector to innovate. eGovernment is therefore a driver for change in back-offices in administrations.
What are prerequisites of a successful eGovernment policy?
If I should name one essential feature of a leading country in eGovernment (Canada or Singapore), that would be the provision of the services through a single entry point, i.e. one-stop portal.
Such a single entry portal must be constructed in a way that it caters for all the citizens' needs information, services and interaction. Basic public services should be only a few clicks away.
Perhaps the most prominent case in point of a government portal to take a non-European example for the sake of courtesy is www.canada.gc.ca, the portal of the Canadian government.
As the very pertinent study of Accenture ("eGovernment Leadership: Rhetoric vs. ReaIity Closing the Gap") maintains, the Canadian portal "provides a single gateway to a broad range of government services, based on whether the user is a citizen, business or non-Canadian". It is constructed with the intentions of the citizen in mind, and not complicated by the bureaucratic territorial borders between agencies and departments.
Indeed, when interacting with government, people should not need to understand how government is organised nor to have to go from window to window, office to office or level to level.
This requires another essential feature, that is, interoperability. It means a cross-agency approach so that the existing information systems of a government should be joined together to provide the single entry point. The prerequisite of interoperability is to dedicate the responsibility for eGovernment to one supervisory organisation. This model has served well in the leading countries, such as Canada, Singapore or Australia.
Another prerequisite for successful eGovernment is trust and confidence in interactions with the public sector. To this end security on the networks is required. As much of the information exchanged between citizens and the administration is of a personal or confidential nature (medical, financial, legal etc.), security is vital to ensuring successful uptake.
This is not only a matter of procuring encryption products and other secure information technology systems, but to develop a culture of security in the organisation. For instance:
Finally, a fundamental aspect of eGovernment is access of all to online government. This includes providing appropriate services for disadvantaged groups and bridging the Digital Divide, to which I shall return later on in my intervention.
In sum, a successful eGovernment will increasingly become an everyday matter for citizens. By providing public services online, it will encourage people who might not otherwise use the Internet.
2. eEurope and eGovernment
Where does Europe stand in eGovernment? After having been slow to react to the potential of the Internet, the EU member states are intensifying their eGovernment efforts.
There are differences in starting points, especially as regards Internet penetration although it is increasing fast, on average from 18% to 28% in just six months from March to October 2000.
Policy targets are defined and the supply of online services is increased. Comprehensive government sites are set up. However, progress in the EU is uneven. Unfortunately, too often we must say that we are "broad in vision, short in action".
When discussing eGovernment, it is important to look beyond only the front-office supply of services. Firstly, back-offices should be reorganised so services can be delivered efficiently and speedily with only one interface for the citizen.
Moreover, eGovernment should be used to make public services simpler. For instance, in the case of a tax declaration, this would mean that the relevant information held by the public authorities would be already entered into the declaration form.
Let me cite best practices of eGovernment applications:
Citizens' portal in the UK
The www.ukonline.gov.uk/online/ukonline/welcome has several user friendly and innovative features: a life episodes directory for access to regulatory information and public web sites, a Citizen Space which allows the citizen to take part in the government's decision making process. The site can be customised to an individual citizen: the choice of earlier visits can be saved.
Taxes online in Spain
Spain has an online system for declaration, submission, transaction and payment of income and property taxes (Presentación de declaraciones y transacciones personalizadas, www.aeat.es). This makes it possible to make a complete declaration of different taxes, for example personal income tax, online. All necessary forms are available online and personalised authentication certificates are issued to guarantee the transmission security. These services are available only in Spanish.
Company reporting in Finland
Company reporting to the authorities in Finland, www.tyvi.elma.net. The system is for the companies' reporting to the authorities (tax, customs, business register, statistical office etc.) The system is based on mediating operators between companies and authorities. More than 10% of companies use this system for VAT reporting and 20 to 30% of employers' annual reports come via the service. Such a service alleviates the administrative burden on companies and frees resources.
What is the role of EU in eGovernment? Why is the EU engaged?
Reaping the benefits of the Information Society for Europe has been at the top of the EU's agenda since the "dot.com Summit" in Lisbon in March 2000. eGovernment is one of the key action lines of the EU's eEurope2002 Action Plan, endorsed by the heads of State and Government of the Member States in June 2000.
The main eEurope targets for eGovernment are the following:
In the context of its overall management reform and eCommission enterprise, the Commission has set ambitious targets for putting its activities online, both as to the front office and the back office.
For the Commission as a politically accountable body, this means also a commitment to openness and better participation in the decision-making. A good example is open online consultation conducted in the context of the Telecom Review 1999 process, or the overhaul of the telecommunications legislation in Europe.
Throughout the preparatory process of this major policy initiative, stakeholders were consulted via the Internet. The Comission's policy orientation and draft Directives were posted on the Web, stakeholders' comments were submitted by e-mail and put on the Web site. This reciprocal, two-way transparency ensured an open and efficient way to devise this important policy revision.
How, then, does Europe plan to move forward? To realise these common goals, an open method of co-ordination is applied. The responsibility for the policies lies with the Member States. However, progress towards the common targets can be reached with benchmarking at European level, with a structured exchange of best practices. In this way, a transparency of policies is assured, promoting mutual learning and peer pressure.
Progress in bringing these services online will be measured by the degree of service maturity, benchmarked in three stages:
Information: The first stage means providing mere information of government services through the government web-site;
Interaction: The second stage requires (one- or two-way) interaction with government services, including authentication;
Transaction: The third stage equals to full online transaction, including delivery of a service and, where relevant, payment.
To promote eGovernment and present the state-of-the-art of online public services applications, the Commission will, with the upcoming Belgian Presidency, organise a conference in Brussels on 29-30 November 2001. Its objective will be to
To illustrate where the Europe stands on eGovernment, the first results of the eEurope benchmarking of public services online will be presented at the conference.
3. Bridging the Digital Divide
As I said earlier, one essential feature of a genuine eGovernment is to bridge the Digital Divide. I had the joy and honour to participate in an Advisory Group on Digital Divide to the UN Secretary-General earlier this year. In our report we said:
New information and communications technologies are creating a new economy and a new global society. The challenge before us is to enable the currently excluded 4 billion of the world's population to participate in and benefit from the information revolution.
Indeed, access to information technology and the Internet plays a crucial role in facilitating access to information, which in turn is a key step along the road to empowerment and development.
Increasingly, ICTs are being used to create electronic - and non-electronic - networks for lobbying, information sharing, the sharing of best practice and for strengthening the voice of civil society and the poor. Electronic networks such as the Internet have radically altered the manner in which NGOs engage with the international community. The constraints of distance are overcome and development practitioners from the South are becoming increasingly vocal in global policy debates.
Of course, the Internet cannot, by itself, bring roads, bridges, electricity or water into villages and low-income urban areas, but it can empower the people in these areas to demand such things more effectively, and to enable people to generate the income to pay for them. The constraints of distance can be overcome and development views from the developing countries themselves can now be heard in global policy debates.
Nevertheless, the exploitation of new technologies and their potential for poverty reduction should go hand in hand with a full a understanding of the social impacts that they generate.
4. Essentials of eGovernment
To sum up, much work remains until the full benefits of eGovernment can be brought to citizens and businesses. The needs of the citizens should always be at the centre, not technology nor the needs of administrations. The essentials of eGovernment, and thus the basis for EU work on Information Society and eGovernment is that our policies should be:
More information about eEurope and eGovernment can be found on the web.