An African proverb admonishes us that: “Whenever the rhythm of the drum beats changes, you must change the dance movement accordingly.”
It is no longer privileged knowledge that Information and Communication Technology has launched the entire globe into what is now known as the e-world-meaning electronic world. Today Governments the world over are somersaulting to reinvent and re-engineer governance so as to be more effective, efficient and transparent in the provision of information, goods and services to their citizens electronically.
Fortunately Ghana has already started dancing to the tune of the technological music because government has laid the foundation for e-government by establishing the government of Ghana website popularly referred to as Ghana Portal which is being managed by the Information Services Department of the Ministry of Information in Accra. Government has also established the Ghana-India Kofi Anan IT Centre of Excellence and above all, Ghana has formulated an Information Communication Technology framework for accelerated development, being spearheaded by the Ministry of Communications.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the practicability, accessibility and usability of e-government services by citizens, Ghana still has some mountains to climb and some rivers and lagoons to wade through. It is against this backdrop that this writer deems it relevant to share the Singapore e-government experience with fellow Ghanaians. But, even before shedding some light on e-government strategies and implementations in Singapore, it may be necessary to explain what e-government is in the first place.
On Saturday July 31 this year, at the Johannesburg Airport in South Africa, this writer came across a group of Ghanaians on their way to Zimbabwe to take part in a book fair in that country. Then in a chart with one of them, where it was revealed that I was on my way from Singapore where I underwent a short training course in e-government, my interlocutor exclaimed:
‘Eeeee-Government!’ “What is that animal, too?” he virtually shouted unconsciously.
As a matter of fact, my friend confessed that, he was hearing for the first time the term e-government. Later when we parted company and he went to Zimbabwe and I was airborne to Ghana, I started debating with my inner self: “If this man, well-educated, living in the capital city of Accra, participating in an international event such as a book fair, has not yet heard of the term e-government until then, then what happens to the majority of uneducated and less fortunate brothers and sisters dwelling in deprived rural communities of the country?
Because we are living in a world of Knowledge Management (KM) and Experience Sharing, I cannot claim to be an expert in this field, but the little I know about e-government must be shared with others for the benefit of all who care to know; for the advancement of mankind and to the glory of the Divine Intelligence or the First Giver of knowledge itself.
The question is: What is E-government? The United Nations defines e-Government as “Permanent commitment by government to improve the relationship between the private citizen and the public sector through enhanced, cost-effective and efficient delivery of services, information and knowledge.” It went further to explain that there are five categories of measuring a country’s “e-gov” progress in terms of Web Presence. This includes: Emerging – Enhanced – Interactive – Transactional and Fully Integrated. All UN member states have been called upon and encouraged to embark on this e-government project and programme.
Accordingly the world body has a way of assessing the progress of each country in this regard. Significantly in the UN Report for this year on e-government globally, Singapore, a small Island City State of Land- Area of 697.1sq km with a population of 4.185 million souls is sharing the 2nd position with the mighty United States of America with Canada comfortably sitting on top of all.
How did Singapore make it to the top of e-government league table of the world? What strategies and policies were put in place; when and how did that country achieve such a technological feat over and above the super powers of this planet of economic inequalities?
Singapore set off on its e-government journey as far back as about 25 years ago. In 1981, Singapore embarked upon a computerization programme of the government machinery. It first established a National Computer Board and National Computerisation Plan. The Plan was to ensure a systematic growth of local IT industry; Development of IT manpower pool; Civil Service Computerisation Plan and the production of 850 IT Professionals.
National IT Plan
After the Computerisation programme, the Singapore government embarked upon what was referred to as the National IT Plan. The National IT Plan initiated what was known as the Beginnings of Computing Communications Convergence. It also constituted what was dubbed Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), which was basically aimed at bridging Government and industry. This plan took place in 1986 that is five years or so after the Computerisation Programme.
IT 2000 Blueprint for Intelligence Island
This Blueprint strategy that also started over five years after theNational IT Plan in 1992 was to effect what was called Flagship Projects on the Singapore Island. It had the objectives to create an electronic network linking all libraries in that country; secure infrastructure for e-commerce; Expert system for checking all building plans in the country and above all to establish Singapore ONE, that is, to create one network for everyone in Singapore. It was this strategy that shot Singapore up to the position of the world’s first nationwide broadband infrastructure nation in the e-world.
The next step Singapore took, after attaining a nationwide broadband infrastructure, was to launch what was dubbed Infocomm 2001. This project was launched in year 2000 and aimed at developing Singapore into a vibrant and dynamic global information communication capital, with a thriving and prosperous e-Economy, and a pervasive and “Infocomm-savvy” e-Society and full telecom liberalisation in that country.
In 2003, Singapore government launched the final onslaughts on its e-government programme by establishing what was simply known as Connected Singapore. This strategy was to unleash the potential for the total realisation of all e-government possibilities through the Info comm project of the country.
Briefly, the preceding steps known in Singapore as the five (5) National Strategic ICT Plans give us an overview of the method Singapore adopted to become the 2nd e-Nation in the e-World today behind Canada. The Singapore government has a philosophy that: “Whatever services that can be delivered electronically must be delivered electronically” Period.
Another African proverb reminds us that, “If your tormentor who is running after you does not stop, you, too, must not stop running.” As long as Ghana remains a developing country, Ghanaians must not stop fighting to develop and progress.
In the first part of this article the definition of e-Government according to the United Nations was provided. Singapore government used the UN definition of e-Government as a guide, but simplified it for easy understanding by ordinary person in the street.
According to Singapore, e-Government is the use of technology toenhance the access to and delivery of government services to benefit citizens and businesses. It pointed out that the beneficiaries of e- Government include the government itself, businesses and the citizens of the country concerned.
How did the Singapore Government use technology to enhance access to and delivery of government information and services to the people? E-Government Action Plan II (2003-2006) In order to achieve its stated goals the Singapore government formulated an action plan known as e-Government Action Plan II for the year 2003 to 2006.The vision of the Government was to be a leading e- Government to better serve the nation in the digital economy.
The objective of this Plan was to ensure “a Networked Governmentthat delivers accessible, integrated, value-added e-services to our customers; and helps bring citizens closer together”. A slogan was developed thus: e-Government- Delighting Customers, Connecting Citizens.
What are some of the services that the Singapore Government provides for its customers who are the citizens of the country? Even before we touch on some of the services provided online, shall we find out why Singapore government came to the realization that the beneficiaries of e-Government include Government, businesses and citizens?
It is important to note that within the scope of e-Government, there are several categories that fit into the broad definition of e-Government. For example, e-Government constitutes: A Government- to-Citizens (G2C); B- Government-to-Business (G2B); C- Government-to-Employees (G2E); and eventually D-Government to- Government (G2G).
G2C: Government-to-Citizens, according to experts, includes all the interactions between a government and its citizens that can take place electronically. The objective of G2C is to offer citizens faster, more responsive, more convenient and less complicated means to public services.
G2B: In the case of Government-to-Business, it refers to e-commerce in which government sells to businesses or provides them with services, as well as businesses selling products and services to government. Again the objective of G2B is to enable businesses to interact, transact and communicate with government online, with greater speed and convenience.
G2E: Government-to-Employees includes activities and services between government units and their employees. As the term implies, the objective of G2E is to develop and cultivate IT capabilities among government employees to deliver efficient and cost-effective services.
G2G: Interestingly, Government-to-Government seems to have dual significance. One, G2G is said to consist of activities between government and other Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of the same government.
The other meaning of G2G is a situation in which Governments have to deal with their other counterpart governments of different countries. This second G2G in the opinion of experts is anchored on trust and interdependence, which allows for information sharing among governments on regional, sub-regional and international issues.
For example, the control of terrorism; the management of cross border diseases like SARS, which occurred in Asia some time ago or even HIV/AIDS. This G2G also has to do with common economic challenges as well as ethnic wars and conflicts problems facing West African States for instance. For Singapore government to achieve the enviable e-Government status through effective online services delivery to its citizens, certain strategies were again adopted:
I) E-Government Infrastructure
The government put in place a National Information Infrastructure as backbone for e-government services delivery. This strategy was christened Public Service Infrastructure (PSI) in Singapore.
Government itself provided Internet access points in convenient places such as public libraries, shopping malls, government offices, hospitals, subway stations and clubs and relevant public places for the citizens to use free of charge.
Here, the Government provided computers, servers, networks (broadband and wireless), mobile devices, smart cards as well as technology standards that are open and scalable such as Java, XML, Web services.
Under this the government provided E-Government ID and Password for all its citizens. It made it easier for very citizen to know how to log online and access Government information and services.
II) E-Government Legislation &Policy
Having put in place the necessary infrastructure for the e-government services to the citizens, the next strategy the Singapore government adopted was the enactment of relevant rules and regulations and policies that govern the implementation of the programme.
Some of the major regulations were meant to safeguard privacy and information security; data protection, data privacy, computer misuse, legal recognition of electronic transactions, official control of cryptography, security audits and well as standards and certification of security practices. Singapore’s legislation and code of practice include Computer Misuse Act; Electronic Transaction Act, which was enacted in 1998, tried to define the rights and obligations of transaction parties, and also provided legal status on the use of electronic records and signature. The Government also provided data Protection Code.
III) E-Government Services
After putting in place ICT infrastructure and legislation and policy the government then developed a website called E-Citizen Portal. This website was to enable citizens to ask questions and receive answers. Specific electronic services deliveries are provided on this site.
Some of the services on this website include payment of taxes and fines; Issuance and renewal of driver’s licenses; Helping citizens find employment; National campaigns and awareness creation on social services such health and education; Introduction of Internet and IT training courses; e-learning and smart card in schools. So computer literacy started right from the primary school in Singapore etc.
In the poor and rural communities, the government provided free computers and Internet access points and posted officers who know how to operate the equipment to assist the illiterates to benefit from the online services.
In fact, in Singapore today some services like the issuing of Passports and Birth Certificates, you have to sit in the comfort of your home and fill the necessary forms and e-mail them to the appropriate authorities. Government will reward you for obtaining the services on line. Interestingly if you go personally to those offices for the services, you will pay penalty for going there personally. And after paying the penalty you will be directed to go and use a computer in a cornerthere in the office still to apply for the documents you wanted.
In the case of Businesses, E-Tender was introduced in that any company that wanted to bid for government contracts can only do that through the Internet. Corporate taxes could only be filed electronically. Annual Reports and periodic business reports are all presented online. As in the case of E-Citizens Portal, there is also one-stop Portal for all government procurement opportunities withover 8,000 trading partners. It is on this Portal that all corporate bodies do business with the government in Singapore. This is known as integrated e- Services.
This is the level of E-Government Services in Singapore. Is it any wonder that they are the 2nd e-nation after Canada in the e-world? Ghana, too, can do the same no matter how long it takes. What is important is for the Ghanaian IT experts to give the correct technological advice to the government of Ghana.