The potential that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have to contribute to economic growth in developing countries is undeniable. In terms of what ICT in general and e-government in particular can do specifically to improve governance and accountability, we often hear about their positive impact on government transparency and responsiveness, on government efficiency and effectiveness, and finally, on citizen access to information, services, and opportunities.
This all makes sense…in theory. But doesn't the degree to which ICT and e-government do end up achieving all these wonderful outcomes also depend on the people, who are the most unpredictable factor in the equation? More concretely, doesn’t the success of ICT and e-government efforts hinge on whether people actually adopt and use the new infrastructure? More simply: doesn't it all come down to behavior change (once again)?
It does. Earlier this summer the World Bank published a book entitled Information and Communications for Development 2009: Extending Reach and Increasing Impact, which contains compelling findings on ICT’s impact on economic development. While the entire volume is an excellent read, I found the following direct quotes from chapters 5 (“How Do Manual and E-Government Services Compare? Experiences from India”) and 6 (“National E-Government Institutions: Functions, Models, and Trends”) most relevant to our work and especially useful in answering the critical question: if you build it, will they really come?
- Moving to e-government is a major transformational and change management exercise…Competent leaders and empowered institutions are needed to overcome resistance to process and organizational changes, prioritize and manage complex investments, change skills and mind-sets, coordinate across multiple agencies and project portfolios…
- E-government development often neglects strategic communication of visions shared, progress made, impacts measured, and lessons learned to all concerned stakeholders. Yet without such awareness and communication, e-government cannot be broadly owned or sustained or integrated with the overall development agenda. As a demanding transformational task, e-government requires mobilizing policy makers to lead policy reforms and institutional changes and mobilizing potential communities of ICT users to innovate and press for change.
- Effective demand for e-government institutions can be created by building business and civil society pressure for better public services. It can be nurtured by raising awareness among societal leaders and exposing them to international best practices. Citizens should be made owners of e-government programs.
- There is growing awareness that e-government depends on other elements of e-development, including IT literacy among citizens and small enterprises…
- …Equally important is the need to build partnerships among government, the private sector, and civil society to account for the needs and capabilities of the private sector and civil society…Centrally driven coordination alone will not be sufficient for e-government to mature and lead to continuous innovation in governance, service provision, and citizen participation.
- …in order to ensure public support, e-government project design [should] incorporate attributes considered important by users. Thus, efforts to analyze user needs and demands should precede e-government project design.
Christine Zhen-Wei Qiang, World Bank economist and editor of the publication, summarizes it best in her online Q&A about ICT: “The impact on economic growth of high-speed internet connectivity, and of ICT more generally, is aggregated through its impact on individuals, businesses, government and communities. We should remember that it always takes these economic agents some time to figure out how to best use the ICT that is available to them. In most cases, individuals, firms, and communities would have to make investments in “complementary capital” (e.g. worker training and skills, organizational or even institutional adjustments) to reap the full benefits of ICT. The effect might be amplified by the flexibility and willingness of the users of ICT to transform their work habits, update their skills and adopt the technology in economic activities.”
Ultimately, ICT and e-government are about social transformation. Their full potential will not be realized unless people actively use the technology in their daily lives. This is why one of the points mentioned in the book is critical: the design and assessment frameworks to measure the impact of e-government programs should consider the benefits derived not only by the implementing agencies, but also by the users—citizens and businesses, who are the intended beneficiaries of e-government.
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