JOHANNESBURG — Knowledge is power. Unfortunately, in developing countries many marginalized families do not have access to the basic information they require in order to make critical choices and take advantage of much needed welfare programs.
In our digital age, experts point to information and communication technologies (ICTs) as a solution.
These days, most developed nations use digital forums like websites to communicate to deliver information regarding services and create an easy means of communication. This use of ICTs to enhance the efficiency and value of government services, improving upon delivery and accountability, is referred to as e-government.
One important argument for e-government is the broad reach of information posted on the Internet. Old communication methods like public meetings, printed media and radio offered a limited audience for important information.
Those citizens without the means to travel to meetings or listen in to TV and radio broadcasts lost out.
By providing content on a digital platform, governments make vital material more accessible to a larger percentage of the population. Proponents claim that, for this reason, e-government is an effective tool to bridge the knowledge gap between impoverished and upper class citizens.
The ICT system also offers to reduce the costs associated with rendering services, freeing up resources to offer a larger volume of assistance. With easier access, e-government makes government services available to more of the population than previously feasible.
Increased access to federal assistance affords impoverished citizens a means to improve their quality of life, reducing the overall instance of poverty.
In order for e-government to succeed, however, nations planning to implement the strategy require a certain level of technological infrastructure, along with proper human capital and equitable Internet access.
E-government’s proponents cannot hope to achieve equality and promote fair discharge of services and assistance in nations where segments of the population do not have access to digital platforms.
Fortunately, Internet connectivity and mobile smartphone usage are on the rise throughout countries with large impoverished populations. More than 30 million people use mobile phones in South Africa, and other nations in the region are experiencing similar swelling markets.
What’s more, the number of smartphone apps directed at third world education and healthcare increases daily, and mobile banking has swept across the continent. In this context, the use of ICT for government is an obvious and promising frontier.
That said, optimizing e-government’s potential also requires cooperation between the governmental and private sectors and active citizen engagement. In order to hone an efficient, useful ICT system, continuous feedback is required from users.
Participation lends citizens agency and allows them to hold governmental officials and systems accountable.
In many ways, while ICT infrastructure and e-government offer an avenue for fair distribution of government services, transparent communication and citizen oversight, the greatest opportunity for growth has more to do with the procedures surrounding the digital platform.
In a report on the status of e-government in South Africa, Maria Farelo of the Department of Public Service & Administration and Chris Morris of the Meraka Institute observed that the use of ICTs for governmental purposes requires evolution of the administration itself.
“E-government is about transforming government to be more citizen-centered,” asserted Farelo and Morris. “E-government successes require changing how government works, how it deals with information, how officials view their jobs and interact with the public.”
When the potential for poverty reduction and the growing ICT-friendly context are taken into consideration, e-government seems a viable solution to inequitable access to information about and implementation of government services.
In a recent article, Ramos Mabugu, director of the Research and Recommendations Program, and Sasha Peters, manager of National Budget Analysis at South Africa’s Financial and Fiscal Commission, asserted that finalizing a national e-government policy and implementation strategy should take top priority.
“Given the strategically important role that an e-government approach can play in alleviating poverty and inequality,” Mabugu and Peters concluded, “it is imperative that the possibilities of making it work be explored.”
– Emma LaSaine