As far back as 1999, the South African Government drafted a policy proposal on e-government (Department of Public Administration, 2001), proposing the utilization of Information Technology (IT) as an enabler to drive the implementation and realization of government's main priorities, while ensuring tighter integration of services, operational improvements, cost savings, etc. It was envisaged that, by providing government services on an electronic platform, the e-government initiative would take government services closer to the people, empowering them to access service at their own convenience, through whatever communication medium they choose.
The South African Government chose (at the time) interoperability, security, reduction of duplication, and economies of scale as its main priorities in terms of implementing its e-Government Strategy (Department of Public Administration, 2001). At the time, it was perceived that the roll-out of an e-government initiative would be able to speed up the delivery of services to the citizen, increase productivity and reduce cost. Although not listed in the South African Governments initial strategy document, West (2004:16) identified other potential benefits associated with successful implementation of an e-government strategy and initiatives, such as integrating services, flattening bureaucracies and even increases citizen confidence in government. Benefits aside, successful implementation of any e-government initiative requires a substantial paradigm shift, which requires a certain level of maturity from both government and end-users.
Ten years along the line it begs the question whether or not the South African Government actually succeeded in achieving interoperability amongst the different departments information systems, and providing services to the citizen faster, better and more cost effective. This research will therefore focus on assessing the South African Governments e-Government initiatives by critically looking at the way in which services are provided to the citizen, and particularly
- assess the progress made so far by the South African government (with emphasis on national government) in terms of placing services online (websites); and
- whether or not the efforts taken to make services available electronically, did indeed improve productivity and services delivery?
What is e-Government?
Before any assessment can be done in terms of implementing an e-government initiative, it is important to understand what is meant by e-government, its scope and how it is being applied in governments the world over. In the broadest possible sense, e-Government is being defined by the United Nations as "utilizing the internet and the World Wide Web for delivering government information and services to citizens" (United Nations, 2001:1).
Fang (2002:1) defines e-government as "a way for governments to use the most innovative information and communication technologies, particularly web-based Internet applications, to provide citizens and businesses with more convenient access to government information and services, to improve the quality of the services and to provide greater opportunities to participate in democratic institutions and processes". Although Fang (2002:1) identifies eight models for delivering e-government services: government-to-citizen (G2C); Citizen-to-Government (C2G); Business-to-Government (B2G); Government-to-Business (G2B); Government-to-Government (G2G); Government-to-Non-profit (G2N); Non-profit-to-Government (N2G) and Government-to-employee (G2E), all discussions within this paper will focus primarily on e-government from a Government-to-Citizen paradigm.
Howard (2001:6) defines e-government to be the application of e-commerce tools and techniques to the public sector. E-commerce being the electronic version of conventional private sector transacting, this particular definition implies that some element of e-government deals with electronic transactions between government and the citizen; transactions of which have a direct relation to financial transacting. This definition is in line sentiments echoed by Fang (2002:5), who believe that e-commerce is a subset of e-government, with financial transacting being an inherent part of interaction with government. The financial transacting aspect of e-government is important in the context of this research paper, as it formed part of the South African Government's initial e-government strategy (Department of Public Administration, 2001), with (what they called) "e-business" being one of the pillars of said strategy.
Irrespective of how e-government is being defined in the literature, the authors are in agreement that e-government provide great opportunity to reinvent the way in which any government operates (Lean, Zailani, Ramayah & Fernando, 2009; Moon, 2002; West, 2004); its ability to bring the government closer to the citizen (Fang, 2002) and to improve the quality of interactions with citizens and businesses through universal access (Fang, 2002), high quality services enabled by streamlined processes and systems (Al-Kibsi, De Boer, Mourshed & Rea, 2001; Lean et al, 2009).
From the above, it becomes clear that e-government is more than just delivering services via an electronic platform, but is in effect all about transforming governments to be leaner and more responsive to citizen requirements, an opinion shared by Jackson and Curthoys (2001:341).
For the purpose of this paper therefore, e-government can be taken as the application of information and communication technologies (Internet technologies in particular), to provide government services to all citizens anywhere, at anytime, in an effort to:
- Bring government closer to the people. This involves providing easy access to government services via a range of technological platforms, be it cellular telephones, internet, etc. The interactive nature of these technologies enables citizens to access government services from wherever they are and whenever they like (and not just during office hours).
- Improve and speed up the delivery of services. By implication, this means a major overhaul of existing government processes, using information and communication technology to improve the effectiveness and efficiency with which services are provided.
- Enhance citizen participation in government processes. This speaks to using information and communication technologies to improve the interaction between government and the citizen, be it providing information about government services, proving citizens with the capability to transact electronically etc.
Stages of e-government
E-Government can be applied in many ways, providing ample opportunity for innovation and transformation in government processes and (by implication) requires a change from the traditional way of doing things. Examples of innovative implementation of e-government technologies which resulted in service delivery improvements are rife, including: allowing citizens to apply for business permits and fishing, hunting, and boating licenses on-line (West, 2002:2); allowing citizens to electronically file tax returns on-line (West, 2002; Moon, 2002); providing citizens with the capability of asking (and receiving answers on) a wide range of government (service) related questions through email (West, 2000:2).
When discussing the scope of e-government application, a number of similarities emerges, that can best be explained by way of the various stages through which e-government initiatives evolve over time. West (2004:17), Layne and Lee (2001:124), as well as Moon (2002:426) have found internet (website) based e-government initiatives to generally develop through four stages of growth, namely:
- The billboard stage. During this stage, government established an on-line presence, using static websites and databases for disseminating service related information. The main intention during this stage is to share information with constituents, driven by citizen demand for specific information (eg frequently asked questions (FAQs), etc.). All interaction that takes place between government and the citizen is one-way communication, with no opportunity to manipulate any of the information provided. Layne and Lee (2001:125) refer to this stage as a "cataloguing stage", as the intention is to catalogue government information and make it available online.
- The partial service-delivery stage. At this stage websites the focus is on functional integration, grouping the services of various functional areas together and making it available to the citizen. More emphasis is placed on two-way communication, and limited transacting capability is possible. Limited opportunity also exists for data manipulation (eg being able to search websites for specific information, as opposed to access only that which is being presented; completing online forms; etc.), as well as opportunity to directly participate in government processes (eg. Online opinion polls, forums, etc.).
- The portal stage. At this point the focus shifts towards transforming government services (Layne & Lee, 2001:130), by providing a one stop shop of all its services, integrated both horizontal (across different departments) and vertically (across business units within departments) (Moon, 2002:426). The different functional silos are broken down, by integrating similar systems and databases, in an attempt to ensure different government departments are able to connect and communicate with one another. Citizens are also able to engage in financial transacting (e-commerce) with government in a secure and confidential manner (eg. being able to pay bills, fines, etc. online).
- Interactive democracy stage. During this stage, the citizen is afforded opportunity to actively interact with government and its political processes. In addition to being able to access the full range of government services available to them, citizens can start to customise government websites to their liking and individual preference, using push rather than pull type technologies.
These stages are of great importance for this particular research paper, as it provides an easy way of measuring change (West, 2004:17). However, it is important to take note that these stages do not necessarily follow a linear path, and should therefore only be used as a conceptual tool to help create an understanding of the evolutionary nature of e-government (Moon, 2002:427)
Factors impacting on successful implementation of an e-government initiative
Globally, a lot of public sector entities, governments and other statutory bodies are faced with the challenge of becoming more agile and delivery focused. Indeed, many of them have been able to effectively transform the way they operate, through gradual rollout of IT systems (Marche & McNiven, 2009). Successful rollout of an e-government strategy proved to be a mammoth task for developed countries with ready access to large amounts of skilled human resources, communication infrastructure, etc. With South Africa being a developing country, the rollout of such initiatives will be an immense challenge, to say but the least. Even though major strides have been made in terms of implementing e-government systems and services, several studies have found that the interaction between citizens and government is still just informative in nature (Moon, 2002:43; Thomas & Streib, 2003:90). Since the intention behind any e-government initiative is more than just getting information to the people (i.e. to enable delivery of real time, integrative and interactive services to citizens, financial transacting, political involvement, etc), this mismatch (between intention and actual achievement) might indicate that realising a fully fledged "e-government" is maybe just an elusive dream.
A number of factors are attributed to the success or failure of successfully implementing of an e-government initiative, one of which is the digital divide and the impact it has on implementing any internet based initiative (Mokhele & De Beer, 2007:67). The digital divide refers to the gap between having ready access to the Internet, and having limited access thereto. It also includes the difference between being computer literate as opposed to being computer illiterate (Belanger & Lemuria, 2009:132). With South Africa being a developing country, Internet penetration could be a major factor in terms of overcoming the digital divide. Of interest though is that South Africa scored a total of 1.56 points in a 2001 United Nations e-Government Readiness Index (United Nations, 2001:3). The index assesses a country's readiness for creating a sustainable e-government environment for ensuring universal access to information and services. Although well below the average (1.62), the score of 1.56 placed South Africa in the lead as far as sustainable e-government for Africa is concerned.
It is also important to note that focussing on ICT alone will not be enough to successfully implement a successful e-government initiative. Heeks and Bhatnagar in Hazlett and Hill (2003:447) state that, although ICT is an important factor, a holistic approach is required-therefore the other elements of the e-government system (i.e. the people who use the system, the processes which are used to provide the services as well as the management of the system as a whole) also need consideration. This is strongly corroborated by Al-Kibsi et al (2001:66) who estimate that only about 15 percent of e-government benefits stems from the use of ICT, with the rest of the benefits coming from streamlining the processes involved in delivering service to the citizen.
That being said, it is also important to note that different users expect different outcomes from e-government initiatives. For that reason it is important to understand what influence citizens behaviour and acceptance of e-government services-whether or not they actually going to make use of said services. Some of the aspects said to drive citizens' acceptance of e-government initiatives include whether or not the service will actually be useful to them, ease of use, convenience etc (Hazlett & Hill, 2003:447). Hand-in-hand with this is the aspect of perceived risk- whether or not the intended user of e-government services will trust the service enough to actually use it. With e-government providing multiple access channels, most notably Internet technology, issues like privacy protection, authentication, etc become very much important in cementing the trust relationship between citizens and government (Lean et al, 2009:471).