For many African governments, moves towards embracing e-governance have gone little beyond the opening of websites for state ministries and departments.
But even where such websites exist, in many cases they contain little information of value to the public, and they do not in any fundamental way connect governments and citizens, as e-government aims to do. While information on the “who is who” in the ministry, its organisational structure and mission will often be abundantly available (though not necessarily updated), the average website will not have public service information, for instance on how to go about applying for a particular service, who the right office/ person to approach is, and where on the website to download and even electronically submit these application forms.
But e-governance entails more than a government website on the Internet – even if that website has a great deal of public service information, offers a great deal of interactivity and enables citizens to get a range of services electronically. As Queen’s University Belfast law lecturer Dr Subhajit Basu has said:
“The strategic objective of e-governance is to support and simplify governance for all parties: Government, citizens and businesses. The use of ICT can connect all these parties and support processes and activities. In other words, in e-governance electronic means support and stimulate good governance.”
One scholar has defined e-governance simply as the use by government agencies of information technologies such as Wide Area Networks, the Internet and mobile computing, that have the ability to transform relations with citizens, businesses and other forms of government.
Inherent in this definition are three critical issues for e-governance to work effectively: a range of information technologies have to be applied, government’s attitude towards service provision has to change, and there must be a high level of transparency in government operations.
The often-cited possible benefits e-governance can bring to developing countries include faster access to government services, lower costs for administrative services, greater public access to budgets and documents, and a corresponding increase in transparency and accountability of government functions. For e-governance to work in Africa, governments should be willing to decentralize responsibilities and processes, and to start using electronic means of communicating and delivering services.
Citizens could then contact their leaders and public servants through website where all forms, legislation, news and other information is made available. Basu says in effect, governments would serve their citizens better and save costs by making internal operations more efficient, cutting down the complex and over-stretched bureaucratic system.
But this is only the ideal situation. The reality in many African countries makes e-governance unattainable in the immediate term, and the main reasons have little to do with the lack of money to fund the roll-out of e-government programmes, or the need to fund other pressing priorities like providing access to safe drinking water or funding universal primary education.
E-governance breaks bureaucracy and that is not desirable to many government workers. To many of them, bureaucracy means power and is also a source of side income for them. A person applying for a trading license may have to pay the person who dishes out the application forms, bribe the clerk to have their application stamped, and pay a string of other people just to get the application considered, let alone granted. This is an eating chain that e-governance would minimize. And the e-illiterate public servants seem best placed to recognise this.
Another issue is that just about two percent of the populations of various African countries access the Internet. Hence, whatever initiatives government departments may make in introducing the use of IT in their work, they will not go far if the issue of accessibility and affordability to the Internet for the average person are not addressed.
Additionally, many African governments have a culture of keeping even the most innocent information in ‘confidential’ folders, and only the permanent secretary of a ministry or other administrative head of a department can authorize the release of any such information. This culture goes counter to the logic of e-governance, which is to increase transparency in governance, including giving the public access to a wider range of government records. What this means is that where public officials or administrative systems benefit from poor governance and the lack of transparency, they will be reluctant to open up their budgets and other records to the public.
Accordingly, e-government experts like Basu say in order to examine the risk of implementing e-governance solutions, the following factors have to be taken into account: whether a country is a democracy or a dictatorial regime; the government structure – whether it is centralised or decentralised, the adequacy of the legal framework, an the level of trust in government. For most African governments, the scale seems to be strongly tilted against e-governance.