The fifteen country abstracts compiled in 2001provide an initial snapshot for the selected countries chosen to represent different situations in each of UNESCO's region.: in Africa (Botswana, Mauritius, South Africa, United Republic of Tanzania), in the Arab States (Morocco), in Asia and in the Pacific (India, Malaysia, New Zealand and Republic of Korea), in Europe and North America (Canada, Estonia, Hungary, Malta) and in Latin America and the Caribbean (Jamaica, Mexico). Research work was initiated by a high-level, semi-structured questionnaire (see Annex) mailed to known high level contact-persons in most of these countries. As work progressed, however, it became apparent that the consistency of responses in terms of scope, depth of treatment and presentation required significant additional work. Web-based sources and published material - such as national IT strategies and White Papers were used significantly as supplementary information. This, in a sense, further exacerbated the problem of consistent treatment. One conclusion that may be drawn - possibly subject to some debate - is that the structured written form may be increasingly inadequate and difficult to adhere to for comparative studies in today's information-diverse and fast moving- rich environment. There remains nonetheless, a critical need to package information in this area, since for most people browsing the Web remains a bewildering and often frustrating exercise, due to a number of factors such as inadequate infrastructure, access costs, technical parameters or restrictions within the users' organizational environment and the sheer complexity of navigating the information hierarchies on the Web. These factors would seem to indicate CD-ROM as a value-added medium. Taking advantage of the inherent convenience of storage and searching within repositories contained on a CD-ROM, maintaining currency and the dynamic nature of the information environment may be reconciled in on two ways:
the option to "click" on web-references on a CD-ROM and obtain instant access to the live Web-site (given an Internet-enabled PC)
managing periodical releases or re-issues of a CD.
These methods are expected to form an increasing part of future tool-kits possible updating of this study and similar comparative studies. In the meantime, the results of this study are being disseminated in machine-readable form on the COMNET-IT website (http://www.comnet.mt/unesco/)
Some Observations on the findings
Although the case studies are too expensive and diverse to enable a full analysis here and are thus presented for the evaluation and appreciation of the reader, a few major trends discussed by the author are presented here.
The "push" for public service reform has brought in its wake the pervasive harnessing of ICTs to achieve declared administrative and social goals. Some of the key features driving this reform can be identified as:
public pressures for increased accountability and value for money in public service operations
international agency and peer pressures for progress in areas such as civil rights and effective financial management
progressive decentralization and devolution from Central Government to regional offices, local authorities and in some instances, contracted private sector service-providers
There may be some variations in the perceptions, if not the definition, of e-Government and its manifestations. Whilst it is generally acknowledged that the term implies an electronic interface to the citizen, there may be a danger of attributing an exclusive interpretation to this scenario. Such a narrow interpretation risks turning e-Government into an expensive "veneer" or dressing, over inherent inefficiencies and redundant processes.
The emerging consensus viewpoint is that the real challenge in administrative systems reform is the inculcation of attitudes that acknowledge data and information to be a corporate resource - and therefore shareable and subject to standards - as well as introducing process and regulatory changes that fly in the face of established hierarchical decision-making structures. Also, since resources, particularly with emerging or less developed economies, are at a premium, sustainable rates of change as well as rate of pay back on investments for e-Government are an issue. Whilst sections or sectors of the economy may be clamouring for the facilities of e-Government, large proportions of the population perceive conflicting priorities and are not likely to be in a position to exploit these facilities if they existed (due to affordability, access, language and literacy barriers). In this regard, the potential role of intermediaries assumes greater significance. In many societies, however, the progressive strengthening of these institutions (such as local councils or committees and NGOs) is itself a slow maturing process. Deliberate programmes that recognize the potential contribution of these intermediaries to complement the over stretched and at any rate inadequate structures of central government merit development.
For Government, the mere transfer of back-office processes to an electronic customer interface, no matter how effective the information-management and the process re-engineering, risks a limited pay back unless contexted within national cross-sectoral processes as well as the "information" of society through sectoral policies and facilitation measures for the harnessing of ICTs. Trade facilitation, for instance, could be interpreted restrictively if limited to a streamlining of Customs and possibly some other authorizing departments. Handling agents, traders, banks and insurance companies all form part of the national system that cuts across both Government and private sector. Similarly for Health services and other areas (GIS, etc). The challenge for co-ordinated development and improved governance therefore is not limited to the traditional boundaries of government. Arguably, the private sector - and thence civil society - might have an equal stake in the definition and implementation of ICT enabled systems. In the inculcation of an ICT-orientation in the various socio-economic sectors, only the more mature governments see a role in transition - beyond the provision of efficient administrative systems - to a proactive catalytic and facilitation role, engaging society and private sector in partnerships for the innovative application of ICTs to commercial and self-help activity. A good example is Canada's franchising of arrangements extending to its 8,000 public access centres for commercial or social interests.
On the infrastructure front, the liberalization of telecommunications progresses at a steady pace, but a number of consolidation issues lag behind. For example, in several instances, the lack of a national Internet exchange subjects an inordinate amount of traffic (and revenues) to international operators.
Interestingly, one comes across several instances of countries articulating, as part of their vision, the opportunity of becoming a regional hub for ICT expertise, thereby ignoring or perhaps playing down the fact that the sustainability of quality services to the meet of exponentially growth of national demands is a major issue in itself. Also, in an increasingly networked world, every country is a hub, with multiple external and internal interfaces. Perhaps the reality is that hubbing is an intrinsic prerequisite for economic and social performance in the emerging world order. Islands and Small States seem to constitute a special case, with unique challenges and opportunities. The traditional issues of economic vulnerability and geographical isolation are exacerbated in the digital era by lack of critical mass in terms of service provision and sweeping globalization. And yet these countries are facing the greatest opportunity, in relative terms. Government in these environments is often effectively a single-layer central administration, and there is an opportunity to tap into wider virtual markets. Access to information and education through ICTs is potentially vast, relative to the national supply, and planned seamless information and technical infrastructure building are within relatively easy reach. All this enables a leap-frogging of social and economic development into the digital age, given the political and managerial leadership and foresight.