RECENTLY, the government of Rwanda, through the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), entered into a Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) contractual agreement with a local company, Ngali Holdings, to put into practice an innovative platform known as RwandaOnline, which will focus specifically on providing online services related to Government-to-Business (G2B) and Government-to-Citizen (G2C).
When one looks at the historical events that masked this country particularly the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, it is inconceivable to imagine that only 20 years later, Rwandans are daring to challenge themselves with complex projects such as the digitalisation of public services – a model that has continued to evade a significant number of developing countries in spite of their relative peace for many decades.
With such a bold step, RwandaOnline is expected to be more than just a government website. In fact, the concept goes beyond making services available online to include a strategic objective of simplifying governance for government, citizens and businesses. To enumerate this point, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the Minister for Youth and ICT, reiterated this week that RwandaOnline “will not only improve efficiency in the way government services are provided, but most importantly leapfrog into a digital economy, hence increasing on our competitiveness”. Incidentally, it is this attempt to leapfrog into a digital economy that arouses my interest in exploring further to establish the real impact of e-government.
So, what is e-government and what benefits should we expect? Also, are there any concerns that we should be aware of? To start with, e-government is a model that is considered to be part of an ever-changing digital world, which makes it difficult to convey a conventional definition. That said, many experts concur that e-government revolves around the use of technology to enhance access to and delivery of government services to benefit citizens, businesses and to make government information more accessible, a concept that can potentially lead to more transparency, accountability and efficiency in service delivery. Henceforth, RwandaOnline is likely to benefit ordinary citizens in at least three different ways;
Reduction in cost to users
It should not be difficult for citizens to imagine a situation in which all interaction with both local and central government can be done through one counter 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without having to queue up for several hours. This reduction in hours users have to wait in queues to complete transactions has a direct impact on user costs through a reduction in foregone wages. For instance, enabling citizens to apply for online services such as business licences, travel documents, birth certificates and many more, has the potential to free-up time spent waiting in line and instead diverted to more productive events where wages can be attained.
User perception of service quality
The quality of services offered by government can be measured in many different ways. One of those ways is the rate of errors in documents issued to the public. It goes without saying that online services are not immune to errors; however, in the case of online services, when errors are discovered, they are likely to be corrected faster than if it were manual services. This assumption is realised when one considers additional trips that a citizen has to undertake to get errors rectified in the first place. A reduction in errors has a direct impact on productivity as it allows staff to concentrate more on productive work.
User perception of governance and corruption
Whilst many countries are faced with poor governance and severe corruption, Rwanda has a rare opportunity to utilise e-government in dramatically improving governance at all levels of authority, as well as reducing corruption tendencies in service delivery. In particular, e-government would limit potential corrupt public officials from seeking bribes before they can provide public services. This would see the continual decline in corruption in Rwanda, allowing for development projects to progress unimpeded.
This brings us to the perceived limitations of e-government. There are many, and like any other development tool, e-government should be approached with caution. Firstly, e-government has the ability to widen the digital divide, which may create significant gaps between the haves and the have-nots. Therefore, optimistically, if e-government did become successful, we can speculate that more and more services would be digitalised. In that case, the implication is that those with no access to computers and the internet will be left trailing the rest – adding to inequality.
Also, we cannot undermine core factors required to make this transition a success. As a nation, we have to be prepared to rectify institutional weaknesses that include insufficient planning, unclear objectives, and cost over-runs. We must also look to address the current shortage of qualified personnel required to maintain such complex systems with complex software and hardware. Last but by no means least, we must address the current electrical power shortage. It is unimaginable to think that the existing 110MW of electricity are enough to support the current demand let alone e-government services.
The writer is a UK Parliamentary Intern and holds a Master of Science in Public Service Policy.