25 May 2006

Democracy, Ideology and Process Re-Engineering: Realising the Benefits of e-Government in Singapore

by Kieron O'Hara and David Stevens of the United Kingdom using data provided by the Singaporean Ministry of Finance. (Full PDF)

I attended the recent WWW2006 conference being held in Edinburgh. On spotting the title of the talk I knew it was one I couldn't afford to miss. The crowd attending was truely global in nature. However, although it was a serious talk the academics,researchers and civil servants attending did tend to laugh rather too much. Not at the speaker, he was great, but we laughed at the style of governance and the newspeak, 'illiberal democracy', 'opposition is very important, so important that the ruling party argues they should be doing it'. After a few minutes of joining in with the laughter I suddenly felt a huge attack of guilt. I enjoyed living in Singapore for a few years and the fact that others were laughing at Singapore made me feel rather defensive.

After a few days of thinking about the talk and the laughing I came to the conclusion that we were not laughing at Singapore or Singaporeans but the People's Action Party.

The re-engineering of governmental processes is a necessary condition for the realisation of the benefits of e-government. Several obstacles to such re engineering exist. These include: (1) information processing thrives on transparency and amalgamation of data, whilst governments are constrained by principles of privacy and data separation; (2) top-down re-engineering may be resisted effectively from the bottom up. This paper analyses these obstacles in the way of re-engineering in Singapore – a democratic one-party state where legislative and executive power lies with the People’s Action Party – and considers how that hegemony has aided the development of e-government.

E-government, democracy, ideology, pragmatism, Singapore, process re-engineering, interoperability, privacy, management.

In the complex world of the 21st century, government is reliant upon accurate and timely information about its legislative and policy contexts. Whether that information is gathered by governments, or provided by citizens and businesses, the quality of management of that information is vital [14]. The idea of e-government is to manage information and deliver services using information technology (IT) where possible. Using IT should create a number of benefits for government, including the standardisation of processes, efficiency of information transfer and storage and effective search, not to mention the decrease in the costs of information management. There should also be visible benefits for the citizen, including the simplification of the interface with government, the ability to manage one’s own case, and the lower taxes that should result from the reduction of the government’s costs. These benefits are naturally balanced by the costs of creating giant computer systems, and of the reengineering required.

The issues underlying re-engineering shouldn’t be underestimated. It is very hard to turn staff-intensive and paperbased systems into automatic digital systems, especially when the re-engineering might well be entrusted to the very staff whose jobs are under threat from the transformation, and whose incentives are at best mixed. It is also very hard to integrate systems across platforms to provide seamless service for the citizen. Furthermore, the chief driver of change is not pressure from without, but rather consciousness within government of the opportunity costs of not upgrading systems – a notoriously weak driver.

As a result 21st century e-government systems are often grafted onto 19th century bureaucracies. This locks in the high costs of integration, and tends to create islands of e-government rather than allowing an integrated approach across government. Furthermore, in some polities, lack of trust in government, however well-founded, can lead to scepticism regarding the benefits of efficiency. Privacy issues loom large. Where a government possesses large quantities of information, the guarantor of privacy is often what we might term practical obscurity: the phenomenon that information, often paper-based and held in discrete repositories, though theoretically in the hands of governments is actually not useful because it cannot be found effectively in a timely way [14]. This is particularly true of information which does not exist explicitly in government archives, but rather could be deduced from information held in two or more other sources.

Recent work on e-government has shown that interoperability and re-engineering problems can interfere seriously with the effectiveness of putting government services online. In particular, studies have highlighted the need for standards to support interoperability, security and privacy requirements that stem from the amalgamation of databases and services, and process reengineering to optimise the benefits of shifting governmental services online [1], [21], [22].

Because businesses have to perform such re-engineering of legacy systems, and because they face similar difficulties, it is tempting to treat government as a large business in the analysis of the problem. However, government has many drivers and difficulties of context that businesses do not face: in particular, whereas businesses have the (relatively) straightforward goal of creating value for shareholders within the law, governments need to meet a wide range of targets.

Furthermore, different governments need (or want) to meet different targets. This paper examines one key driver in a government’s approach to the process of governing: ideology. Differing underlying ideologies create very different contexts for e-government systems. The form, and likelihood of success, of an e-government programme can depend quite dramatically on what ideological assumptions underpin particular polities. We will examine the experiences of e-government in an unusual democracy, Singapore. Section 2 discusses the context for and experience of egovernment in Singapore, while Section 3 looks at ideologies and party structures in Singapore to consider what effect these may have. Section 4 concludes.
To continue reading a well balanced academic article click here.(PDF)
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Matilah_Singapura said...
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Matilah_Singapura said...

There's an underlying assuption here: that the PAP are going to stay in power for a long, long time.

Regarding "security and privacy issues" with the databases: I adopt a cautious stand on the idea of the govt being concerned about my security or privacy. I will definitely not trust a govt that ascribes identification numbers to ballots during election, and has a cosy relationship with the judiciary—the institution of the state supposed to uphold laws regarding privacy and security.

Finally, if one believes that "freedom requires eternal vigilance" and that the "people get the govt they deserve", one needn't feel "guilty" at laughing at the Singaporeans. ;-)

A few gallant individuals stood up to the PAP govt in the last 40 or so years, and paid heavy prices for their moral high ground. But in reality, the majority just could't care less.

And now it seems, people have their knickers all in a twist...

Anonymous said...

"moral high ground" overstates it; I dont see Francis Seow, Jeyaratnam, Tang Liang Hong and Chee Soon Juan as morally superior

LKY certainly thinks himself to have the moral high ground

about the paper: the authors are quite ambivalent about whether the economy first/efficiency first ideology is good or not, which makes their paper a bit pointless - do they want others to follow the example, or do they want to caution others that they would not be able to follow the example because their ideology is different?

Matilah_Singapura said...

Morality, IMO, will always be a personal thing. for e.g., I don't consider it "immoral" to consume porn. I do consider it immoral if somes physically interferes with me enjoying what I like in private and in peace.

Those people persecuted by the PAP were, as far as I'm concerned, sticking by their principles. Were the "right" or "wrong"?

To me that is not the point. The point of morality is to choose your principles and stick by them—no matter what.

If you wimp out, that's cowadice. If you get beaten, that's life. But getting beaten doesn't mean you have to surrender your priniciples.

Anonymous said...

oh LKY sticks by his principles all right; in fact, he sticks around because he thinks others would change thing if he goes