The dream of e-government is to give citizens and. government the means of communicating with one another, and streamline the back office processes that follow on from that. 

And it’s been shown to be a realistic goal if the example of South African Revenue Services (SARS) is anything to go by.
SARS has been the trailblazer in e-government transformation, and has admirably achieved its goal of reducing the difficulty citizens have in dealing with government while streamlining services.
Devan Naidoo, country manager of Intel SA, was involved in the transformation process at SARS and is encouraged at the positive reaction from the public.
“It has been interesting to see how the public has reacted to the introduction of e-government,” he says. “On the whole, there has been very positive comeback from citizens.”
One of the main criticisms of e-government is a perception that, because a majority of South Africans are not yet connected to the Internet, it will benefit the few at the expense of many.
“There is a small percentage of citizens that are connected – that’s not far from the truth,” says Naidoo. “However, you cannot wait for everyone to be connected before you start putting systems in place.
“You need to get the services in place, and people will find a way of accessing them. In addition, there are a number of initiatives underway that will make technology more pervasive. It will happen.
“Build it, and they will come.”
Among the initiatives that will boost e-government is the drive to include ICT learning in schools and projects like Gauteng Online and Nepad E-schools are ensuring the school children – and the communities in which they live – have access to and training on the latest technologies.
Naidoo points to the launch of the cellular phone industry in South Africa. “All the market research done prior to the launch way under-estimated how fast it would take off and grow.
“As long as you are providing value and improving the quality of people’s lives, the take-up will be big.”
He believes that information and communication technology (ICT) is at that point where it is about to become pervasive in people’s lives.
“ICT is no longer dull, it is interactive and allows people to get the information they need when they need it. It has become all-encompassing and people are getting used to being able to sign on and get the services they want.”
He adds that the Internet is the most likely vehicle for delivering e-government services since it is a widespread and easily accessible medium.
However, he is not convinced that the fixed line service will be able to reach a large enough portion of the population on its own.
“Fixed line is not going to do the trick – it’s wireless connectivity that will enable e-government. So WiMax is going to be absolutely critical.
WiMax is the standard for wide area wireless networking – much like WiFi is the standard for local area networking – and is currently in the pilot stage around the world. Telkom should launch a WiMax service this year.
Naidoo comes back to SARS as the success story that other government departments should be looking to emulate.
Of course, SARS is able to measure the success of its transformation exercise in very real terms – the increased revenues it has been able to collect – but there are other tangible benefits as well.
“For the ordinary citizen, paying tax today is a lot less complex than ever before,” says Naidoo.
“From a processing point of view and from a querying point of view, the system delivers exactly what you expect from e-government – less-cumbersome communications with government.”
Since the point of e-government is improving government’s communication with citizens, Naidoo believes there are many opportunities to implement it as regards the upcoming 2010 Soccer World Cup.
“2010 is probably the biggest branding exercise South Africa is ever going to have, so we need the participation of citizens all across the land.
“In particular, if 2010 doesn’t touch the lives of the rural community, it would be a travesty.
“E-government could be a means to get communities participating fully in the event, imparting their views and sharing business opportunities.
“I’m sure government will be providing Web sites and helping to facilitate participation.”
With all e-government projects, the citizen-facing Web site or communication is only the tip of the iceberg, Naidoo adds. It’s vital the back office systems are implemented and running efficiently to handle an increased load.
On its own, efficient back office systems will help to get rid of bottlenecks that result from the “paper chase” that characterised most current dealings with government departments.
“Provision of the service is just the start of the exercise. Fulfilment of the service is just as important,” he points out.
For this reason, training and change management have to go hand-in-hand with any e-government initiative. On the positive side, e-government and a reskilling programme will make jobs in the public sector more attractive.