Let's have e-government at e-speed, please

The drive towards electronic public services reaches back as early as 1998, where Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at the launch of COMDEX promised that 'key public services' would be available electronically by 2001. But e-government still leaves much to be desired.

SO THE Government will be accepting credit-card payments online by year's end, if the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore's (IDA) plans to promote secure electronic payment comes to fruition.

It might just be the ticket to jumpstart the lacklustre development of electronic government transactions here.

In the age of e-services, we shouldn't need to figure out which department handles what transactions

Imagine: Just log on, slip out your good old Visa card, and pay your road tax or HDB conservancy charges while you order books from Amazon.com.

In fact, IDA should take into account debit cards that, unlike credit cards, have no minimum income requirement and are thus available, in theory, to anyone with a bank account.

It would make the prospect of paying for Government services online much more palatable to a population, than using clunky Cashcard readers.

Question is, what took them so long?

The drive towards electronic public services reaches back as early as 1998, when Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised that ''key public services'' would be available electronically by 2001.

Well, we're officially in the 21st century, but e-government leaves much to be desired.

The eCitizen Centre portal, launched in 1999 as the cyber-shopfront for e-government, promised to deliver a one-stop, non-stop integrated public service to the citizen.

That promise is far from becoming a reality, international accolades notwithstanding.

Services are far from fully accessible online, even though some agencies have acquired flashier Web fronts.

It's the simple things that fall short of expectations, like filling in paperwork and having queries answered.

The Land Transport Authority's http://www.onemotoring.com.sg is touted as the ''gateway to all your motoring needs'', but still requires you to fill in forms for all but one transaction.

Forgivable, perhaps, in the early years of the Internet - but certainly not now, when fast, one-stop e-transactions are de rigeur for e-commerce sites.

And oddly enough, the development of Government websites is far from even, almost as if each agency has been left to its own devices to develop e-services.

Hardly on the ball nowadays, when portals like Yahoo! and Lycos have brought together diverse content into integrated, one-stop packages.

The promise of e-government means more than a wholesale upload of existing paper-based services on to the Web.

Citizens want to stop running from agency to agency when making applications, for instance. But online, they are still running - they're switching from .gov to .gov.

Services can be collapsed and combined across different agencies.

Want to buy a house? We should be able to fill in a single online form and have our housing, parking, power supply and telephone lines all sorted out at once.

And beyond simply paying bills and fines online, e-government portals - by virtue of their resources, reach and credibility - could become truly one-stop convenience portals for all kinds of services citizens would use.

Why stop at public services? Why not shop for and hire an approved contractor for renovations at the same time?

Or check out new cars, and book a new stereo system when we pay for road tax?

Ordinary Singaporeans don't - and shouldn't need to - think like bureaucrats.

In the age of e-services, we don't need to figure out which department handles what transactions, or whether a service is supplied by a public agency or some privatised statutory board.

The beauty of electronic transactions is in its speed and transparency.

Necessary rules, checks and policies can be built into the system, without the user having to leap through multiple hoops and channels.

And if they already have all our personal particulars, why fill in all those forms in triplicate?

Potentially, electronic services could be the perfect answer to cutting through red tape.

Look at electronic income-tax filing: flawed, but probably the most successful Government service online, with over a third of all taxpayers e-filing last year.

It made short work of income tax filing - surely one of the most tedious and rules-bound Government transactions anywhere.

What's more, it enjoyed a tremendously successful publicity blitz, employing an extensive public education programme that handheld newbie users through the process.

The same cannot be said for other Government e-services.

E-citizen is a step in the right direction. But where are the integrated services? And where are the citizens?

More needs to be done to develop integrated services online, not just free forms for download.

And public awareness of new services can be upped with more extensive education programmes.

In order to reap the full benefits of service provision in the Internet age, electronic Government services need a concerted push, not the hotchpotch, solo agency approach of today.

We did it before when we launched Giro in the 1980s. We can get our act together again.

Optimistically, the Ministry of Finance has now been charged with realising the e-government dream.

Maybe we can junk those $60 Cashcard readers. And pay by Visa.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl