[Column] Sunil Geness: Africa’s e-government efforts are bearing fruit
Following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on governments and citizens, countries across the African continent are looking at e-government with renewed interest and urgency.
In its latest E-Government Survey, the UN notes that governments around the world are looking at new e-government initiatives in their pursuit of digital government transformation. These include the expansion of e-participation, the delivery of e-government as a platform, the innovative use of intelligent technologies to power smart cities, and the adoption of data-centric approaches to service delivery and government policy.
E-government is defined as the use of information and communication technologies to transform government services - its processes, procedures and structures - by making it more accessible, effective and accountable.
According to the UN, e-government holds the potential to improve the delivery of public services and is an enabler of effective, transparent and accountable public institutions.
African nations show encouraging growth in e-services
All regions are making progress with developing e-government capabilities, but Africa is showing the greatest growth. The number of UN member states in Africa that have low e-government development index (EGDI) values dropped from 26 in 2016 to only seven in 2020. Sadly, no African country can yet boast very high EGDI values: in Europe, 33 countries have 'very high' EGDI values, and 15 in Asia.
Although lagging more developed regions, Africa has the largest share of countries that have moved to a higher EGDI group of all regions. The African countries with the highest EGDI values are Mauritius, Seychelles, South Africa and Tunisia, who are all in the top 100 globally.
As governments respond to the challenges brought by the pandemic, many are placing greater emphasis on e-government services, which can be evidenced in
- Expanded national portal features
- Improved transactional online services such as tax submissions, license renewals, permits and business registrations
- Greater digitisation of sectoral services in health, employment, justice, employment and social protection
- Extending online services to vulnerable groups including the elderly, persons with disabilities, youth and women.
Sixty-five to seventy percent of African countries allow citizens to register a business online, while more than half allow citizens to apply for a government post or request birth, death or marriage certificates.
However, access to digital services remains an obstacle to greater e-government development in Africa. The continent's internet penetration is estimated at 36% - or 473 million people - and digital literacy levels are also comparably lower than more developed regions.
New policies point to data-driven governments
One of the key components of effective e-government is the effective use of government data. With much of the world’s data resting in the hands of a small number of global cloud and digital services providers, African nations have taken note of the importance of leveraging data that could be applied in the service of national and regional decision-making and policy development.
As one of the most digitally mature of all African nations, South Africa produces huge and growing volumes of personal, public, corporate and government data. Its recently published National Data and Cloud Policy sets out how the government can better use data as a natural resource, mine it for insights, and apply those insights to improve service delivery.
The African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy is also clear in its intention to ensure the continent’s ownership of modern digital tools, but with only 1% of the world’s data centres, many countries still have some work to do.
Next steps hold key to e-government success
What is the way forward for Africa's e-government growth? The UN believes comprehensive national digital transformation strategies and implementation plans that integrate national priorities with regional and global priorities are essential.
Encouragingly, many African countries have taken bold steps forward in this regard. Nigeria has introduced a Government Integrated Financial Management Information System; Mauritius is in the process of establishing a regional e-governance academy; Zimbabwe has enabled a public-sector financial management system; and Ethiopia has connected cash registers at retail outlets directly to the country's tax authority.
The Smart Africa initiative, which was established in 2013, puts ICT at the centre of socio-economic development, encourages greater access to ICT, aims to improve accountability and efficiency through the use of ICT, and more broadly leveraging ICT to promote sustainable development.
The Policy and Regulation Initiative for Digital Africa, a joint programme between the African Union, European Union and International Telecommunication Union, aims to facilitate universally accessible, affordable and effective wireless broadband across the continent, with the ultimate goal of bringing an additional 300 million people in Africa online by 2025.
As countries across Africa accelerate their adoption of digital technologies, new opportunities are being created for more efficient and accessible public services that can help establish a more equitable and enabling environment for citizens and businesses alike.
Building on the success of the past few years, countries can take bold steps toward greater regional and global competitiveness while enhancing the citizen experience for all who call Africa home.