E-Government can be a remedy for the crisis

Participation of José Manuel Barroso, President of the EC, in the "Simply innovation: EU Government and Innovation" conference(EC Audiovisual Services)

Participation of José Manuel Barroso, President of the EC,  in the “Simply innovation:                                                                           EU Government and Innovation” conference

Since the dawn of the 21st century it has been clear that Information Communication Technology (ICT) would be a significant driver of modern society. Let’s not go far. Think about your first cell phones at the beginning of the millennium that were as big as a ping-pong racket, indeed very inconvenient, while mobile communication was insanely expensive. Later on we moved towards smaller sizes that would effectively fit one’s pocket and step by step we even witnessed cool gadgets like coloured screens or mobile games. Those phones today seem like devices that Homo Sapiens was using during the Neolithic era when many people can have access to low-cost enormous computing power not only for phone conversation but also for multimedia communication, web surfing etc. And all this in an elegant and stylish smart phone at the size of your palm.

This ICT revolution that we are currently living is certainly transforming the modern way of living on personal and social level but also on the interactions of the citizen with the government. Europe has been one of the champions in what is universally called e-Government that aims at facilitating the life of the citizen by minimizing the time and cost of government transactions. The European Commission has also set a 2011-2015 e-Government strategy plan. Its aims are the following:

1)       Empower citizens and businesses

2)       Reinforce mobility in the Single Market

3)       Enable efficiency and effectiveness

4)       Create the necessary key enablers and pre-conditions to make things happen

The big question is whether besides the facilitation of the Europeans’ lives, which is not at all negligible as target, the EU has grasped the importance of the digitization process in cutting down costs significantly and lead poor country members out of the crisis. A very good example is Ireland, one of the first stricken European countries from the economic pandemy. This country has noted tremendous progress in cutting costs through e-Government. Sean Shine, senior managing director of Accenture’s Health & Public Service, in his interview at Silicon Republic acknowledges the substantial progress of his country in e-Government. More interestingly he notes that Ireland, a crisis hit country, has developed an electronic tax collection system, named Revenue Online Service (ROS), reputed to be one of the best tax collection processes in the world. Thanks to this system, Mr. Shine, underlines that Ireland is saving huge amount of money in tax collection, rendering the Irish Government one of the most cost efficient governments globally in tax collection. This is well understood if one estimates that 90% of the country’s tax revenues are collected through ROS.

I am wondering then, since e-Government has such big financial  benefits in crisis stricken countries like Ireland that have received the bailout bittersweet gift, why then don’t we hear any good e-Government news for countries like Greece or Portugal? Did the taskforce ever present any plan to the South with a middle-long term strategy to decrease the cost of their hypertrophic Public Sector by digitizing the government’s processes? Maybe my ears fail me but I have never heard anything like that whatsoever. The only thing that the Troika demands is firing people, cutting down salaries, increasing the retirement age and generally the impoverishment of European societies so that their assets become cheap for the European north to buy.

Is it the case that everyone likes to talk about e-Government but no-one really believes in it? Someone would say that the cost reduction that e-Government strategic plans bring come very slowly. I do not understand why there is so much rush, though, to destroy a European economy? Isn’t there any alternative to the austerity measures or perhaps a reduction of them and an addition in the bailout mix of alternatives like e-government? E-government is not at all wishful thinking. It is actually being implemented in many countries globally and is proved to save a lot of money from the budget. Let’s not forget the Commission’s February announcement about how everything goes incredibly well in e-Government for the north of Europe. ICT really does miracles in countries like Denmark where public servants save time and the country cuts down significant amount of cost while the citizen does not have to queue for hours to receive a public service. But again, this is the north of Europe, where everything seems to work smoothly despite the “crisis”.

Nobody can deny the social and economic benefits of e-Government. The million euro question is why it has to be only the privilege of the wealthy European countries. Why a country like Portugal cannot benefit from the reduced public cost that an intense strategic e-Government plan would bring? How many positions or pensions would have been saved in Lisbon if the Commission had a specific action plan for the South incorporated in the Troika bailout mechanism? Technology nowadays is not only a reason to admire our new BMW in our garage in Berlin, but also a way to cut down costs and assist European governments that desperately try to save costs even from pencils. E-government today in Europe should not be considered as a new gadget on a Danish smart phone but rather as a real remedy for the real financial crisis.

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