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Silicon idols: Problems of harnessing IT in government

Dr. Richard Heeks
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Officialdom must change its own culture if the potential of IT to support public sector reform is to be realised.

Many nations are now embarking on ‘electronic government’ initiatives that seek to harness the tremendous potential for information technology (IT) to improve public sector efficiency and effectiveness. Yet evidence highlights the very poor record of IT in the public sector. Failure is the norm, success the exception. University of Manchester research in India indicates that senior public officials hold the key to success or failure. The approach they take to IT is frequently misguided. Officialdom must therefore change its own culture if the potential of IT to support public sector reform is to be realised.

Estimates vary, but the signs are that up to 80 percent of IT initiatives in government worldwide end in partial or total failure. For developing countries, this represents an enormous waste of precious resources. Given its strong IT record, India was chosen as the focus for research into this issue.

Interviews and case analysis revealed the critical role played by senior public officials, who set the tone and framework for use of IT in enabling public sector reform. A chronology of four different approaches (the ‘Four Is’) was identified:

  • Ignore: Out of ignorance, public officials include neither IT nor information in plans for reform.
  • Isolate: Public officials lack computer literacy and an understanding of the power of information yet are aware of IT and its potential. Investment in computing is therefore included in reforms, but as a preserve of ‘IT experts’, not as a systematic component of the reform process.
  • Idolise: Public officials are often semi-literate. They are over-aware of IT’s potential, and believe it can transform government (or at least transform their careers), so IT becomes the centrepiece of all changes.
  • Integrate: Public officials have become information-literate. They recognise information as a resource central to all public sector functions. IT is relegated to a secondary role as a valuable means to achieve certain reform ends, not as an end in itself. Re-engineering of information systems and introduction of IT are now fully integrated into the change and reform process.

In comparing the impact of these different approaches, it was no surprise to find that the first three – ignore, isolate and idolise – rarely produce effective public sector reform. The integrated approach, however, has been much better at delivering desired reform outcomes.

Unfortunately, there is increasing prevalence of the ‘idolise’ approach in India whilst examples of the integrated approach are few and far between. This is understandable because adoption of the latter faces many barriers, including deficits of skills, knowledge, finance and infrastructure. There is no ‘magic recipe’ for overcoming such barriers, but next steps could include:

  • Training of senior staff to give them a more balanced view of both information and technology.
  • Creation of ‘hybrid managers’ who understand both public sector management and the role of information systems.
  • Adoption of a more strategic approach to information systems planning in government.
  • Promotion by donor agencies of an integrated approach in the IT projects they fund.

Credit Line This piece was originally published by ID21, a UK-based development research reporting service; www.id21.org