Latin America makes slow but steady progress on e-government

At a time when governments in Latin America are facing declining revenues and increasing debt, they’re also showing a commitment to developing e-government. Most countries in the region are still in the early stages of development and face a number of challenges, but they have the advantage of learning

from the mistakes of more developed nations.

Governments in the region started building an online presence in the late 1990s, but are now actively developing online services to interact with citizens. The Internet is seen as a way to reduce costs, become more efficient and develop more transparent services — and help to reduce corruption in a region that is rife with it.

There are a number of challenges, though, in bridging the digital divide — considering many people don’t even have telephones. First off, citizens need Internet access. In Mexico, the government’s E-Mexico initiative, a

US$13.5-billion joint public and private sector initiative, will provide basic Internet access to at least 10,000 communities around the country. Brazil’s San Paulo state has also installed infocentres that serve more than 3.5 million low-income users. However, the task of providing ubiquitous Internet access across the region remains daunting.

E-government requires not only IT infrastructure, but a vision — and follow-through on that vision. Most countries have started with basic offerings that have tangible benefits, such as online tax collection systems and passport processing. And most have bigger plans in the works: Chile, for example, has more than 260 e-government projects either planned or in progress, including 66 public Web sites.

Improving transparency and openness in government processes seems to be a priority in the region. Brazil’s move to online procurement is one example. In August 2002, the government required that national, state and local governments use its Comprasnet portal to bid on government contracts. Today, more than 150,000 suppliers are registered with the government; each transaction saves an average of 25 per cent. And, of course, the system makes the procurement process more transparent.

Brazil, along with Chile and its ComprasChile portal, are leading the way — regionally — in this area. The Chilean government’s site, for example, offers an online service where users can provide information to be considered for decision-making. Argentina is also making strides: the government has launched Active Control, a Web site where citizens can monitor procurement tenders in the public sector.

Such initiatives show the Internet can be used as a tool for limiting corruption in public bids.

But regional instability has caused some concern that e-government initiatives won’t be followed through if a new leader or government takes over. Political and economic instability in countries such as Venezuela and Argentina make e-government a particular challenge.

And some argue that in volatile regions, providing online services to citizens may not be a top priority. But e-government isn’t just about paying taxes online or booking the local community centre over the Internet. It’s about giving citizens access to information that allows them to make decisions about their lives. In many countries, however, information isn’t freely available online — or offline, for that matter. In many Latin American countries, freedom of information — and freedom of the press — is limited, presenting a major obstacle to dissemination of information. Often, the benefits of e-government are hard to quantify, but one of them clearly is increasing citizen participation and opening up communication both ways.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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