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Chapter II : The Information Society and the public sector

The discussion on public sector information should be seen in the context of the emerging Information Society. The new Information and Communication Technologies are quickly changing the ways public sector bodies operate. which makes a timely debate on public sector information all the more important.

II.1 Electronic Government

The emerging Information Society, largely driven by an ever increasing and pervasive use of information and communication technologies is more and more affecting the public sector. Administrations follow the example of the private sector and benefit from the enormous potential of these technologies to improve their efficiency. This development is often labelled ‘Electronic Government’ and covers both the internal and external application of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in the public sector.

The importance of this development is increasingly acknowledged in many countries around the world. In Europe experiments are being conducted at all levels of government - local, regional, national and European - to improve the functioning of public services concerned and to extend their interaction with the outside world.

Indeed, the use of Information and Communication Technologies does not only smoothen public administration internal operations, but also strongly supports the communication between different administrations as well as the interaction with citizens and businesses. This is one of the key elements of ‘Electronic Government’: it brings public sector bodies closer to citizens and businesses and leads to better public sector services. At EU level programs like IDA and the actions within Framework Programme V for R&D addressing Administrations enhance the progress in this field.

Electronic government services can generally be distinguished according to the three main functions they serve.

Information services to retrieve sorted and classified information on demand (e.g. WWW sites).

Communication services to interact with individuals (private or corporate) or groups of people (e.g. via e-mail or discussion fora).

Transaction services to acquire products or services on line or to submit data (e.g. government forms, voting).

Table 1 gives an overview of possible services and their application areas.

Table 1 - A typology of Electronic Government services

 


Information services Communication services Transaction services
Everyday life Information on work, housing, education, health, culture, transport, environment, etc. Discussion for a dedicated to questions of everyday life ;

Jobs or housing bulletin boards

e.g. ticket reservation, course registration
Tele-administration Public service directory

Guide to administrative procedures

Public registers and databases

e-mail contact with public servants electronic submission of forms
Political participation Laws, parliamentary papers, political programmes, consultation documents

Background information in decision making processes

Discussion for a dedicated to political issues

e-mail contact with politicians

referenda

elections

opinion polls petitions

Source: Institute of Technology Assessment, Austrian Academy of Sciences and Centre for Social, Background Paper to "the Information Society, Bringing Administration Closer to the Citizens Conference", November 1998 (organised by the Centre for Social Innovation on behalf of the Information Society Forum/Work Group 5/Public Administration).

Transaction services are generally seen as the future of electronic government, since forms have a key role in all administrative processes. In a recent German Delphi study, transaction services were regarded by the experts interviewed to become reality in the next ten years. It is estimated that in the US already 40 percent of all forms of the public administration are available electronically. This way of dealing with government can considerably lower the administrative burden for citizens and businesses alike.

The TESS (Telematics for Social Security) project, funded under the IDA programme, aims at simplifying and accelerating administrative procedures in order to ensure citizen’s access to their rightful social security benefits. The objective is to replace paper forms for information provision by electronic exchange. The two major areas currently addressed by TESS are old age pensions (to ensure that migrant workers get the pensions due to them) and to facilitate reimbursement of sickness benefits in kind (in case the Member State where the benefit in kind was advanced is different to that where the person is insured).

Reengineering public services may require substantial investments by government bodies at all levels as well as a change in culture. However the results are worth it. ‘Electronic government’ leads to a public service that performs better and is closer to the citizens.

The EU is itself involved in considerable reengineering efforts to benefit from the possibilities offered by ‘electronic government’. Transactions with and information to citizens will have an ever increasing ‘electronic’ character. One example: before long the Commission will be able to handle electronic project proposals within the Fifth Framework Programme for Research and Development. Legal barriers at EU level have to be solved to turn these transactions into reality.

One aspect of Electronic Government that is often forgotten is its potential impact on the information market. By applying new technologies and innovative concepts, public authorities at all levels of government can have arole as a driver of the Information Society. The Report on job opportunities in the Information Society 17presented to the Vienna European Council of December 1998 has once more stressed this role of governments. Their example as a leading edge customer will convince citizens and businesses to adopt new technologies themselves and will invite the ICT-industries to explore new pathways.

II.2 Electronic Government and public sector information

The use of new technologies can considerably increase the efficiency of the collection of information. It gives public bodies the possibility to share available information when this is in conformity with data protection rules, rather than duplicating its collection from citizens and businesses. This can notably reduce the administrative burden on citizens and business, and in particular SMEs.

At the same time, sharing information leads to better informed public bodies, that have access to all data relevant for their functioning. In the EU context, more and more information is exchanged between Member States in areas like customs, agriculture, environment, health, statistics, etc.

The ‘electronic revolution’ also has a major impact on the accessibility and dissemination of information. The Internet has a huge potential as a platform where citizens and business can easily find public sector information. All Member States in the EU are taking advantage of this potential.

As part of their dissemination policies, the EU-institutions increasingly use the possibilities offered by the Internet. They maintain a family of web sites offering a large amount of information on the EU and its activities.

More and more people find their way to these web sites, which is shown by the following example: In September 1998 almost 7 million of Commission documents were consulted electronically, more than double the number of consultations of September 1997.

The new technologies will also allow the provision of information and services in a more integrated form. Such integration is especially desirable where a specific information need necessitates contacts with a number of different administrative bodies. This objective goes under the name of "one stop service" or "one stop shopping". The europa.eu.int website forms a single access point for information on all EU institutions.

The digitisation of public sector information facilitates not only access, but also possibilities for its exploitation. A better access to information together with its digital format makes it easier to combine data from different sources. This will allow for the creation of new information products that have public sector information as their raw material.

The digitisation process makes the differences that exist between public sector bodies in Europe in terms of access and exploitation of public sector information more visible and more relevant. These differences create barriers to the full use of the opportunities offered by the new technologies and make a debate on public sector information at European level all the more necessary.

II.3 Electronic access for all?

Our societies are moving towards a situation where everyone has access to the new electronic tools. The penetration of Internet is happening at a much faster pace than the penetration of other information tools like the telephone or television earlier this century. Nevertheless it will take time until a generalised access is realised.

Dissemination of public sector information on the Internet does not automatically imply that all citizens have an equal access to it. Substantial differences exist in access to the tools of the Information Society (computers/modems etc.) and the ability to use them. In this context the Report on job opportunities in the Information Society 18 stresses that the access to such tools and the skills to use them are prerequisites for job creation and need to be prioritised.

This observation points to the need of investing in infrastructures that provide access for all to the electronic networks. Libraries seem to be particularly fit to fulfil this public role, but other possibilities should also be explored.

Infocid
In Portugal a network of ‘Cyber-kiosks’ has been installed throughout the country to give citizens access to the Internet and in particular to information on the public sector. The global, integrated multimedia Infocid system, gives access to government information on a wide range of subjects like employment and training, education, the Law and Courts, housing etc.
http://www.infocid.pt/

In addition this point stresses the importance of investment in Information and Communication Technology-skills. Lacking investment may lead to a society fundamentally split between people that can and people that cannot use the new information tools. Several projects at European level already address this problem, tackling it at the base.

EUN - The European Schoolnet
The aim of the project, funded by the Task Force "Educational Multimedia" and coordinated by the SOCRATES programme, is to establish a European school information network – the European Schoolnet – as a multimedia and communication platform at the services to schools in Europe and as a framework for collaboration at a European level among national educational authorities, universities and industry to develop ICT in schools as regards content, pedagogical approaches and technology.
http://www.eun.org/

Improved skills will in the long run also lead to a better use of public sector information. More informed, computer-literate citizens and businesses will ask for more and better information and will act as an incentive for the public sector to provide better information services and for the information industry to create more value-added information products and services.

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