The COVID-19 pandemic has forced authorities around the world to recognize the importance of bringing public services and other government functions into the digital age.
The Group of 20 has sought to provide support to assist this transition, particularly for low-income countries, but as digital economy ministers from member countries convene this Thursday in Bali, it is evident that much work remains to be done.
In this respect, Singapore can be an inspirational model of e-governance for other nations around Asia and beyond. In recognition of its achievements, it has been invited to join this week’s discussions by Indonesia, the G-20’s host country for 2022, even though Singapore is not a member of the group.
Indeed, Singapore happens to be the founder and chair of the Global Governance Group, an informal bloc of 30 small and mid-size nations that seeks to boost engagement between the G-20 and the rest of the world to support multilateral cooperation and cooperation.
The G-20 community has been promoting e-governance under the “industry, innovation and infrastructure” plank of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals. Bloc leaders committed in 2017 to reduce the divide in digital infrastructure development between countries better endowed with technology resource and low-income nations by 2025, and to promote international standards for digitization under the principles of openness, transparency and consensus.
“A fully digital government should provide digital services that are proactive, human-centric and user-driven, safe and secure, easy-to-use and accessible to all,” G-20 digital economy ministers agreed in a declaration concluding their summit a year ago in Trieste, Italy. “It should support protecting personal data and privacy of citizens and businesses, in order to foster confidence.”
The challenges of establishing e-governance existed before the pandemic. But as many economies were forced into rapid digital transformations under the pressure of COVID-19, many of those with less access to technology had to cope with increased inefficiency and weakened resiliency. Formulating new legislation to adopt digitization within governance structures has been time consuming, while some governments have also faced resistance from civil servants when trying to integrate technology.
In developing nations, only 47% of households were connected to the internet as of 2019, according to International Telecommunication Union data. This compared with 87% of households in the developed world. With least-developed nations, only 19% of families had an internet connection.
In the case of Singapore, the government began pushing civil service computerization during the early 1980s. The drive focused on developing an innovation-accepting mindset among government employees and raising public awareness of e-government and its benefits.
Since then, Singapore’s stellar e-governance systems have reduced service delivery times and provided secure, virtual access through times of crisis such as the COVID pandemic. When countries around the globe rushed to digitize public services during lockdowns, Singapore had the advantage of enjoying a ready system.
Telehealth systems under development by the country’s Ministry of Health will allow patients at home to measure vital signs such as their blood pressure or heart rate through Bluetooth-equipped watches and other such devices. The agency has deployed robots to patrol public hospital wards to help cope with patient surges during the pandemic.
Singapore is working with Malaysia and the Philippines to further digitize their immigration services to ease entry and exit for its own citizens as well as others. With the use of phone apps, facial-recognition services and other digital tools taking the place of lengthy documentation, travelers will be able to move through airports and border crossings more smoothly and quickly.
Singapore’s e-government services enable its citizens to interact with official agencies online, a concept still alien to many developing nations. Its current e-government action plan would make public services even more accessible, convenient and efficient by focusing on digitized interactions between agencies on the one hand, and citizens, business and public employees on the other.
Singapore’s expertise, experience and continuous innovation can help the wider G-20 community with the transition to digital governance. The Singapore-based Chandler Institute of Governance ranks the country third in the world now for effective governance. Except for New Zealand at No. 9, the rest of the top 10 is composed of Western European nations, highlighting Singapore’s unique opportunity to broaden G-20 discourse to support developing countries in adopting effective e-governance policies.
The slow adoption of technology into governance has proved costly for many countries amid pandemic restrictions on movement. Standardization of e-governance across the G-20 would boost global adoption that could reduce the digital divide and increase international digital collaboration.
Such a digital transformation would provide positive reinforcement for accelerated economic growth and help make the cyber world safe and global governance more accountable and transparent.
Syed Munir Khasru is co-chair of the G-20 Task Force on Digital Transformation and chairman of the international think tank Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance.