Anthony Ming, Omer Awan and Naveed Somani (editors). e-Governance in Small States (London: Commonwealth Secretariat, 2013), pp. 134.

Reviewed by: Basilio G. Monteiro (St. John’s University, NY, USA)

The onset and diffusion of the internet ushered in an era of great hope for better governance – an era of transparency and efficiency for societies chronically marred with corruption and gross inefficiencies. The expectations, undoubtedly, were high as deus ex machina would guard us from all evils. Visions of ­no-corruption were flashing everywhere; the bean counters of efficiencies developed all kinds of models to demonstrate how the internet would deliver the highest levels of services to the citizens by their governments.

Secretary-General Attends Celebration of Bangladeshi e-Governance Initiative in 2011. photo credit: UN photo/Mark Garten.

E- Governance, an idea floated by former Vice-President of the USA, Mr. Al Gore, has been making its way in the functioning of governance. Internet is an integral part of governance. The arrival of the internet connectivity in governance improves efficiency, cuts costs, and alters the interaction between the government and its citizens.

It is difficult to develop a workable definition of e-governance as it is in a constant stage of evolution and its meaning differs according to one’s normative perspective.

E-Governance in Small States, edited by Ming, Awan and Somani, is an ambitious project developed by a group of Commonwealth Secretariat officers. It aims to facilitate “access to the governing process and encourage deeper citizen participation” (p .2). The authors of this edited volume systematically build a compelling case for the adoption of e-governance in all of its forms and in every area of governance. Case studies conducted in various countries inform a carefully laid out guidance for e-governance.

One may question the capacity of small states to embrace e-governance due to “considerable challenges… including the high cost of technology, the lack of infrastructure, limited human capital and weak private sector.” (p. xi). It is important to note that the authors make it clear from the outset: “that e-governance is not a technology project; it is a government transformation project. It is not merely the computerization of government operations, but a process that supports fundamental elements of good governance such as democracy, democratic processes and institutions that reflect fundamental human rights, openness, participation and effective, just and honest government” (p. xi). This lofty ideal is, understandably, elusive even for deus ex machina. At a minimum, e-governance can provide automation of internal records and make information and services publicly available.

Secretary-General Attends Celebration of Bangladeshi e-Governance Initiative 2011. photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

Chapter two, “E-Governance in Small States”, identifies areas in which the implementation of e-governance can benefit the population. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as a panacea for good governance faces the reality of human factors, such as cultural attitudes towards technology and political will of the leaders. These issues are outside the bounds of computation, at least for the moment. The “SWIFT Framework” analyzes the suitability of e-governance and highlight possible areas of difficulty. It may be suitable to usher in transparency and efficiency at the government level; however, this process is impeded by the demands of suitable infrastructure, which requires a high level of capital at the initial stage and ongoing maintenance.  An underlying assumption for promoting e-governance is that it is cost efficient. This assumption may be questionable due to the fact that the back-end support system of e-governance requires highly specialized technicians, with very high salary expectations. E-governance also requires an ongoing upgrading of technology, which is increasingly prohibitive, especially for small states. Additionally, e-governance will displace workers and thus create another set of economic and social problems, which are usually associated with high unemployment.

Standardization of governmental projects, access and delivery processes, ICTs, and the politics of “identity authentication” are serious issues with no easy solutions.  When discussing “technology-rich human capital”, the authors take into account the educational component that is required for the citizens to participate and benefit from e-governance. Emigration of skilled labor, which contributes to the ongoing economic stagnation and degradation of the small states, is one of the structural blocks to the development of e-governance in small states.

The “E-Governance Management” chapter correctly highlights that e-governance is not possible without the national political leadership, despite its technical success. The case of New Zealand is a good example. In New Zealand, e-governance is anchored on a “national vision”, which serves as a “unifying mechanism to promote development”(p. 42). It is critical for all of the actors, involved in the project of e-governance, to understand that e-governance is not just a “technology project,” but rather a “government transformation initiative”(p. 42).  The success of New Zealand’s initiative corresponds to a variety of favorable factors provided by its societal structure, such as moderate population size, highly educated citizens, lack of production-economic base, and financial capital to invest in the ICTs. Other small states often lack these factors.

International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies, 2005. photo credit: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz.

The authors systematically, and with a good dose of enthusiasm, lay out the stages necessary to establish the structures for e-governance. Yet, they also candidly warn that e-governance is not a “quick fix” solution; the journey to attain successful e-governance, if at all, is a prolonged process, which will cross various generations. As chapter two demonstrates, small states have a very precarious existence with existential threats constantly looming everywhere. Despite the success of small e-governance projects, it looks like state-level proposals and models are merely tabletop exercises. Omer Awan addresses the question of infrastructure with a lofty expectation that “[a]n enabling environment needs to be created which supports e-development and allows ICTs to perform to the optimal level for social and economic progress” (p. 34). Who will create it? Is there political will to create that kind of environment? In reality, political life is fraught with raw ambitions and abject greed among the political classes, even in small states.

Emerging Directions in e-Government, by Naveed Somani, deserves serious attention. Digital mobility is the new norm. The concerns of information security are swirling at the same time as the push for internetization-of-everything is relentlessly promoted. Will e-governance be an easy bloodless target of cyberwarfare? The costs of maintaining a safe and efficient internet are increasingly prohibitive. Will small states be at the greatest disadvantage, as the authors of this book identified, based on their initial problems with embracement of cyber technology? Somani states that the elasticity of cloud technologies gives flexibility, which can provide control over the “up-front capital costs” (p. 126). However, politics and governance cannot be mechanized; politics and public policy are as human as they can get and e-governance can be at best an adjunct amidst the whims and capriciousness of the human rulers, whether in the small states or the big ones, the poor states or the rich ones.