Ever since I attended the May 2011 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum, I keep thinking about one of the trends in e-government that was debated there: namely, that the development of e-services is directly linked to the active involvement of citizens and the private sector in the delivery of public services. Consequently, there is a need to increase the level and depth of all stakeholders' participation in decision making and in the process of implementing e-governance. This, together with international, national and individual cooperation, could help address the issue of achieving an all-inclusive Information Society. On the other hand, the heterogeneity of e-government models and the great gap between knowledge-based and rudimentary societies are the biggest impediments to overcome. In this context, we need to discern what influence and role e-governance plays in bridging the digital divide.
THE DIMENSIONS OF THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
The concept of the digital divide has been evolving over the years, being generally defined as a social issue linked to the different amount of information between those individuals who have access to the information society and information and communication technologies (ICTs) and those who do not. It also refers to countries, regions, cities, and businesses that are at a differentiated socio-economic and cultural level with regard to ICT accessibility. This gap includes imbalances in terms of access to Internet infrastructure, information and knowledge, and equality of opportunity depending on income, race, ethnicity, gender or other similar criteria.
The nature of the digital divide is complex and debatable; therefore, an accurate diagnosis of its causes is imperative in order to discern and implement the proper solutions. The digital divide is wide. There is a strong correlation between the digital divide and poverty. Almost 40 per cent of the world population lives in low-income countries. About one billion people have no access to ICT. In addition, the digital divide comes in many forms. Studies demonstrate that regardless of how many info-kiosks or tele-centres are installed in a low-income or developing country, the probability of Internet use is ten times higher for a person in a developed or high-income country than for a person in a developing country. This demonstrates that education and changing mentalities are key factors in bridging the digital divide. Governments should act by developing and using e-government tools in order to enhance e-readiness, encourage and educate the usage of ICT, and support the development of ICT skills in a non-discriminative manner.
CAUSES AND SOLUTIONS TO THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Researchers report a wide variety of factors which favour the increasing gap, such as, among others, low income and other financial limitations, lower-quality or high-priced connections, low level of education, lack of digital literacy, poor technical assistance, and limited access to quality ICT content.
The cost and affordability of ICT is a big issue in many countries, but a bigger one is the lack of knowledge and understanding of the technology. Studies show that over 40 per cent of the world population does not have the opportunity to learn how to use a computer. This is the hardest issue to address, as it implies changes in both education and mentality, as well as investments in e-services. E-governance should play the leading role in creating usable e-government tools, regardless of the level of education. Some governmental websites are very complicated and unfriendly both in access and content. Adopting an integrated and citizen-oriented approach may lead Governments to increase equal opportunities in the use of ICTs.
Cooperation between relevant stakeholders in the e-government field, such as central governments, local public authorities, the private sector, academia, civil society, and international organizations is a key factor. These stakeholders should act upon the guidelines within the commitments taken at the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society.1 The ICT applications and the implementation of e-government strategies, promoting transparency in public administrations and democratic processes, are an important part of the common vision and guiding principles. International collaboration, together with provision of means of implementation, would take us one step further in bridging the digital divide.
Governments should play the leading role in enabling creation and deployment of accessible e-services and understandable ICT content. Moreover, they should facilitate the development of a proper and non-discriminative environment for e-government through the regulatory frameworks, strategic directions and Government guarantees. E-governance could become a similar powerful instrument in bridging the gap, such as ensuring affordable broadband2 access. New technology could provide easer to use devices such as computers and mobile communication. A good example is a device called "Simputer," which is extremely easy to use and can be used even by the illiterate. Furthermore, scientists predict that by 2018 the number of mobile phones will equal the world population. These are facts that should awaken Governments all over the world.
A comprehensive approach in appropriately assessing the digital divide is essential. The international ranking is usually based on the number of Internet users, as it measures connectivity and access. If we take into consideration that there are many countries with problems such as illiteracy, lack of running water or widespread famine, this approach is deficient. International organizations should adopt a comprehensive approach, using both quality and quantity based indicators. Evaluation has a vital role in measuring the success or failure in the implementation of various methods for bridging the digital divide.
The involvement of Governments and suitable e-government tools could become leading actors in bridging the gap. Governmental ICT applications could play a crucial part in diminishing the digital divide between the young and elderly, women and men, the illiterate and the educated, or even between less developed regions and countries. The media, along with the local authorities and academia, can and should be a major tool for efficient and effective communication and dissemination. The Governments of developing countries should raise the priority of e-government applications in their request for international assistance and collaboration as well as international financial support. The next step must be the harmonization of e-government regulations, building and reaching a consensus in the implementation of a basic-kit of interconnected and interoperable e-services.
Some people say that the Internet is rapidly transforming our society. ICT, the computer, and the associated networks play an increasingly important role in the process of learning and in people's careers. Accordingly, the existing digital divide has a negative impact on people living in less developed regions, as well as those in the lower socio-economic strata. The only stakeholders who can provide equal opportunities are the Governments, so they should assume a leading role in e-governance as a key instrument in closing the divide.
The key elements in developing e-governance as a defining factor in bridging the digital divide are:
- International, national and regional cooperation.
- Harmonization of the legal framework and regulation.
- Ensuring a minimal package of interconnected and interoperable e-services.
- Promoting ICT skills and digital literacy in a non-discriminative manner.
- Educating and preparing the population of less-developed regions for the Information Society and encouraging e-readiness.
- Running pilot e-services in less-developed regions together with the proper technical assistance.
- Developing e-learning and suitable ICT content.
- Developing e-participation and the inclusion of various social categories in policymaking and decision making, even by using new media technologies, such as social networks.
- Usage of mobile communication as infrastructure for the dissemination of e-services.
- Increasing the transparency in decision making and budget spending by implementing e-services.
- Involving the citizens in all aspects of local and national public administration processes.
- Increasing the quality of life in all its aspects through better e-services and access to knowledge.
Two best practices examples illustrate the benefits that e-governance can provide. The first example is the e-health application designed by the Egyptian Government in order to provide free breast cancer screening to Egyptian women above the age of 45. The system is based on satellite connectivity so that the tests can be transmitted from remote units. This e-service helps with the early stage treatment of breast cancer in a non-discriminatory manner. The second best practice case comes from Nigeria, where the Government initiated an e-agriculture application to help the agricultural sector. The advantages are the provision of strategic information, as well as the promotion of new helpful ICT skills among Nigerian farmers.
As demonstrated in a recent survey conducted in Europe by the United Nations Subgroup C7 e-Government for Sustainable Development and the Institute for Management and Sustainable Development, quality of life is directly correlated with the level of e-government services and ICT related opportunities. The respondents identified the resistance to change as the main obstacle in implementing e-services and indicated that individual coherent strategy and public policy in the e-government field should be aligned to international standards. Again, this demonstrates the important role of e-governance in bridging the digital divide and developing a citizen-oriented, equitable digital society.
In order to gain a sustainable society, Governments and other concerned stakeholders should concentrate on ensuring equal opportunities for the young and future generations. ICT is a vital component of that future, and bridging the digital divide should become a world priority. The provision of suitable e-services and the promotion of digital literacy should become a security matter and a top priority for Governments, in order to ensure their country or region a place in the future knowledge based society.
1 WSIS was in two phases: Geneva in December 2003 and Tunis in November 2005.
2 The term "broadband" is used to describe high data rate connection to the Internet that provides speeds significantly faster than dial-up connections.