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Social, political and cultural aspects of ICTs

Article Index
Social, political and cultural aspects of ICTs
Issues in the Asia-Pacific context
From e-government to e-governance
ICT and the potential for advancing democratic pro
Does technology change society?
“Future-proofing” digital economies in the Asia-Pa
Community and family life in the digital age

From e-government to e-governance

It has been suggested that if 1993 to 1996 were the exploratory years for the popular Internet and 1997 to 1999 were the days of e-commerce and e-business, from 2000 onwards we would see the rise of e-government (Yong, 2003). (This is despite the fact that business-based websites in many countries continue to comprise over half the nation’s language-based presence on the Web.)

The 2003 UN Global E-Government Survey (United Nations, 2003a) provides proof of the rapid spread of e-government, with countries worldwide embracing ICTs for e-government. When the survey was first conducted in 2001, only 143 member states were using the Internet in some capacity; but by 2003, 173 of the 191 (or 91 percent) UN member countries assessed had a web presence. Examples of e-government might include Nepal’s visionary Bharatpur Municipality, which introduced e-governance to 14 local wards, providing such functions as service delivery, requests for information and filing of complaints. Similarly, the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (, supported by World Bank funding, is reengineering the government – not simply to automate government services but to use ICT to create better (more responsive, more inclusive) governance.

But what exactly is e-government? Is it different from e-governance? What are the domains of both? These are non¬trivial questions, as our understanding of e-government or e-governance determines the kind of e-government or e-governance projects that will be implemented. What is at stake is the scope of ICT deployment in the most significant policy-making and consensus-building processes.

Back to basics

Governments and governance are the stuff of political science. Government refers to “the formal institutional structure and location of authoritative decision-making in the modern state” (Leftwich, 2000, p. 118). On the other hand, governance refers to “the process whereby elements in society wield power and authority, and influence and enact policies and decisions concerning public life, and economic and social development” (International Institute of Administrative Sciences, 1996). The former refers to a formal institution; the latter is a process. Governance is a broader concept than government. In fact, one can have governance without government. Anarchists were among the first to profess this idea. It is also implicit in Marx’s concept of communism as a stateless society. Governance without government is also a well-accepted concept in international relations,3 where governance extends across and between nations in a manner which demonstrates that the whole (governance) is greater than the sum of its parts (governments).

In their book Democratic Governance, James March and Johan Olsen (1995) advise that there are three domains of governance (pp. 122–3):

  • Administration: a domain of expertise and problem-solving in which there are problems of incomplete information but not of conflict of interest
  • Politics: a domain of constitutional procedures by which diverse interests and beliefs are translated into rules, principles and policies that are binding within the state
  • International relations: a domain which involves dealings between sovereign states
  • March and Olsen make the important point that governance is not simply about more efficient delivery of public services but also about “who gets what, when and how”. However, they tend to tie the domain of administration and the domain of politics too much to the nation-state. Surely, there are also issues of administration and politics in international relations: in the global alliances and trans¬national forums beyond “government”? The concept of governance introduces matters of ethics and philosophy in place of (or as well as) efficiency and service delivery.
  • David Held (1995) provides us with another perspective on governance. He posits four levels of governance (p. 235):
  • Local-level governance: covering issues and policy questions which involve people in the direct determination of the conditions of their own association, from policing to playgrounds, that primarily affect them. This is the level addressed by, for example, Nepal’s municipal associations (
  • National-level governance: over issues, collective problems and policy questions that significantly affect the people in delimited territories within the frontiers of the territory. One instance of this might be the provision of online public services in the Philippines, such as application for passports or for copies of birth, marriage or death certificates.
  • Regional-level governance: encompassing issues which require transnational mediation because of the interconnectedness of national decisions and outcomes and because nations in these circumstances often find themselves unable to achieve their objectives without transborder collaboration among neighbouring states. The e-ASEAN Framework Agreement4 might be indicated here.
  • Global-level governance: of issues involving levels of interconnectedness and interdependence which are irresolvable by local, national or regional authorities acting alone. The two-phase World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS Geneva 2003 and Tunis 2005) points up the potential for this level of governance.

While interesting and important, it must be noted that Held’s typology is simply based on the locus of decision-making.

From March and Olsen’s three domains of governance and Held’s four levels of governance, we can generate a broader, if not more comprehensive, perspective on the breadth and depth of governance. In this perspective, governance involves both the domain of administration and the domain of politics, and there are governance issues at the local, national, regional and global levels in each domain. There is no separate domain of international relations because it is covered in the regional and global levels of administration and politics. Furthermore, governance is not only about public life but also about social and economic issues.

E-government and e-governance

While definitions of e-government abound, they all have a common thread: it is the use of ICT to improve public services. The World Bank (n.d.) defines e-government as “the use by government agencies of information technologies . . . that have the ability to transform relations with citizens, businesses, and other arms of government” (italics added).

Richard Heeks (2004) elaborates on the dominant definition of e-government by proposing three main domains of e-government:

  • E-administration: which deals particularly with improving the internal workings of the public sector
  • E-citizens and e-services: which deal particularly with enhancing the relationship between the government and citizens – either as voters/stakeholders from whom the public sector should derive its legitimacy or as customers who consume public services
  • E-society: which deals with enhancing the relationship between public agencies and other institutions, including improving the interaction between the government and businesses, building the social and economic capacities and capital of local communities, and creating organisational groupings to achieve economic and social objectives

In Singapore, over a third of all Singaporeans deal with their government via the Internet using e-government tools.

E-governance, on the other hand, is defined as “the transformation of [governance] processes [resulting from] the continual and exponential introduction into society of more advanced digital technologies”.5 This definition underscores the capacity of ICT to strengthen the “public’s voice as a force to reshape the democratic processes, and refocus the management, structure, and oversight of government to better serve the public interest”. The Inter-American Development Bank says the same thing: “e-Governance allows direct participation of constituents in government activities.”6

From the definitions above, it is apparent that in the dominant view there is really no difference between e-government and e-governance. Furthermore, e-governance is construed narrowly: the definitions focus on public life and do not include decision-making in economic and social processes. Finally, the regional and international dimensions of governance are absent in the definitions.

In practice, we see a further narrowing of e-government to enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of national government agencies, or e-administration. As asserted by Accenture (2004), a consulting firm which undertakes e-government surveys:

The goal for e-government now is to tailor service delivery to meet citizens’ needs, as opposed to approaching it from the government side. As a result, leading governments are becoming more critical in determining which services should be online. They are focused now on providing those online services that provide a real return on investment, either through increased service effectiveness or efficiency.

This claim is backed up by the findings of the 2003 UN Global E-Government Survey. Among this survey’s main findings was that only a handful of governments used e-government initiatives to support genuine participation of citizens in politics (United Nations, 2003b). E-governance initiatives at the regional and global levels were even rarer.

Regional e-governance in the domain of administration would include the use of ICT to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the ASEAN Secretariat ( It would also include the greater use of the Internet by various ASEAN bodies (e.g. ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN Regional Forum) to facilitate discussions and consensus. A specific project that would fall under this domain would be a Pan-ASEAN ICT-enabled customs procedure.

Regional e-governance initiatives in the domain of politics, outside the Asia-Pacific region, would include initiatives to use ICT to increase the voice of citizens of European Union (EU) member countries in the European Parliament or in the EU’s discussion of a new constitution for Europe.

Global e-governance would include enhanced use of ICT in the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council or at world summits.

The world summit, Hans Klein (2003) suggests, emerged as a new global policy institution at the end of the cold war and provides an interesting model for global governance. Klein asserts that a distinct world summit model has emerged from the series of UN summits beginning with the Earth Summit in 1992 and extending forward to the 2003/2005 WSIS. The world summit model consists of a set of preparatory activities, enlarged global participation, and the summit products. But what is truly unique about this model is the participation of governments, industry and civil society. With the world summit model, global policy-making is no longer the monopoly of governments.

WSIS provides a clue to how the world summit model of global governance could be transformed into a model for global e-governance. It is not so much the focus of WSIS that is important, but the use of ICT in the preparatory phase, during and after the summit meeting, and between the two phases of the summit. The Internet and other ICTs were widely used to update participants and other interested parties on the developments during the preparatory sessions for each of the phases. During the Geneva meeting itself, some civil society organisations raised privacy concerns with regard to the use of radio frequency identification cards at the summit (in principle, the technology allowed the tracking of participants while they were at the summit site). It would be difficult to imagine how the WSIS call “to set up a working group on Internet governance, in an open and inclusive process that ensures a mechanism for the full and active participation of governments, the private sector and civil society from both developing and developed countries” could be fulfilled without the extensive use of ICT.

At present, “virtual” world summits with “real” effects are infeasible – thus physical travel remains a necessity – but without ICT it would be far more expensive to participate in world summits, the quality of discussions would be lower, and the summits would be less effective as instruments of global governance.

The future of governance

Given the foregoing, and the potential of e-governance to revolutionise popular participation in civil society, why is e-government synonymous with e-administration at the national level? We believe that any comprehensive explanation would include the following particulars: (1) the consequences of funding, (2) the hegemony of the limited view of governance as administrative and managerial competence, and (3) the well-entrenched distinction between national and international.

As most e-government projects are funded through public monies or official development assistance, government officials and bureaucrats determine the scope and scale of the projects. It is not surprising that they would prioritise making their job easier over enhancing public participation in decision-making. It is not in many officials’ or bureaucrats’ interest to share power or undermine their own. And even if their intentions were good, there may be “unintended consequences” of their acts.

Furthermore, no discussion of e-government occurs in a vacuum. It is influenced by the dominant ideas of the times. Adrian Leftwich (2000) argues that in the 1990s “good governance” emerged as one of the principal aims of Western aid and development policy, but it is defined from a narrow, managerial perspective and has come to mean “an efficient, independent, accountable and open public service, stripped of corruption and dedicated to the public good” (p. 120). This definition of good governance has become widely accepted in policy-making circles all over the world. But the inclusion of emancipatory and participatory ideals which involve relevant segments of the public as part of good governance has been ignored.

Finally, as Martin Shaw (2000) argues, the “institutionally defined order of national–international relations has been a principal context in which all the other main forms of social division have been entrenched” (p. 27). Hence, it has become “normal” for us to accept that national politics is somehow different from international politics. That while popular participation may be integral in national politics, international politics is a monopoly of governments. This need not be the case, and ICT has an important role to play in any potential democratisation of international politics.

In an era where the power of national governments is seen to be on the wane, there are drawbacks to the dominance of the definition at a national level of e-government as e-administration. At best, ICT is being used to strengthen a fast-weakening entity. At worst, ICT is not being mobilised to amplify the popular voice in the previously restricted arena of international diplomacy.

The dangers of not moving with the times are amply illustrated in the fortunes of WTO. The rise of (violent) opposition to WTO may be partly attributable to its own practices. While WTO professes to have an open and consensus-driven decision-making process, in practice decisions can be made based on informal consultations among small groups of countries that exclude developing states (Steinberg & Mazarr, 2002). There is also the issue that some developing states only articulate the interests of a particular sector of their society (their elite).

Global e-governance can help international policy-making institutions produce good policies that will be acceptable to the global community by broadening the base from which they solicit information and perspectives. The first step in this direction is recognising the limitations of a dominant view that equates e-governance with e-government and defines e-government as e-administration at the national level.


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