ELECTRONIC GOVERNMENT – CIVILIZATIONAL INEVITABILITY
Less than a year is left before Russia will have an electronic government, the concept of which was approved by the real government in May 2008. The “people’s presentation” of the virtual cabinet is planned for the beginning of 2010. The conception defines electronic government as “a new form of organization of activities of state authorities, providing, due to extensive use of information and communication technologies, a qualitatively new level of efficiency and convenience of receipt by organizations and citizens of state services and information on the results of activities of state authorities”.
Now a working group involving scientists from the Higher School of Economics is studying the readiness of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation to provide public services via the Internet. The Ministry of Communications must agree with the Ministry of Economic Development the latest version of the federal program “Electronic Russia”, which carries the lion’s share of the cost of implementing the concept.
The situation is commented by Yefim Malitikov, the Chairman of the Interstate Committee of the CIS, the President of the International Educational Association “Znanie”. Efim Malitikov represents the CIS and MA Znanie at the UN, from whose rostrum 10 years ago he called for the widest “digitalization” of power.
– Yefim Mikhailovich, you noted that even relatively recently the phrase “e-government” was perceived as “the rule of computers. But finally the ice has turned – are dreams coming true?
– So far I am far from optimistic. First of all, we need innovative changes in ourselves, especially in the psychology of valiant bureaucrats. What good is electronic bidding if, as a rule, “their” contractors win? This is not transparency of government, but an imitation of transparency. I am convinced that the introduction of e-government will have little effect on our bureaucracy; it will not reduce corruption, it will not increase its efficiency, and it will not make it more humane in general, nor will it genuinely help the citizens.
– Then was it really worth making such a fuss? “Transition” of the state to the Internet is not a cheap pleasure, it is billions of dollars…
– Like globalization, internetization is inexorable and unstoppable. The people who try to resist it will become its victims. They will fly far to the margins of the information society to do the blackest work for it. E-government is an inevitability, a sign of modern culture, of high civilization. Life under the new conditions, in any case, will have to be learned by rearranging on the fly. Years will pass, the quality of domestic bureaucracy will improve, and e-government will be at full power. By that time a total Internetization of society will have been achieved. Believe me, all expenses will be repaid many times over by saving time and nerves of huge number of people.
– Yet you look into future with optimism. Then tell us a secret: how to overcome corruption?
– Well, this is a Polichinelle secret. First of all, the government should get rid of unnecessary functions by transferring them, in particular, to self-regulatory organizations. At the same time, this will dramatically reduce the state apparatus. In addition, it is necessary to introduce the presumption of innocence of the taxpayer and the presumption of innocence of the producer. Now they are constantly under suspicion, forced to make excuses and belittle the “sovereign people” all the time. As you know, the President and the Federal Assembly of Russia have recently taken steps in this direction. This is not an easy process, as the corrupt environment itself resists it fiercely. By the way, the blatant unscrupulousness of officials is typical not only for our country.
– Is it the same abroad?
– I constantly encounter the qualities that we used to consider the “trademark” characteristics of our native bureaucracy: lack of initiative, irresponsibility, lack of independence, zero creativity. Karl Marx, whose theory was perverted by the Bolsheviks, knew very well the habits of the servants of the people in many European countries. His conclusion: “Bureaucratism is the separation of form from content, and giving this form an independent content. The problem is that it is difficult to assess the performance of an ordinary civil servant, so he gets a fixed salary regardless of the results of his work. The lack of motivation turns into indifference: people work mechanically, thoughtlessly, while their mind is engrossed in something personal.
– And then it does not matter whether they provide services via the Internet or receive visitors in offices?
– Of course it does. Just one example. At Huffman Aviation, an American aviation school, two buddies learned to fly planes. On September 11, 2001, they were at the controls of two hijacked airliners that rammed the World Trade Center in New York. And on March 11, 2002, exactly six months later, the aviation school received official notification that the two cadets had had their U.S. student visa applications approved since August 2001. A world record of stupidity! Not only were the officials extremely late in sending the notice, but they did not bother to compare the names and photos of the cadets with the kamikaze faces that the whole country was talking about. Meanwhile, the level of Internetization in the United States was already at an all-time high at the time.
– What other problems will the electronic government face?
– Its “launch” could well be delayed. So, a single federal portal with information about all the state services of the country and redirecting the user to the sites of the corresponding departments has not yet been created. In the meantime the portal was planned to be launched in 2008. Its idea is that all people, including business, get the possibility to contact all government bodies from a shared virtual node, 24 hours a day, non-stop, without days off and holidays.
– Why, in your opinion, has the single portal “slowed down”?
– Many departments, especially in the regions, are intellectually too backward to serve the population via remote access. They have an “analog” mentality, they have a huge “digital” gap to overcome. For example, the Social Security Fund and the Medical Insurance Fund stubbornly refuse to accept electronic reporting. The Tax Service and the Pension Fund are incomparably more advanced in this regard.
– However, electronic services can be more expensive than ordinary ones. At least, the user must have a computer connected to the World Wide Web, and this is a cost.
– Indeed, the opportunity to submit balance sheets via the Internet costs a legal entity about ten thousand rubles a year – this is payment to an intermediary firm for an electronic signature, software and its maintenance. But no one has cancelled the “paper” balance sheet, and it must be submitted to the tax authorities. Except that it is possible to do this at the end of the accounting period. So now there is a testing, testing, our general cultivation.
– That is, accountants have more work to do, and their companies have more expenses, which is especially noticeable during the economic crisis.
– This is exactly the case so far. I think that after the triumphant announcement of the launch of e-government, it will take many months to “fine-tune”, “adjust” and “polish” it. But this way, I repeat, is necessary, because there is no other. Do you know what Machiavelli said about this five hundred years ago? “There is nothing more difficult, more dangerous and uncertain than to preside over the introduction of a new order of things, because every innovation has ardent enemies who have lived well in the old way, and sluggish supporters who are not sure whether they can live in the new way.”
– So, sooner or later the population will stop communicating “in real life” with their officials. Won’t they simply be able to ignore incoming requests for government services?
– You speak as if clerks today are rushing to meet the needs of their visitors! On the contrary, software tools will force government agencies to work more clearly and faster, because every request is recorded and controlled automatically. On the basis of well-known in the business systems of customer relationship management (Customer Relationship Management) there are citizen relationship management systems (Citizen Relationship Management). Of course, in the light of Russian mentality, it is theoretically possible to allow some one-time abuse, such as collusion between officials and programmers, but it will not be widespread, it is impossible.
– Let us dream. Let us assume that electronic government in Russia is established, and its work is fine-tuned. Using concrete examples, what good can this do for the people?
– Here are just a few examples from America. Developers coordinate the development of sites with the authorities right from their offices. Motorists, without leaving their homes, put their cars in and out of registration, and renew their driver’s licenses. The virtual gun store is connected to the government service that issues permits for the possession of firearms, so you can beat all sorts of thresholds. Tax returns have been filed through the web for years. And I’m not talking about payments of all kinds – electronic payments have long been the norm for America.
– In the Estonian municipal elections of 2009, it is reportedly possible to vote by cell phone. How applicable would this technology be to Russia, if we recall that the Supreme Court here and there hears complaints about fraud in vote counting?
– Information technologies are dispassionate, they “by definition” cannot act selectively with respect to any political forces. In the familiar to us checkout model of suffrage there is much more room for fraud than in distant voting. Not only in developed countries, but also in developing countries – Brazil, Venezuela, India, Kazakhstan and others – this model is being used. For Russia, this is also a matter of the near future. Voting through the internet or by means of mobile communications will increase public trust in the electoral system and lead to an increase in the number of citizens who exercise their active right to vote.