U.N.: More governments using the Web, but goal of 'Internet democracy' remains elusive

Tuesday, November 4th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Most of the world's nations have their own Web sites, but only 20 percent of people with Internet access use them, according to a U.N. report released Tuesday.

A total of 173 of the U.N.'s 191 members had Web sites in 2003, according to the U.N. World Report on the Public Sector, entitled ``E-Government at the Crossroads.'' Just two years ago, 143 nations had Web sites.

Only 18 countries, many in Africa, remain completely off-line.

While Web-based access can link citizens to everything from schools to hospitals and libraries, only a few government sites encourage users to help make policy, the report said.

``Only a very few governments have opted to use e-government applications for transactional services or networking, and even fewer use it to support genuine participation of citizens in politics,'' it said.

The United States led the rankings of e-government ``readiness,'' or the amount of information, services and products offered over the Internet combined with the infrastructure _ such as telephones, computers and Internet connections _ needed to access them.

Sweden ranked second, followed by Australia, Denmark, Great Britain, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Germany and Finland.

Most Americans who use government Web sites get tourism information, do research for school or work, download government forms or get information on services.

``U.S. users perceive the availability of e-government first and foremost as an opportunity to get quick and easy access to information,'' the report said.

In another ranking for ``e-participation,'' or the government's willingness to interact and dialogue with citizens over the Internet, Great Britain beat the United States for the top spot.

The top 10 included New Zealand, France, the Netherlands, Ireland and several developing countries _ Chile, Estonia, the Philippines, Mexico and Argentina.

Estonia, for example, has a site called ``Today I Decide'' at which people can propose, amend, and vote on policy issues. Officials then are required to consider those proposals.

Still, only 15 governments in the world accept Internet comment on public policy issues and only 33 allow government transactions, like filing forms or paying fines, over the Internet.

At least 60 percent of all e-government projects in developing countries fail, and about half waste some taxpayer money, the report said.

But there are success stories, including Hong Kong's one-stop Electronic Service Delivery, which allows citizens to do everything from pay taxes to renew their driver's license on the Web.

Other countries publish bids for government purchasing contracts on the Web to help fight corruption and kickbacks. South Korea's OPEN application/complaint portal allows users to see exactly where their case is being handled in the government approval process.

But the report said ``a too-grandiose approach may result in failures or expensive white elephants.''

``Because of a high rate of failure in specific e-government projects in developed as well as developing nations, bricks-and-mortar public services need to be maintained even as digital applications are increasing,'' the report said.

In many countries, women and the poor have less access to the Internet than other sectors. ``Security and privacy issues'' also discourage use among all populations, the report noted.

The Internet has more potential for governments than simply being a place for citizens to easily access basic information and forms.

``Many governments turn to Internet-based services as a way to cut red tape,'' said Jose Antonio Ocampo, the U.N. undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs.

``But we also see the Internet as a means of advancing and consolidating transparency and democracy.''