24 Juli 2020

Libraries Supporting Digital Governance: Insights from the 2020 UN E-Government Survey

E-government – the use of ICT to deliver public services and conduct government operations – aims not only to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector, but also to promote the values of openness, transparency, accountability and public access to information.

These principles are of course relevant to the work and values of the library field; and libraries can offer support to digital government initiatives and strategies. The 2020 UN E-Government Survey Report offers some insights on the way libraries can help build inclusive and effective e-governments.

The growth of digital government

The United Nations E-Government Survey, conducted by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, maps and examines the development of digital government across all UN member states. The survey was first launched in 2001, and today new installments are released biannually.

To measure e-government readiness and capacity across different states and regions, as well as track changes over time, the Survey Report uses the E-Government Development Index (EGDI). This is a compound measurement developed specifically for this survey, sometimes reviewed and adjusted to account for the changing e-governance and ICT landscape.

It is based on three dimensions: telecommunications infrastructure, human capital, and online content and services. Data for the first two are derived from International Telecommunications Union and UNESCO sources, while the latter is measured through a survey distributed to UN member states.

Drawing on the 2020 EGDI scores, the most recent survey report points out that the uptake and quality of digital government worldwide continue to grow. Across all UN Member States, the global average EGDI score has increased, and more countries (now 65%) received a high or very high score.

Overall, the average EGDI scores of all five regions (Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania) have grown since the last instalment of the report.

However, a chapter dedicated to regional trends notes several common opportunities and challenges shared across different regions; and one of such challenges has to do with connectivity and access to technology (and sometimes digital skills). From an end-user access perspective, this is an area where libraries can offer help.

Public internet access in libraries as part of an e-government strategy

The report points out that free internet access in places such as libraries can help overcome challenges of insufficient connectivity or affordability of internet access of devices. This helps more people benefit from available e-governance tools and services – which is why one of the E-Governance Survey questions asks about the “existence of free access to government services through kiosks, community centers, post offices, libraries, public spaces of free Wi-Fi”.

What does library public access contribute to? The analysis that follows references public internet access to e-government services in two contexts. First, their availability is one of the indicators included in the supplementary E-Participation Index – a scale which measures how the deeply the government engages the public online; ranging from information provision, to consultation, to decision-making.

The second perspective points to how free public access helps bridge the digital divide at large – one of the measures aimed at building up society’ digital capacity and ensuring that no-one is left behind. This, in turn, helps facilitate the uptake and use of digital public services. Alongside institutional, organisational and individual capacities, society-level digital capacity enables effective e-government transformation.

Finally, free public internet access in libraries and similar venues is part of the more recently developed Local Online Service Index. This examines e-government mechanisms on a city level.

The assessment is built on four dimensions – technical features of city portals, content provision (availability of key public information and resources online, to which free public internet access contributes), online service provision, and opportunities for public participation and engagement.

The report notes that overall, city portals tend not to perform as well as national ones. Inadequate infrastructure and substantial technology costs can be a major challenge for local e-government, both on the supply and demand sides. Here, free public internet access can be a useful tool to help reduce costs for users.

The takeaway. In short, free internet access in libraries, community centers, kiosks and similar venues can facilitate e-participation and use of e-services, help bridge digital divides and build up society’s digital capacity for e-governance transformation. The report therefore points out:

“Since private Internet access is not possible in many contexts, Governments must expand public access options, including Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces, Internet kiosks for services, and similar alternatives. Such measures require significant public investment and will need to be funded from national budgets, though outside partnerships might ease the financial burden and also invite innovation.”

“The top priorities for local government authorities should be bringing people online and increasing their satisfaction. Governments can facilitate access to e-services by ensuring that Wi-Fi services (and in some cases Wi-Fi-enabled devices) are available at existing public venues such as libraries, city halls, educational institutions, and kiosks, and Wi-Fi access can be provided in public spaces such as transport stations, parks and hospitals.”

How many? As of the 2020 update, 91 countries offered free access to government services and/or free WiFi online through kiosks, libraries or post offices, community centers and other facilities. At the local level, 48.8% out of 100 examined cities offered such access.

Beyond public access

While not referencing libraries directly, the report also addresses several areas which may be of interest to the library sector. 

For example, adult literacy levels - while not measured by the Member State Questionnaire - do contribute to the total e-government scores of each country. As mentioned earlier, the total scores are derived from three elements: the Online Service Index, measured through a dedicated questionnaire, the Telecommunications Infrastructure Index, and the Human Capital Index. Adult literacy rate is one of the four components measuring the Human Capital Index; so it can be useful for libraries to reflect on the work they do to support literacy and lifelong learning through the lens of e-government.

Similarly, libraries may also find interesting the report’s insights on the digital and e-participation skills important for the public at large (considering libraries’ experience with digital skills training and e-participatory programming like hackathons or editathons), as well as open public/government data.

To find out more, you can read the full survey report at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Public Institutions website.

Access to information, Digital divide, Digital inclusion, Government information, Information technology

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