I recently spoke at an international government forum on electronic identity. One of the key points I made in my speech was that the success rate of eGovernment projects in developing countries is very low.
In fact, based on a paper by Richard Heeks, we have following baseline estimates,
- 35% of eGovernment projects were considered total failures (i.e the initiative was never implemented or was implemented but immediately abandoned),
- 50% were partial failures (i.e major goals for the initiative were not attained and/or there were significant undesirable outcomes), and
- only 15% were considered successful (i.e most stakeholder groups attained their major goals and did not experience significant undesirable outcomes).
Although the statistics is the result of a study done in 2003, it seems that the situation has not changed much. This is the conclusion that I gathered from my own experience of working with government agencies in more than 25 countries over the past decade, as well as through interactions with friends and associates within the same circle.
Main cause of failure
According to Heeks, the main culprit for eGovernment failures in developing countries is the mismatch between the current reality and the design of the future e-government system.
In more layman terms, it basically means the biggest problem is really consultants, software vendors, international donor agencies and western trained civil servants from the developed worlds. We design systems for an industrialized country context and then try to transfer it to a developing country.
Whether this is due to a misplaced belief that “the developed is always better than the developing”, or just a profit-driven decision to force-fit potential projects into a “ready-made system”, the fact remains that a system designed and implemented for a developed country will never match the reality of another developing country. In such situations, there exists a large gap in the physical, cultural, economic, and various other contexts between the software designers and the place in which the system is being.
In a recent discussion I had with Lars Karlsson, a close associate and good friend of mine who was the first Director of Capacity Building with World Customs Organization (WCO), and has worked extensively with more than 100 different countries, he had this to say.
“eGovernment projects fail in developing countries (in my opinion) primarily because they are technology-driven, when they should be people and process driven.
To utilize the potential of eGvoernment, process, organization and people must change.
The irony is that it is often easier for developing countries to change. This is because they often lack the deadlocks that exist in the developed countries. For example, they are not bound by old legacy systems that are difficult to replace.”
Very often, the industry will push the latest, the most advanced, the most sophisticated technology or commodity. Whether developed or developing, the focus is generally centered on technology. And sometimes, this “fixation” is both from the industry and the government themselves. Features and functions are heavily discussed instead of what is necessary and appropriate for the people, the country.
Types of design-reality gap failures
“eGovernment failures come in more varieties than Heinz” but Heeks postulates that there are 3 main types of failures. They are:
- Hard-Soft Gaps. This happens when eGovernment systems are designed based on actual technology considerations (hard) but in implementation, they are usually influenced by the social context involving people, politics, emotions and culture (soft). The likelihood to fail is high when a hard e-government design meets a soft reality.
- Private-Public Gaps. This gap is quite self-explanatory. Such gaps occur when a system designed for the private sector is sold to the public sector, usually on grounds of ‘market best practice’. But the issue is that, fundamentally, the public sector reality will always be different from the private sector because the main purpose of existence is different.
- Country Context Gaps. This gap is what I referred to as the main culprit earlier. A design-reality gap when an eGovernment system designed in and for an industrialised nation is introduced in a developing/transitional country.
The key to closing this gap is to listen to understand, and not to reply. In the words of Stephen R. Covey,
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
This is a very common mistake that people like myself commit. It is only if we start listening to really understand the problems that developing countries are facing can we change this situation and start delivering successful projects. The “one-size-fit-all” solution does not work, especially solutions developed for a developed country’s context, which is completely different from a developing country’s reality.
In my experience, I usually come across a mix of the hard-soft gap and country context gap when trying to explain or implement an identity management system in a developing country.
What about you? If you are from a developing country and have worked on any eGovernment related initiatives, I would love to hear from your perspective. Or even if you’re not, I would still like to hear and learn from your experience in working with developing countries on such projects.