International solutions

Philipp von Bodenhausen from HSH Global Software
150109_Pic Philipp_HR.jpg

German e-government specialists are now assisting our local government with some of the latest advances in mobile technology in achieving a range of functions with much greater ease and efficiency.

The latest advances in mobile technology is fast-pacing the world in becoming an interconnected, integrated society. Local government now benefits from a range of e-government solutions that is improving on service delivery, as well as a range of other functions.

A large number of countries such as the UK, the US and most of Europe, Germany in particular, have implemented e-government strategies for number of years now with good success.

Curious to know how South Africa can benefit from especially Germany’s success in this regard, and how our municipalities can benefit from this knowledge , technology and skill, from experts from abroad, Service spoke to Philipp von Bodenhausen, HSH Global Software’s Head of Business Development (a subsidiary of German-based HSH Soft- and Hardware Vertriebs GmbH), to find out more about how e-government solutions are currently being implemented in Germany and how South African Municipalities compare.

Von Bodenhausen says e-government is widely defined as using technology to improve the way in which government works. He says that most initiatives address government-to-citizen (and business) and government-to-government processes, with the former aiming at improving service delivery and enhancing interactions with citizens and businesses - with mobile technology public information and services become available “anytime, anywhere”.

“In the future citizens will be able to deal with all government matters via a single 1-Stop-Government platform on their mobile devices, provided the user’s identity can be verified 100%. Herein lies the big challenge.

“Between government departments the focus is on process optimisation to reduce costs, and on improving the quality and availability of data needed for decision making. E.g. tools which automatically manage service and maintenance intervals or monitor performance become highly relevant,” he says.

His company set up business in South Africa in 2012 due to the great demand of African governments for eID systems and civil administration software. A subsidiary of German-based HSH Soft- and Hardware Vertriebs GmbH, they have more than 20 years of experience providing internationally recognised software solutions with over 3 500 municipalities and public authorities using their software for civil registration, identity management, e-government and related services.

The importance of using technology

According to Von Bodenhausen, e-government and a modern, citizen-centric administration system go hand in hand. “Nearly all countries within the Sub-Saharan region are aware of the importance of using technology in allowing citizens to manage their business with government more efficiently and extend the reach of service delivery to underserved areas.

“South Africa’s engagement in e-government varies widely. SARS eFiling being one of the first practical online tax services available. South African banks quickly addressed changing consumer needs by offering advanced web and mobile based payment applications. Nonetheless, it is early days for e-government in South Africa,” he says.

Von Bodenhausen also mentions that the popularity of e-government is currently more driven by municipalities committing to better service delivery and investing in suitable tools than by user behaviour and interest. He however says that citizens are beginning to demand more from government services.

“People are using the internet or their smart phones daily for online shopping, travel arrangements, banking or accessing information. Similar access to government organisations and their services will be expected. In Germany web-based e-government services have been widely available for many years. German citizens value the convenience and easy access of the services. Demand for comprehensive online services is on the rise, but a simple and logical interface is paramount for acceptance,” he says.

When looking at the latest innovations in terms of e-government solutions, Von Bodenhausen highlights electronic identification as the enabler for reaching the next level of e-government. He says that from a technical point of view, most government processes could easily be made available for online use. The challenge however, arises when dealing with sensitive and highly confidential information or payment he says.

“Then the user’s identity must be explicitly verified which means he still needs to appear at the office in person. Germany is a pioneer in implementing electronic identification, a function which is incorporated in its new national smart ID card. It allows performing government transactions, such as registering your car or applying for child benefits, securely from the comfort of your home. HSH was assigned by the German government to develop the associated application process from capturing biometric data, processing the data to print the documents and issuing the document to the applicant. Many new applications around the eID function are currently being developed.

“The concept of a 1-Stop-Government portal is great for environments with a functioning electronic ID system. The highest level of convenience is reached when citizen can access all government services from a single platform,” he says.

Service delivery

Technology is the key to more efficiency, according to Von Bodenhausen. He says that rising internet and smartphone penetration opened up a far-reaching platform for service delivery and citizen participation where complex government processes can now be simplified and automated. The right information becomes available at the right time to make the right decision and can be applied to improve service delivery, reduce costs and generate revenue (e.g. efficient processing of municipal accounts and traffic fines, planning and allocation of electricity and sanitation based on real data), he says.

He highlights that citizens benefit from convenient 24/7 access to public-information and a much wider range of communication options. Increased transparency and collaboration reduce the opportunity for corruption and fraud and furthermore promote public participation and political decision-making. According to him, with mobile technology municipalities can extend the reach of their services to rural, underdeveloped areas, where affordable broadband connectivity is still a challenge.

With regard to some of the main challenges associated with implementing e-government solution in South African local government at the moment, Von Bodenhausen explains that there are a couple of realities that needs to be dealt with.

“There is limited digital literacy amongst a large part of users. The lack of affordable broadband connectivity particularly in rural areas and outdated IT systems with weak information security are the reality in most municipalities. These mostly run several independent back-office systems (ERP, content and asset management software) making support, compliance and standardisation very difficult. In my opinion the main challenge lies in that most departments keep their data in silos and are not willing to share and allow synchronisation with other systems.

“This restricted use of data significantly limits the potential of e-government and contradicts its fundamental idea. The solution must be an integrated identity data infrastructure system that only allows single citizen identities free of duplicates. There is also a need for a national e-government strategy to provide a general roadmap, guidelines and a legal framework combining the individual efforts. We see a variety of innovative applications being developed by small and progressive software companies. However, these are often stand-alone solutions and incompatible with other systems that might have been developed earlier with other departments,” he says.

The biggest difference

Comparing South Africa to Germany in terms of e-government implementation, Von Bodenhausen says that the biggest difference to the German administration is that in Germany, citizens and businesses are accurately registered/deregistered in all local government databases. According to him, those local databases provide a solid foundation of accurate reference data for all other department databases, such as the civil register, business register, register of foreign nationals, DVLA or health register. Furthermore, he says, a strict nationwide legal framework is defining all do’s and don’ts for German e-government including the handling and storage of data to avoid the misuse of private data.

Open data in another important concept that often accompanies or underpins e-government solutions. Von Bodenhausen elaborates and says that open government data is information produced by government institutions and made freely available to the public under the condition that they also share their work. He refers to common examples as being business registers, patent and trademark information, public tender information, geographic and meteorological information and transport information.

“In Germany involving the public in political decisions via the internet verifiable creates trust and serves as an early warning system. It is further believed that departments which publish their own performance data are motivated to further improve efficiency. We are currently involved in a project with Saldanha Bay Municipality where we develop a mobile app that gives detailed information on the services performed by the municipality and provides updates and statistics on reported service issues.

“Because the municipality has to deal with many enquiries related to town planning and building control issues our ‘Public Pointer’ app also provides information on business zoning, the status of building plans, or town planning measures - freeing up internal resources. These are a few examples how open data can be transformed and made conveniently available to the public,” he says.

Elaborating further on the significance of the mobile platform in e-governance, Von Bodenhausen says that the Public Pointer app, for instance, is their bridge form citizen to government, which serves as a mobile civic centre platform.

“It is a tool that helps South African municipalities to provide their citizen with convenient “anytime / anywhere” service. The app contains a directory of the most frequented government departments and their services, and uses location-based services to guide you to the nearest office. The user will get detailed service information including process and related costs, and can even download the needed application forms. Via the Report & Fix function service issues like potholes or missing street lightning can be directly reported and the app even provides regular status updates. The features of the app can be endlessly expanded according the needs of the municipality. We are currently working on applications such as the payment of municipal accounts or the integration of eForms,” he says.

Von Bodenhausen concludes that: “the key benefit of mobile technology for government is that it increases the access to people in rural areas. Several e-government applications communicate with citizen via SMS, making it possible to take part and benefit with even the simplest cell phone devices.”

Nilo Abrahams


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Issue 68