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Celebrating the United Nations Public Service Awards
Source: http://www.ethosjournal.com/topics/public-service-delivery/item/408-united-nations-public-service-awards?dm_i=9NI,18K7Q,7MIJ2N,46QU0,1
Source Date: Thursday, January 24, 2013
Focus: Internet Governance
Created: Jan 24, 2013

These awards were created to recognise worldwide excellence in public service, promote creativity, and inspire institutions by highlighting best practice. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at last year’s presentation: “The winners… set an example in improving delivery, promoting accountability and combatting corruption. Through the search for innovative approaches to public governance challenges, they are building a better future for us all.”

Governments face vastly different challenges, but many of the success stories have one thing in common – the use of technology to improve services. Morocco, for example, has created an online pension registration system which means applications can be processed in just five days. In Turkey, parties involved in legal proceedings are now alerted by text when there is a development in their cases, and this simple move has encouraged the judiciary to become more transparent. In New York City, web-based facilities, including access to services in 180 different languages, have reduced the total “talk time” spent handling calls to its customer services centre by more than 40,000 hours annually, and operating expenses have decreased by US$ 7 million annually.

"These awards show very concrete, very successful cases and we highlight the impact of these initiatives,” says Haiyan Qian, director of the UN’s Division for Public Administration and Development Management, which confers the awards. “That means governments in developed and developing countries can learn from each other. With all kinds of crises to deal with these days, governments are urgently looking for better ways to work.”

Small but beautiful initiatives
Clever use of technology is highly transferable; developing countries are often more creative and less bound to historic systems, and come up with initiatives that have global potential. For example, when Brazil won an award in 2004 for creating a ‘one-stop shop’ to process citizens’ administrative documents, the idea was replicated by Portugal.

As technology has developed since the awards were created in 2003, interest has grown. Organisers have reported a 58 per cent increase in nominations for 2013 on the previous year’s, with 471 from 73 countries.

In fact, technology has become so fundamental to successful government services that the UN has created a new category that will award ‘whole-of-government approaches’ and encourage diverse services into integrated, collaborative systems. (The other categories are: fighting corruption; improving service delivery; encouraging public participation in policy decisions; advancing knowledge-management in government; and promoting gender-responsive delivery.)

"The most difficult challenge is that government institutions work in silos,” says Qian. “Agencies or departments have their own well-established online services, but they all work vertically, they don’t work horizontally. This is the challenge of all governments, even in developed countries.

"Citizens today expect much higher levels of delivery,” she adds. “They want 24/7 services, they don’t want to go to lots of different sites to find a half-complete service. That’s why transforming operations is becoming extremely important.”

Most governments have achieved some level of online presence for different departments, says Qian, and some have developed interactive services. But the next steps are to make all government-related transactions possible online, to connect up different services, and ultimately to become more accessible to the public.

No country has yet achieved this kind of total integration – which admittedly raises huge issues over sharing information while protecting privacy, and implies major restructuring. Singapore is probably the closest to it, says Qian, adding that the new award is about recognising the “small but beautiful examples of initiatives which can eventually solve this problem”.

Bridging the digital divide
While the awards highlight success, the UN is also encouraging countries towards integrated approaches through its e-government survey. This highlights the strengths and weaknesses of governments in terms of creating open, responsive and collaborative systems for citizens through robust telecommunications infrastructures.“The increasing role of e-government in promoting inclusive and participatory development has gone hand-in-hand with the growing demands for transparency and accountability in all regions of the world,” reports Sha Zukang, UN under-secretary at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

But while many governments are paying attention to, and investing in, new technology, often they are not paying equal attention to bridging the digital divide between those who have access to information technology and those who don’t.

“Some countries are still using telegrams in rural areas to inform farmers about market prices for crops,” explains Qian. “If governments don’t pay attention to the digital divide – how to make sure that the majority of users will benefit – then investing in online services is not going to work.

Further reading
For more information, visit www.unpan.org
Good Practices and Innovations in Public Governance; United Nations Publications; 2011
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