Report: Poor infrastructure hinders e-gov’t in new E.U.

While new European Union (E.U.) member countries must meet key requirements on e-government initiatives to fit in with the union’s goal of creating an advanced information society, many of the countries are being hindered by poor communications and IT infrastructure, a new report claims.

A survey of the 10 new Central and Eastern European member states and candidate country Turkey, released by the Economist Intelligence Unit Ltd. (EIU) this week, found that a lack of government commitment on e-government implementation, combined with a dearth of broadband and fixed-line telephone networks was slowing progress in the region.

“Infrastructure is certainly a big problem with a lot of countries here,” said Denis McCauley, director of global technology research at EIU. He added, however, that a lack of planning and commitment by government leaders is doing just as much to hinder progress in the region.

Last May, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia became the newest E.U. members, and with their membership they fell under European Commission directives to implement e-government initiatives such as creating online marketplaces and government services for citizens to interact with the state. The directives are aimed at meeting goals defined in the Lisbon Agenda for Europe to become the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010.

While Estonia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia received high scores from the EIU for their advances on initiatives such as e-procurement platforms, the other countries need to implement a detailed development plan and work on rolling out core infrastructure, McCauley said.

According to the report, only Estonia and Slovenia have broadband penetration of over three per cent, although it is a key element in delivering two-way e-government services. The Yankee Group reported earlier this year that the overall household broadband penetration rate for the 10 new E.U. members stood at 1.9 per cent at the end of 2003, compared to an average of 12 pe rcent in the other 15 member states.

Fixed-line penetration exceeds 40 per cent in just three countries, according to the EIU report: the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Slovenia. And although Estonia leads in providing e-government services, its fixed-line penetration rate stands at 46 per cent, the report says.

The EIU survey was sponsored by technology vendor Oracle Corp. In a release on the report Oracle said that the countries falling behind needed to invest more in technology and communications. Many large IT vendors have set their sights on the developing E.U. markets, seeing a green field for technology investment and infrastructure. In fact, vendors expect to see around US$2 billion in E.U. funds directed toward IT investments in the region over the next four years.

But while IT providers focus on added investment, McCauley said that devising a development plan is the most crucial element for meeting e-government initiatives.

“They need to put structural elements in place to support their plans, like creating departments to implement the development … it doesn’t make sense just to invest in infrastructure,” McCauley said.

Some of the more successful countries, like Estonia and Slovenia, ran their infrastructure and development plans in parallel, requiring staged investment. These countries have even managed to exceed the progress of some of their more developed Western European neighbors because of sharp planning, McCauley said.

In fact, Estonia’s citizen Web portal and the Czech Republic’s e-procurement platform are being studied throughout the E.U for the lessons they can provide, according to Oracle.

While the older E.U. states had the advantage of throwing money at e-government initiatives first, the new member states had just as much time to plan, and for countries like Estonia and Slovenia, it has paid off, McCauley said.

“It’s important to articulate a coherent strategy at the top levels of government and express commitment. A lot of the countries that fell behind just paid lip service,” he said.

In terms of e-government rankings, the EIU gave Estonia the top spot, followed by the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Poland and Hungary. Turkey came in sixth, ahead of Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia, while Romania and Bulgaria pulled up the rear.

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