Going digital: A range of e-government initiatives are under way

Driven by ambitions to reduce bureaucracy, promote social inclusion and bridge the digital divide, the Panamanian administration has been overseeing various e-government initiatives since 2009. This started with the establishment of the National Authority for Government Innovation (Autoridad Nacional para la Innovacion Gubernamental, AIG), in October 2009, as the dedicated e-government agency in charge of the design, implementation and management of the digital agenda. Since then, projects worth more than $500m have been slated for completion by May 2014, when President Ricardo Martinelli’s mandate expires.

Internet For All

Among the most prominent initiatives is the Internet For All (Internet Para Todos, IPT) project, which is geared toward increasing internet penetration rates by providing free broadband internet across the nation. To avoid competition with private sector operators, the project focuses on areas with limited commercial appeal including towns and villages, economically deprived urban areas and public spaces such as schools, hospitals and transportation hubs. To that effect, more than 1100 Wi-Fi hotspots – provisioned by WIMAX technology – had been installed by early 2010, covering 86% of the population. Some 400 more hotspots are scheduled for installation.

Thus far, progress on the initiative has helped push up internet penetration from 6.6% in 2000 to 42.8% in 2013, compared to a regional average of 42.9% and 34.3% globally in 2012, according to Internet World Stats. The project’s financial needs, estimated at $32m, are generated through a tax on revenues telecommunication services offered by several operators who, together with government and AIG representatives, oversee its roll-out. By mid-2013, the project had attracted a total of 960,000 registered users, equivalent to 27% of the national population. Of the total users administered by AIG, 40% were between 13 and 18 years of age, 58% constituted secondary and tertiary level students while 60% of users lived in the rural centre of the country. In addition to Panamanian youth, the project has targeted small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in a bid to lower their operating costs, increase access to technology and, consequently, increase competitiveness. According to early 2013 estimates, this target group makes up 9% of all registered users. Besides user numbers, the AIG calculates that the project returns $8 to every dollar invested in the project. As Eduardo Jaén, AIG’s administrator general, told OBG, “This is calculated by the predictions on the project’s economic and productivity gains on the one hand and increased investment capacity on behalf of the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) segment on the other.”

While criticism from commercial bandwidth providers ended up delaying the project in 2009, operators have been told that IPT will maintain its focus on areas with minimal commercial potential. Moreover, the bandwidth capacity does not match that of commercial ones and remains limited to basic functions such as email, browsing and social media. ”The idea is that we democratise the usage of wireless internet regardless of purchasing power or geographical location. This will make our people more knowledgeable, more empowered and therefore more competitive,“ Jaén said.

E-Government And Laptop Programmes

In order to further promote IT literacy, the government has also embarked on the distribution of 300,000 free computers to teachers and students up until the 12th grade. Under the Ministry of Education, 260,000 so-called Balboa laptops were earmarked for distribution in late 2013 and early 2014. In addition, the government will introduce discounted consumer loans to help workers buy computers for use at home.

Another key feature on the government’s agenda is the digitalisation of public services. As such, the “Paperless Panama” (Panama Sin Papel) initiative is targeting greater transparency and faster public procedures through digitalisation and coordination. To that effect, the entire administration, including all related public agencies, is being integrated in a centralised system accessible to citizens across the country. Indeed, as of November 2013, around 29 institutions were participating in the programme; eventually the initiative will encapsulate more than 100 services, including paying utility bills and traffic fines, tax declarations, and public registrations, thus significantly reducing queues at public offices and procedural completion times.

In addition to PSP, the administration is finalising work on the National Multi Services Network (Red Nacional Multi Servicios, RNMS), bringing the government’s voice, data and internet services onto one cloud-based platform operated by Cable & Wireless Panama. Part of the effort comprises establishing a call centre open to citizens with queries, complaints and remarks about public services at all levels of government.

Meanwhile, efforts are under way to get local governments up to speed with the country’s wider digital developments. Backed by funding from the Canadian government, 28 out of Panama’s 76 municipalities have been selected for a digital make-over. This includes digitalised enterprise resource planning platforms adapted to the needs of local public offices, as well as online portals promoting local tourism. After completing the project, the national government may extend the initiative to 13 other communities.

Digital Culture

While e-governance’s infrastructural and legislative requirements are near completion, implementation challenges remain. “The biggest obstacle we’re currently faced with is getting people to adopt the new methods and services,” Antonia Mola, AIG’s chief of staff, told OBG. Although the use of digital signatures was approved by law in 2012, many public officials still insist on stamped and signed documents. As a result, the AIG is overseeing a range of training programmes to overcome resistance to the plans and to promote a ”digital culture” within the administration. Another effort is the establishment of the Institute of Technology and Innovation (Instituto de Tecnología e Innovación, ITI), an ICT educational facility. Besides training in ICT, the ITI will focus on interaction between the public and private sector in a bid to encourage collaboration and better understanding of mutual requirements.

The AIG is giving presentations to public agencies across the country on the cost and time savings as a result of the e-government initiative. According to the AIG, RNMS permitted the government to save up to $10m in 2012 and $12m in 2013. Meanwhile, the waiting time for approval of construction permits has gone down from 150 to 14 days since 2009.

Challenges aside, the positive impact of the various initiatives have started to reflect on Panama’s global competitiveness indicators. As such, the World Economic Forum moved Panama up nine spots – from 49 to 40 – in its “2012-13 Global Competitiveness Report” and placed it second in the region after Chile. Meanwhile, the country scored 66th on the UN’s 2011-12 e-government index, up from 79th a year before, and sixth in the region. Hopes are high that when implementation of the e-government agenda finishes in earnest, Panama will lead the region in ease of doing business and IT intermediation. With the progress of the past several years in mind, it seems well on track to do so.

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