How E-Government Policy and Programmes Must Approach Women's Empowerment
The most significant insight that has come out of this inquiry is that gender-responsive e-government constitutes a normative shift in the idea of governance. E-government can bring women new citizenship rights and opportunities. Its gender transformative potential hinges on measures to translate the vision of gender equality through rules and practices that make governance and democracy work for women.
The move to digital by default in public service delivery is not merely a shift in tools used by systems of government. E-government is increasingly a sine qua non of sound public administration that expands the meaning of good governance. Described as a route to “expanded democracy”,147 e-government can be seen as providing new design architecture for governance that can alter the very experience of citizenship.
What this means is that e-government can revolutionize many dimensions of accountable governance, it can make governance more open and inclusive, and give governments the means to reach out to, and promote citizen rights, of women. Gender-responsive e-government can therefore build a democracy in which women matter. A well designed and agile e-government ecosystem can be particularly path breaking for women from the margins, as it accords those without formal documentation the identity and locus standi to become eligible for entitlements upon which their basic needs and rights depend.148
Research studies show that in certain cases, e-government has resulted in alienating the marginalized further from their access to entitlements.149 Social inclusion is often held up in policy documents, but women’s empowerment and gender equality are conspicuous by their absence. Without an explicit policy vision and plan of what it can potentially do for women’s rights, e-government runs the risk of bypassing women. While the more recent vision of Government 3.0 in the Republic of Korea commits to “transparency, competence, and citizen-oriented services”, it is the entitlements approach of the administration in the late 1990s and early 2000s to “actively support informatization as an issue of women’s human rights” 150 that may be seen as the critical point that paved the way in the Republic of Korea for positive gender equality outcomes through e-government.
At the national level, multiple expectations are evident in the discourse of e-government, from aspirations to overcome developmental challenges in education, health, skills development, financial inclusion, employment generation, etc., and gaining competitive advantage for national economic progress, to delivering citizen-centric governance. E-government can and should also be seen as a creative and disruptive technique to reach the normative goal of women’s empowerment and equality. It should be envisaged and employed as a public policy instrument to deepen democracy so that women can gain full citizenship. The case studies suggest that an a priori twinning of gender considerations and digital techniques in service delivery can address women’s needs and interests as citizens, tackling their exclusion from development services and giving them the space to participate in shaping the development agenda. The Community eCentres case demonstrates how an entitlement approach to digital literacy and e-services has direct consequences for women’s life chances, while IVR-SERP shows how gender-based violence becomes a critical local governance priority thanks to the rights-based approach in the design of the initiative. Initiatives studied have also pointed to the role of e-government in giving women the ‘right to be heard’. The Sreesakthi Portal for example, demonstrates the possibilities for wider consultation with marginalized women across policy areas through a hybrid model even when connectivity infrastructure and mobile diffusion are not ubiquitous. By working through community access points and promoting local groups to share collective experiences, it allows women to shape public opinion through perspectives that are gendered. The Grievance Redress Scheme gives voice to women beneficiaries to express their concerns and assert claims with regard to a benefit transfer programme.
Norms, rules and practices of gender-responsive e-government will need alignment. At the foundational level, women’s citizenship must be invoked explicitly by e-government policy, and gender mainstreaming efforts must be institutionalized in all areas of governance, specifically in harnessing the ICT opportunity for women’s access to resources and entitlements. Often referred to as process reengineering, these efforts require much more than a systemic shift involving technology and policy; they also call for attention to human resource capabilities in, and cultures of, public institutions.
On the normative plane, the idea of ‘citizens at the centre of service delivery’ 151 is a mandate that many governments have given for themselves in their e-government plans. Variously, this has included the understanding that the delivery of this promise requires putting more services online, opening up government, collaborating with citizens, accepting feedback on performance and then acting upon that feedback in a timely, effective and efficient manner. Legal frameworks on data protection and the right to information have accompanied policies on broadband connectivity, access to online services, open standards and digital literacy, with institutionalization of a national government agency dedicated to e-government capability. Where there are gender mainstreaming laws and policies and gender budgeting rules, the institutionalization of gender in e-government implementation is stronger.152
In the Philippines, for example, the Republic Act No. 10650 (2014) attests to the aspirations of the government to “to expand and further democratize access to quality tertiary education through the promotion and application of open learning as a philosophy of access to educational services.” The law emphasizes that open and distance learning programmes must be delivered using information and communications technology. The case study of the Blended Learning Programme shows how the latter builds on the provisions of the law, offering women fully subsidized access to connectivity and to vocational training, in its service model. E-government policies, the Philippine Digital Strategy and the e-Government Master Plan in the Philippines recognize the role of ICTs for women’s empowerment and outline plans of action that are aligned. The country’s policies on gender equality and women’s rights provide a robust scaffolding to e-government policies and strategies. The government’s gender mainstreaming strategy has been institutionalized through the enactment of the Magna Carta of Women, in 2009.
Unfortunately however, the idea that e-government is a means to address the needs and rights of women is not always part of the vision statement of policy. Gender-responsive design in e-government service delivery remains ad hoc in India, despite the ambitious Digital India programme. Key components of the programme such as digital literacy are beginning to be rolled out on a nationwide scale in right earnest, but they are not supported by a vision to equip women for claiming digital citizenship. The policy gap in making e-government gender-responsive is true not only for developing country contexts, and can be a setback for e-government success, especially in its vital role as a catalyst for women’s citizen rights.
Gender-responsive practices in e-government certainly depend on strong norms and rules, but institutionalizing gender in e-government also entails wider changes in public institutional cultures. This is a long road, and requires strategies for building across-the-board institutional capacity. In Fiji, interviews with government stakeholders for this research indicated that e-government is viewed as gender neutral and responses show a techno-centric, rather than a sociocultural, understanding of equality of access. When asked about e-government priorities for women, stakeholders shared a view that “technology does not discriminate” and so e-government is about “access on an equal footing”. The technicalization of e-government may also reduce gender based thinking to finding simple fixes, as reflected in a comment from an Indian official interviewed for this research: “In Digital India, we are committed to inclusion; this means like accessibility for the disabled, we will also think about women.” In the Philippines, despite gender mainstreaming policies, government personnel have varying levels of appreciation for gender concepts and issues. Critical issues such as online violence against women are not adequately covered in e-government capacity-building. Though there are courses offered by agencies such as the National Computer Centre and the Career Executives Service Board in the area of building e-government leadership, most of these courses are silent on women’s empowerment and gender equality issues in e-government. In fact, some trainers interviewed for this research insisted that it is difficult to integrate gender in ICT courses.
Even where gender concerns are institutionalized in the broader e-government roadmap through policy and legal measures, the commitment and agility to prioritize gender in implementation design may not obtain automatically. Despite national policy instruments on gender, digital inclusion and e-government153 and recent progress in overall e-government performance, Fiji, for instance, still lags behind in transactional and interactive service delivery possibilities, gendering data collection, targeting service delivery for women and citizen consultation for improving service delivery.
A close congruence between norms, rules and practices within the e-government ecosystem is required in order to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality. Without such congruence, women’s rights in the expanded democracy that e-government affects are likely to be circumvented.
- Ministry of Security and Public Affairs (MOSPA), Republic of Korea, op. cit.
- Migrants and homeless people for instance may not figure in any official records nor have proof of citizenship. The Mission Convergence project of the Government of New Delhi was able to target poor women migrants in the city, extending coverage of government schemes to them by creating a special database that used criteria for vulnerability not dependent on official records.
- Chand, A. (2006). E-government in the South Pacific region: case studies from Fiji and Solomon Islands. Journal of United Nations Regional Development Dialogue, 27(2), p. 7; Sreekumar, T.T. (2007). Decrypting e-governance: Narratives, power play and participation in the Gyandoot Intranet. EJISDC, 32(4), pp. 1-24. Retrieved from http://www.ejisdc.org/ojs2/index.php/ejisdc/article/viewFile/465/233, 21 April 2016.
- Lee, S. et al.(2013). op.cit.
- NSW Government. (2014). DIGITAL +: NSW Government ICT Strategy – Update 2014-15. Retrieved from https://www.finance.nsw.gov.au/ict/sites/default/files/resources/Digital%2B NSW Government ICT Strategy Update 2014-15.pdf, 21 April 2016.
- For example, the Philippines.
- National Gender Policy (2014); Fiji Information Technology Development Policy (2004); Fiji e-Government Master Plan (2007); Governance of e-Government (2008).