ICT Policy and Sustainability: Experience from the dot-GOV Program
During the last 20 years, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have provided a wealth of new technological opportunities, with the rapid deployment of both the Internet and cellular telephony leading the way. So rapid have been these developments that the resulting stream of innovation and rapidly dropping prices have generated a billion subscribers to each. Largely promulgated by private sector investment, these technologies, have invaded every country that is willing to accept them. Skilled human resources have been developed to help these technologies spread in every region of the world. In turn, the technologies have contributed significantly to initiating a true Information Society in many countries.
The most important differentiating factor is now public policy. Countries that have progressive, market-oriented liberal and competitive policies are seeing these technologies spread quickly. Conversely, countries that retain telecomm monopolies, raise barriers for entry into competition, and penalize or otherwise restrict competitive market practices are penalized by slow market growth and the consequent lessening of support for economic and social development. Policy makes the fundamental difference regarding how countries are able to take advantage of the technical opportunities available to them and exploit them for good. The issues of sustainability of good policies and a progressive process for evolving policy are therefore of paramount importance.
This article highlights two perspectives on ICT policy and sustainability. First, it outlines key elements of a sustainable approach to ICT policy reforms, with examples based on dot-GOVs experience in making ICT policy reform sustainable. Second, the article looks at the impact of ICT policy and policy reforms on the support of efforts to bridge the digital divide and to make effective use of ICT to help tackle development challenges.
What makes ICT policy reform sustainable?
The formation of a core cadre of local Internet and ICT policy specialists, who will continue the dialogue for policy reform work, is a key objective of dot-GOV. Governments needs to have staff that can draft legislation that is consistent with international best practices. In many countries, the staff of ministries responsible for ICT policy are unfamiliar with ICT technology and need both exposure and training. For example, in Afghanistan, spectrum management training was a key issue regarding policies governing allocation of spectrum, especially for community radio. In Indonesia, familiarizing law enforcement with computer networks helped them understand how cyber crime affects computer infrastructure, and how to protect evidence.
- Awareness and understanding of the potential impact of ICT for development and economic growth (beyond the hype and political correctness)
ICT for development is a priority for national governments as well as global and regional organizations. For example, in Vietnam, dot-GOV has contributed to the competitiveness of the software industry and increased the understanding of government on World Trade Organization telecommunications requirements and the EU convention on cyber crime. Further, in Romania, dot-GOV has supported the development of the independent regulator, the ANRC, and provided advice to the Ministry for Communications, Telecommunications and Information on (MCTI) on key policies such as the Universal Service Obligation (which extends access to rural and underserved areas) and is required for admission to the European Union. It is often either the pull of a regional or global organization or the reality of external markets that a country would like to enter that provides the impetus for policy change.
- Ownership of the policy reform process within the relevant government agencies
Model ICT policies exist, and have been drafted, as with the case of the model ICT policies created via the dot-GOV SIPRS project with the Telecommunications Regulators Association for Southern Africa (SADC) for adoption by the Southern African Development Community as regional standards. The International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations and the European Union also have model ICT legislation and policies that are meant to be starting points for governments to consider.
Regarding the SADC example, each member considers these model ICT policies when developing legislation or policy at the national level. Each country faces different circumstances and these must be taken into consideration if a law is going to be implemented. A country may adopt a digital signatures law and find it is not applied because the governing agency does not understand how the legislation is to be implemented. In Romania, the dot-GOV project created a user-friendly guide to the cyber crime law adopted by the government and then co-sponsored trainings to regional and municipal officials as well as to other stakeholders. This approach ensured that the relevant agency responsible for implementing the policy feels that they were invested in the process, and therefore more likely to make it work for them.
- Political will
A stable policy reform environment (without reversals or extensive delays) is ideal but rarely achieved. Political will is the most important driver of policy change. Political will is stimulated by stakeholder groups voicing their needs for policy change. In some countries, dot- GOV has focused on work with the private sector so that government is more aware of the ICT business sectors needs, and that businesses are aware of issues confronting government. In Macedonia, an ICT collation on e-government is being formed to translate political will into action among stakeholders. These stakeholders will include the government, but also the business sector and civil society groups. In Indonesia, an informal group of policymakers and academics were able to compromise on electronic transactions legislation that has a provision for electronic evidence, which will be helpful in prosecuting cyber crimes.
- Multisectoral collaboration
Active participation of civil society and the private sector ensure a strong partnership to sustain a policy process. For example, dot-GOV works closely and collaboratively with a wide range of local stakeholders, including current and potential Internet users, Internet-related businesses, and telecommunications service providers, NGOs, government officials and foreign experts. In Romania, Rwanda, Macedonia, and throughout Africa (the NetTel project), local partners are the stakeholders that will continue the dialogue on policy reform with government. This participation must be regular and focused, and is often best achieved by an NGO coordinator who has good credibility with government, business, and civil society organizations as a convener of dialogue on a policy issue.
- Active participation of underserved and under-represented segments of society, including women and minorities
Inclusion of generally ignored sections of the population can provide buy-in at a higher level within civil society, making the effect of policy processes more inclusive and thereby strengthening them. For example, scholarships and an effort to involve women in workshops and project activities helps ensure that these groups will have opportunities to participate in the technological and economic advancement of their country. It takes a concerted effort among policy makers and practitioners alike to create an environment that enables women, minorities and the under-served equal access to these technologies. By working with Cisco Academies, a set of scholarships for four Asian and three North African countries is providing a group of over 500 women with job skills in the ICT business community. Great care was taken to ensure that women from underserved communities were selected for the scholarships.
- Local adaptation to respond to local needs (no rigid blueprint for reforms)
Effective policy reform occurs only with local buy-in and that can only be achieved by paying attention to local needs, local culture, local languages, local sensitivities and local politics. For example, dot-GOV relies on subcontracts to local NGOs, and business associations, and close collaboration with USAID Missions to ensure that local needs are being met. In Thailand, Philippines, and Vietnam, work to develop the software industry through marketing training and study tours to the US has been organized through local organizations and USAID-funded projects to identify the companies ready for specialized training.
- Local capacity
ICT policy reform is an ongoing process rather than a one-time effort. As technology, human resources and social and economic goals change, new policy issues will emerge, and the solutions to existing issues are likely to need fine tuning at the very least. Policy formulation is a multi-dimensional, never ending process. Policy cannot be static because it is the nature of the ICT sector and the use of technology to be in a constant state of innovation. Technical assistance plays an essential role in helping launch the process, and introduce new ideas through training and mentoring.
ICT policies have a substantial impact on efforts to tackle the digital divide and to make effective use of ICTs to help tackle development challenges
The importance of the policy reform process is precisely that, inter alia, liberalized policies promote economic and social development. To sustain this improvement in the development process, it is essential that the policy reform process be sustained and follow current best practices. ICT policies have a significant impact on both the availability of ICTs and ICT services and the cost of such tools and services. Some policy environments prevent or discourage the deployment of ICTs in the first place. Other policies may make ICT usage very expensive by limiting competition or levying heavy taxes.
In some cases, the link between government policy and immediate impact on a project is clear. The article on Ugandas Primary Teacher Colleges (in this issue of the DOT-COMments newsletter) shows how a reversal in government policy is now allowing the Colleges to charge fees in order to move towards financial sustainability.
An ICT policy framework that corresponds to international best practices and standards helps provide the springboard for ICT applications to be used in many sectors, as human ingenuity devises new ways of using technology to stimulate economic growth and improve the quality of life. Some examples include:
- Civil Society: Policies that allow ISPs to multiply on the market can result in a decrease in the cost of Internet access, making email accounts affordable to local NGOs and other community groups. This increases the efficiency and networking ability of these groups helping their work reaches their target populations.
- Underserved Communities: Policies that address interconnection between land and cellular phone lines, good spectrum management, and free market competition often result in an expansion of cellular phone service at affordable prices. Those traditionally underserved (rural areas, the poor, women, or the elderly) have increased access to telephone service (including text messaging) for personal, health, political, or business needs when cellular service is cheaper and accessible in rural and hard-to-reach areas.
- Community Radio: Policies that address the allocation of the radio spectrum to include community radio stations can mean an increased number and range of locally run, locally owned radio, a prime method of communication with rural, largely illiterate communities.
- Increase Access to Local Government and Improve Government Efficiency: Coherent e- government policy can help local municipalities get online, improving their management and communications ability and their accountability to the local citizens. Many government processes, including taxation, land management, disaster recovery, and demographic planning, can be greatly improved by moving online but only if they have reasonable expectations for security and interoperability between different ministries.
- Economic Growth and Trade: Clear regulations concerning copyright, intellectual property rights and cyber crime help local ICT industries compete. Vague or no regulations can allow countries to become targets for unscrupulous practices that may not even be taking place within the country itself.
- Effective integration of ICT in education, health, and other social sectors: For ICT in education projects to be sustainable and scaled to national level initiatives, it is essential for governments to develop appropriate policies, to address curriculum reforms and to address budgetary issues associated with the deployment, maintenance, replacement and TCO of computer systems in schools, universities and other educational institutions.
It is important to remember these issues when thinking about ICT policy. Although the subject may seem a dry and technical one, a policy process that is evolving and tracking best practices can have its sustainability enhanced by applying the principles listed above. In turn, this sustained policy improvement can yield substantial dividends for a country in terms of assisting its development processes. Both mechanisms are valuable and important.