Despite the huge advances in technology in recent decades, the reality is that many public administrations remain stuck in the pre-digital age. Although the term “paperwork” may have lost some of its literal meaning in most aspects of our daily lives, it is still as pertinent as ever when dealing with certain public services. And while more and more citizens and business embrace electronic payments, governments around the world continue to make billions of dollars of payments in cash.
The good news, in Europe at least, is that the public sector is clearly committed to catching up with the rest of the economy. An example of this is the e-Government Action Plan adopted by the European Commission this week – which is intended as a launching pad for collaborative action between governments, private sector providers and civil society on the digitisation of public services across Europe.
MasterCard fully agrees with the Commission’s assessment of the potential benefits of e-government solutions for society. Though our experience working with public administrations in areas from e-procurement platforms and smart transport systems to electronic tax collections schemes we have witnessed up close the positive impact of reduced costs, elimination of fraud, monitoring of spending and learnings from new data ( For more information, see here )
E-government should be about creating a win-win situation for public administrations and the citizens. Shifting from cash to electronic payments has a clear role to play in this respect. For example, in the UK many local authorities are now issuing welfare payments through pre-paid cards. Citizens now have quicker and more secure access to their benefits. Meanwhile, the authorities themselves are enjoying more than 10% savings thanks to increased efficiencies.
As the Commission recognises, key to success of e-government is interoperability. The pre-paid programme in the UK started as a pilot project with one local council and is now being rolled-out by over 50 authorities. They don’t necessarily all need exactly the same solutions, but some common standards will help the uptake of best practice within countries and across borders in Europe.
It is also crucial that modernisation of public services does not lead to certain groups being left even further behind. In this respect, MasterCard wholeheartedly backs the “inclusive by default” approach advocated by the Commission. To paraphrase our CEO “we cannot have the Internet of Everything, without the Inclusion of Everyone”.
The big danger is assuming that the most sophisticated solutions will automatically benefit all citizens. Successful e-government strategies need to be tailored towards vulnerable groups. Take for example, a major project MasterCard worked on with the national government and postal service in Italy. In a country, where 29% of the population is financially excluded, welfare payments to the elderly and low income families directly to bank accounts would not have been effective. The solution was a disbursement system direct to the citizens that enabled them to build digital identities.
A lot more can be done to ensure that governments, citizens and business enjoy the full potential of digitised public services. But the kind of open, inclusive, participatory approach promoted by the European Commission is clearly the right way to get there.