In its 2016 World Development Report, “Digital Dividends,” released last month, the World Bank assesses the impact of digital technologies on development and concludes that these technologies have been disappointing and unevenly distributed despite boosting growth, expanding opportunities, and improving service delivery. For digital technologies to benefit everyone everywhere, countries need to strengthen regulations to ensure competition, adapt workers’ skills to the demands of the new economy, and ensure that institutions are accountable.
The World Bank report draws on a number of background papers that are also provided to the public. In “One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward? Does EGovernment Make Governments in Developing Countries More Transparent and Accountable?,” Victoria Lemieux discusses the unintended consequences and risks for transparency and accountability associated with the way digitally recorded information is produced and managed by the public sector in developing countries.
According to the paper, many countries are in the process of transitioning from primarily paper-based administrative systems to digital systems by implementing information and communication technology (ICTs) as part of their e-government initiatives. The presumption is that this transition should improve accountability and transparency by making information more readily accessible.
Lemieux points out that the transition has not necessarily been a positive one.
“In many countries, the introduction of ICTs has brought about a deterioration in the quality, management, and accessibility of recorded information with concomitant negative impacts upon transparency and public accountability mechanisms, such as the operation of right to information (RTI) laws,” the report states.
The report states: “Though government recordkeeping was weak in many countries before the introduction of ICTs and growing digitalization, and existing paper-based recordkeeping systems often continue to be weak, there is mounting evidence to suggest that the situation has worsened, not improved, with increased use of technology in the conduct of government business.”
The report presents a compelling argument that “e-government or the rising use of digital technologies for the creation, communication, and storage of information within public administrations has created new challenges that exacerbate previous weaknesses in recordkeeping systems constraining the availability and integrity of information for transparency and accountability.”
In most developing countries, the report notes, legislative frameworks haven’t been updated and are typically inadequate for addressing e-records and information management concerns. This results in uncertainty about how to handle such forms of communication in relation to requests for information under RTI laws and in some cases even opens the door to handling government administrative records in a way that is deliberately intended to frustrate public access to information.
Given all the digital forms of information used today to conduct government business, and especially with the rise of e-government, the report says there is a clear and present need for public officials and information commissioners to have better guidance on how electronic data should be collected and managed under public records and RTI laws.
For instance, the report cites a 2014 Information Commissioners International Exchange Network (ICIEN) international survey of information commissioners to illustrate the problem. Commissioners were asked whether requests made using social media would be valid in their countries: 35% said yes; 30% said they could never be valid; and 25% said they did not know.
The report also says more research is needed on how e-government initiatives affect records creation, use, management, and preservation, as well as transparency and accountability.
“What is clear, however, is the need to move the creation and handling of records up the global development agenda by gathering data to better understand the effect that technology is having on recordkeeping in developing countries, provide more support to governments to strengthen records laws and bring records, especially digital ones, under effective control, and to clarify the status of all types of records and information vis a vis requirements to preserve and make them available in the public interest,” the report states.
The 2016 World Development Report, including all background papers can be accessed here: http://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/wdr2016.