m-Government Gets Serious
By Steve Wallage, Tue Jan 18 08:45:00 GMT 2005

m-Government has been bandied around like a dot-com buzzword, with little real impact. Now, some governments around the world, and not the usual suspects either, are taking steps beyond simple SMS notifications.

The late 1990s saw the launch of many e-Government initiatives, often accompanied by great fanfare, such as eEurope. The thinking was that this was the way ahead for democracy and public services, and the opening to a brave new digital society. Sadly, the reality has often been far more limited as budget and technology realities hit home.

Despite some government departments being surprisingly innovative in their use of mobile technologies, the notion of m-Government grew as a subset or delivery channel of these e-Government strategies.

In reality, m-Government has typically meant the odd SMS notification from a public body. But this situation is changing -- driven by users, government and a host of new ideas that are being copied around the world.

What Do Users Want?

It is clear in many emerging markets that mobile penetration is far greater than PC or Internet penetration. Irish mobile software vendor Puca Technologies found that, even in its own country, only 42% of the population had personal access to the Internet, compared to over 80% that own a mobile phone. Even more interestingly, a significantly higher number (48% versus 34%) preferred SMS to sending an e-mail or visiting a
Web site. Unsurprisingly, that preference was even higher for people aged between 15 and 24 -- 61%.

Other country research backs this up -- users like mobile technology. Danish research found that government employees also like using mobile technology as a way of learning new skills.

What Do Governments Want?

Some governments are increasingly seeing the benefits of deploying mobile solutions as a way of encouraging domestic vendors, fostering innovation and building the mobile skills of the wider population. In the same way that some Asian economies, such as Malaysia, have tried to build themselves up as digital economies, we will see other countries looking to become associated with mobile initiatives. The Korean government mantra is that the government should be seen as the leading user of new mobile technology. The Hong Kong government is sponsoring the domestic Wireless Technology Industry Association to create new m-government initiatives.

A key potential advantage for some emerging markets in using mobile services is that it is a way of avoiding the "digital divide" often found with e-Government initiatives. The rise of pre-paid means that even in poorer communities there is often a high penetration of mobiles. With Internet initiatives, these can often exclude over 90% of the population.

One early claimant for the throne of leading m-Government is the Philippines, which boasts over half of government departments using mobile technology to deliver public services. The Philippines government has also been clear about its key driver: SMS is a cheaper way than the Internet to transact with the government.

New Forms of m-Government

The message from the leading m-Government users is that usage is evolving from basic information to more critical information, replacing other information forms, and levels of interactivity.

In Hong Kong, the government has been extending the range of SMS notifications available from weather to news to telephone directories. It is now possible to book a marriage slot using a GPRS phone.

Malta has also extended basic SMS notifications to areas such as exam results, which in 2004 replaced a letter for 7,600 students, and status of credit payments. SMS can also be used to keep the legal profession updated on changes in court timings. The interesting thing in Malta is that SMS is not used as an additional channel, but as the only channel, providing the real savings in administration.

While most countries use mobile technology for general information, in the US, early m-Government adopters such as the state of Virginia (PDF), have focused on emergency and public safety measures. This includes the RFID tracking of emergency workers so that they can be monitored in emergencies.

The Philippines police force has promoted SMS to become one of the main reporting tools for the public on crime. It uses SMS for victims to both report and track the progress of crimes through mobile access to a police database.

Future Developments

Three key areas that are being explored are voting, payments and 3G.

Mobile voting is attractive around the world as a way of encouraging participation, particularly among the young and in remote areas. It is also potentially far cheaper than other alternatives. Puca will use its research results to push the Irish government to deploy new mobile voting platforms. In the Irish survey, 55% of the 25-34 year old age group was interested about being able to vote by SMS. Given only 42% of this age group voted in the last Irish election, this would represent a major boost to the number of younger voters.

Payment for services has been starting off with one-off payments such as m-parking in cities around the world. Other governments have been looking at allowing the public to pay for public services, such as tax being paid from a mobile device.

Although there is uncertainty around the impact and penetration of 3G, many governments are looking at ways of taking advantage of it. Those countries that have trialled different mobile technologies are confident that as users are more comfortable with m-government, they will be prepared to try 3G services. However, the main advantage of 3G could be as a way of overcoming current resistance to the evolution of m-Government. These typically include security, interoperability and cost.