The Audit Commission (CA) has published another unflattering document for the public administration. The latest service targeted is the department for the Public Service and Administration (SAFP) – the Administration’s administrator. The department does not emerge from the audit with honours. The central theme: electronic governance, which was their task to promote. It is not advancing: most targets were missed; results attained were few and poor.
The subjacent idea to it all is to use the advances in computer and communication technologies to ‘modernise’ public administration. That means, mainly, to foster the efficiency of public services in both its internal procedures and the co-ordination of the various departments. And also improving the Administration’s relationship with citizens, making services more accessible and transparent.
The general gist of it is not new. The proof is that the department has been working at it since, at least, 2001. Of course, the issue gained further visibility and bigger urgency with the growing emphasis upon the concept of the Smart City – to use the most recent and fashionable expression – and the prominence it has gained in many policy orientations and planning documents at all levels of government, in Macau and further afield.
After many studies and strategic plans, the verdict is not brilliant. The report does not mince words: the ‘execution rate is low’; several projects ‘were no more than guidelines lacking any efficacy’; modules were implemented in a ‘gross and imprudent’ manner; development of services was ‘careless.’
Among the ‘not-so-stellar’ achievements were the implementation (or failure thereof) of setting up internal systems for personnel management and the so-called ePass. The first sought to create a standard platform for human resources administration. The latter should promote people’s electronic access to public services.
Some of the report observations elicit amazement nonetheless. Three specific modules for personnel management system are currently active. Their development was decided in 2001. One was introduced in 2010, the other two in 2015. But, the report notes, they were developed ‘without consultation with the services that would be using it.’ (In fairness, we have to assume that what the CA means here is that not all services were consulted. Otherwise, we would be close to complete managerial nonsense).
Services then found that information they would need to operate them was missing. The department failed to help them to adapt them to their needs. Eighteen forms were selected for digital processing: only one is operational. Not too surprisingly, by the end of 2016, less than a quarter of the services were using the proposed systems.
The ePass record is not noticeably brighter. Details aside, the main idea was to create an account for Macau residents that would allow them to access public services online. It was launched in 2009. Critical matters concerning the legal validity of acts made using the electronic service and the verification of the identity of users were left unaddressed. Few people required an account. As of today, just seven public departments provide ePass services, mostly for consultation.
That SAFP must bear direct responsibility for their failures is unquestionable. There may have been many causes. It is not the purpose here to pass judgment on them or the merits of the projects. Given the extent of the criticism, it is almost impossible not to feel sorry for the department. It is obvious that it could not take all those years, or an external audit, for anyone to realise that the thing was not working. Something must be missing in this narrative.
A situation that is allowed to linger for so long with such modest achievements entails extra complicities and responsibilities.