Digitizing government services: An expert view

February 01, 2019 12:35
People queue up outside a Hong Kong government office to get application form for a welfare handout program. Authorities have come in for criticism over the paper-based application procedure, which is seen as inefficient and time-consuming. Photo: CNSA

Hong Kong's finance minister Paul Chan announced in his budget last year HK$4,000 handouts to some of the city's poorest people. As the government does not provide an online application system, citizens are required to apply for the handouts with paper forms and documents. This has led to thousands of people having to join long queues at government offices for the application forms.

In response to criticism over the 'old-fashioned' and paper-based application procedure, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung had sought to justify the arrangement, arguing that setting up an online process would have taken 18 months.

Amid this saga, observers have pointed to the need for the government to enhance its capability in digital delivery of its services.

The Hong Kong Economic Journal recently sat down with Alex Hung, founding chairman of Hong Kong New Emerging Technology Education Association (HKNETEA), to discuss the issue.

Excerpts from an interview:

HKEJ: Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said setting up an online process for the handouts application would have taken 18 months. What do you think of his explanation?

Hung: Regarding the Caring and Sharing Scheme (CSS), applicants can now obtain forms from the Working Family Allowance Office (WFAO) of the Working Family and Student Financial Assistance Agency, and from the enquiry centers of the Home Affairs Department. The forms can also be downloaded from the government website.

There are total 4 pages in the form, citizens are required to fill in about 11 basic information on the first page, and sign, plus a number of supporting documents including copies of Hong Kong identity card, and bank account information. There are drop-in boxes in the above sites for applicants to submit their forms, and they can also send the forms to WFAO by post.

In fact, there are online spreadsheets and e-forms available in the market, say, Google Sheets, which take only about an hour to set up a form for applicants to submit online. But those e-forms do not feature with signature and attachment function, which may not be suitable for the government to use in this case. Considering multiple data breaches and cybersecurity incidents in recent years, it is reasonable for the government to handle the application form, which involves lots of personal data of citizens, with caution.

With regard to the current practice, the government has to go through a manual checking process after collecting forms from the citizens. Officials will have to scan the forms one by one, enter the data into the computer, item by item, and then cross-check the information. If any information is missing, officials have to contact the applicant to resubmit. Though it is time-consuming, it is the method that has been used since 20 years ago.

I think if the government uses the online application procedure instead, it will take only 8 months to complete the preliminary work, including opening a tender, making a draft of the plan, and entering into a contract with a third-party service provider.

Q: The handout scheme requires citizens to fill in their basic personal information. How is that so?

A: That practice shows that there is a very limited collaboration in data between government departments. While each department has its own data warehouse to store the basic data of the citizens, they cannot communicate smoothly with each other, and there is no unified central database within the government.

Nowadays, many countries are collecting basic information of their citizens, such as identity cards, bank accounts, and phone numbers, through an electronic certification system run by the government. But for Hong Kong, the information between government departments is not well connected, even though the government is about to provide an electronic identity (eID) for Hong Kong residents.

Q: Do you have any suggestion to improve the operational efficiency for government services and projects, like the mentioned handout application?

A: I think the government can seek a third-party service provider to set up an electronic form application system to replace the paper-based practice. Besides, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) launched the Faster Payment System (FPS), it enables users to make cross-bank/ stored value facilities (SVF) payments easily, by entering the mobile phone number or the email address of the recipient, with funds available to the recipient almost immediately. Could the government make use of the FPS service to transfer the funds to the citizens’ accounts? I think that can be a much more convenient way.

There are governments around the world that have successively built a central database storing the personal data of the public. By doing so, the information flow and exchange between the government departments can be enhanced in terms of efficiency. But in the face of swift technological advancement, I suggest the government should consult the industry professionals before making a decision on the technology solution, in order to enhance the public's confidence towards the new practice.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 1

Translation by Ben Ng 

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal