Towards a Digital Society [interview]

Chong Jong-sup is a South Korean minister for government administration and home affairs.

He was in the capital last week meeting with Ethiopian, Kenyan, Tanzanian, Ugandan and Rwandan ministers of information and communication on the possibility of extending an assistance to these nations in the field of digital governance. In his one-and-a-half-day stay in Addis, Jong-sup met Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and signed a Memorandum of Understandings (MoU) with each of the countries onthe need for creating digitalized systems in government operations.

The minister also noted that, more likely, Korea would extend “tailored models” depending on each country’s specific requirements.

At the conclusion of the debut “Africa-Republic of Korea Ministerial Meeting on Public Governance”, Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter talked to Jong-sup via a translator to learn more about Korea’s plan to extend e-governance in Africa, and how vested his country is to create transparent governance in the continent. Excerpts:

You have had a meeting with five ministers from east African countries. Why only these five? Is there any specific reason for that?

The five east African countries which we have met with on the Africa-Korea ministerial meeting on public governance are developing countries. However, their potential for growth is also very high. One of these countries is Ethiopia. Ethiopia is important because it is also the headquarters of the African Union.Like Ethiopia, the other four are very important for us to work with.

As a minister from Korea, I greatly value the rural development model which we implemented (Cemaundo) as it can be translated into new community movement. I believe this Korean model could be implemented in Ethiopia and the rest of the countries. I also believe that these five nations would play a greater role in fortifying future cooperation between Korea and Africa.

Currently, these countries are trying to move from poverty eradication to a wider scope of development in various areas including electronic governance, public governance and improving public services. That’s why I chose these countries and met with their ministers.

Whatare your priority areas when you are assisting these nations to improve their e-government status?

The Republic of Korea stood first in the UN’s e-government survey three times in a row in 2010, 2012 and in 2014. Hence, we want to share those development experiences in e-governance.

As you may well know, Ethiopia and Korea are blood brothers. Ethiopia stood up and lent a helping hand during the most difficult times in Korean history. National development, among other things, depends on the public governance sector, human resource development and institutional arrangements and systems.

E-governance is not only about technology; it’s also about nurturing human resources that can use and implement e-governance systems efficiently and effectively.

Thatway Ichose Ethiopia and those four countries and would like to share our experiences in developing e-governance with them. Another important point for national development is to nurture civil servants. Korea is where it is today thanks to the talented young civil servants who dedicated themselves to the country’s national development.

Therefore, I would like to share Korea’s excellence in the civil service system so that we can contribute to Ethiopia’s national development. I am well aware that these five countries have excellent leaders. Those leaders are working on rural development model as we did to develop their rural communities.

They are modifying these models to make them fit the needs of each country. However, rural development alone is not enough. We need to foster human resources, science and technology. The Korean government will help the five countries to make public governance and e-government sectors to be lead sectors in national development.

I heard that the first phase of your five- year-term economic plan is to be concluded this year, and that now you are entering into the second phase which sees to industrialize the country’s economy further. I know that many young Ethiopians are studying abroad, including Korea, where advanced science and technology are widely used. I also know that the leaders in Ethiopia are very much interested in science and technology and industrial development.

Ethiopian students in Korea are studying Korea’s public governance and legal systems on top of science and technology. Regarding the students, I would like to make a mention of one students that moved me so much.

He was an Ethiopian top -ranking medical student. But, he gave up his medical studies for his passion that is science and technology. It is quite clear that he could have been a highly-paid physician instead;but he preferred to study another field which directly benefits his country’s national development.

How do you evaluate the five countries’ public governance or public service delivery? Where do they stand?

In my opinion, the development of public governance in Africa is still at its initial stages. I believe that Korea can contribute a lot in that area. The very important aspect of public service is to be able to deliver the services needed by the public. To do so, as I said,it requires a competent crew in the civil service sector.

Establishing a very excellent civil service system is also critical and, in line with that, the existence of educational institutions is very critical.

From our side, I believe there are many aspects in where we can cooperate within those areas. Besides, some of the high level officials of the five countries have been invited to join training programs in Korea. But, we are happy to extend those trainings even to the working-level officials too. That way, we could extend our level of bilateral cooperation in public governance issues.

Some of the ministers you have met with were stating that they are working on building infrastructure. Some said that they are stretching fiber optic cables. Others were heard saying mobile banking systems and the likes. How would you accommodate such diverse needs of these nationsin offering assistance in the e-governance sector?

Nowadays, in Korea, we are integrating very advanced technologies such as cloud computing and big data system into the public governance sector. When technology advances, the role of government changes in the same direction. The interaction between the government and the people also keeps on changing.

More and more people are taking the lead in government policies; they happen to be more vocal about policies of the government. I fully understand that each and every African country is at its own development stages. So, each has its own development agendas. They have diverse strategies of development.

Filling the gap would be an important issue. However, asdeveloping countries adopt Korea’s model, I should point out that there are two options to go by. The first option isjust to skip the failures of Korea and jump to the success experience that is to the very last stage of development in Korean development history. The second one is just to adopt a step-by-step approach which Korea took and implemented.

Hence, it’s up to you what kind of model you choose. That would be decided based on our cooperation. The Kenyan Minister has mentioned that after the new administration came to power, the ministry of communication, information and technology had been re established.

In the past, the Korean former Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology was dissolved and there are different ministries which have assumed the roles of the former ministry in Korea.

In Kenya, they are pondering the issue of assigning the task of e-government; the question of which ministry should be responsible. We had the same worries before; so we would discuss about the matter with Kenyans.

The authorities are thinking of adopting very advanced technologies in their government systems. I think Kenya is a case for choosing the jump-start approach and start at the advanced level and skip the step-by-step approach altogether.

How about Ethiopia?

Ethiopia is a very big country. The territory of the country is twelve times larger than South Korea. The population size is twice as large as that of Korea. I know that you have many local governments. Given that, how to choose an e-government strategy depends on each local government’s approach.

Whether to choose fiber optic networks or cloud computing would totally be up to the local governments. Korea would like to learn your interests while we develop a customized, tailor-made model for your country. We can expand our bilateral partnerships in that regard.

You have signed a Memorandum of Understanding(MoU) with the five countries. Can you tell uswhat the contents of the MoUs are?

The spirit of the MoUis not rapid change. Rather we are trying to build on what we have achieved so far in our bilateral cooperation.

By signing the MoU, we are hoping to take our cooperation a step further so that we can hold discussions together and come up with a model that is tailored to each country’s needs. That way the Korean government would have the chance to provide and invent a development model for African countries.

Your country is very digitalized and innovative and very complex in its technological advancement. Via e-government, there are many services that the government provides and at the end this contributed a lot to the economy. The system cuts costs in areas of procurements, import and export, customs clearances and the like. But how satisfied are Korean citizens in all the e-government systems?

I must say that Koreans are very proud to be known as a digital society. Basically, Korean characters are convenient to fit in the digital world. The people are quick- tempered and they require very prompt services from the government. If the government is not responsive to their needs, Koreans would end up very unhappy.

Nowadays, they require a more transparent government so that there would be an open access to government data and documents. Among other things, they want to improve the quality of life via government’s accessible data. The Korean government has adopted a new paradigm which it is calling government 3.0.

By that, we are trying our best to be transparent so that we want to make sure that citizens are involved in every steps of policy-making starting from the policy designing stage. It has only been two decades since Koreans had achieved democracy: in 1987. Since then, the people and the government have pursued an open society path. The Korean government tried to be service-oriented for the people.

But, Koreans are still persist to have more access to government’s data and documents. That way, there will be no government corruption and costs of life be more reduced. I must say, overall the Korean people are very satisfied with government services. However, my fellow Koreans are very hard to please. We still have room for improvement. But the people are happy about government services. I want to add something about young Koreans.

They are gadget lovers. They adapt to whatever new gadget is available. In terms of digital society, this can be considered as a positive aspect. But they tend to quickly abandon outdated and unfashionable technologies. It’s a very new phenomenon that young Koreans with newly developed smart phones would still abandon them if newer versions were released. In October this year, Samsung launched a new version of smart phone. I believe, by now, many Koreans have had one, though they have those of recent versions.

If you mention Samsung Electronics, others like LG are also widely present in Africa markets too. What would be their role or involvement in extending e-governance in Africa?

As a government official, it’s hard for me to tell you the contributions of Samsung or LG in Africa. However, I would like to mention that the basic infrastructure and systems are established by the Korean government. But large companies like Samsung and LG followed the government systems and institutions and then they were able to develop digitalized societies in Korea. I personally believe that state-owned companies would have not been able to do the job.

Thanks to the private sector, we are able to create a digital society in Korea. The private sector has a wider role to play to form and create a digital society.

Thinking about Africa, creating a digital society would be the role of private companies which are owned and run by Africans themselves. Bringing in these large Korean companies would be up to the countries. No doubt Korean companies would contribute a lot to the creation of an African digital society.