PHOEBE ATUKUNDA | For one year now, Local Governments (LGs) in Uganda and the rest of the world have had to operate amidst challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, several activities such as council meetings were grounded, LGs were required to retain a lean staff structure of not more than 30% of staff while the rest worked from home, and key decisions such as budget approval were made by the business committees which was irregular according to the provisions of the Local Governments Act CAP 243 as amended.
It was also reported by the Permanent Secretary (PS) Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development that 36 districts had failed to submit draft budget estimates and work plans and performance contracts for the FY 2020/2021 within the required timeline.
The PS in his letter to LG Accounting Officers dated April 15, 2020, further noted that "Notwithstanding the inconveniences associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic, the statutory timelines still stand and therefore, this requires all local governments to institute administrative measures to ensure continuity of work, especially regarding the finalisation of the budget for the FY 2020/2021, among other critical activities".
The experience from the last year has brought to the fore the use of e-government at the local government level to exploit the power of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) to help transform the accessibility, quality, cost-effectiveness of public services and to revitalize the relationship between citizens and public bodies.
Local e-government has the potential of extending services to local communities by providing online means for people to get together and communicate in a non-commercial environment in ways more relevant to government. It provides government agencies with the opportunity to offer new and enhanced services to the public, increase the involvement of communities in policymaking and improved service provision.
ICTs and other related telecommunication and digital networks are a major driving force in building information societies and economies around the world. Increasingly recognised as a new factor in improving existing governance practices, the main benefit of technology-based e-government systems is seen in the building of a fully-fledged open information society by providing a wide range of online public services, fostering mutually effective public-private partnerships, and enhancing democracy among others. ICTs are bringing about major changes in the way local and regional authorities operate, interact and communicate internally or with other administrative entities, enterprises, and citizens.
The use of ICT tools can solve other challenges of LGs in terms of political and managerial leadership, thus enhancing citizen engagement and participation. The government has made progress towards establishing the regional communication infrastructure. Through its agency, NITA-U, the government has found ways to deliver public services more efficiently and effectively by incorporating e-governance in districts. Local governments, as service delivery units, are the closest governmental units to the citizens thus, the application of ICT tools at this level will facilitate effective and efficient service delivery.
Indeed, the Central Government has made substantive progress in making sure that each local government in Uganda has a website. The benefits of ICT as discussed above notwithstanding; a lot is still lacking to achieve the full potential of e-government at the local government level. For example, a quick look at most local government websites, one notices that they are neither updated regularly nor linked to websites of relevant MDAs. Also, information on some LG websites is not cross-checked to ensure they are correct for example, a look at Bududa district website, one notices that it has information as old as 2018 and under the section of "overview of the district", it displays information related to Mukono district https://bududa.go.ug/lg/overview.
To make e-government with its desired associated benefits a reality; there is a need to invest in improving on the current ICT infrastructure and adapt to the use of ICT tools at the local government level. There is also a need for training of LG personnel with appropriate skills for effective utilisation. Local e-government, therefore, becomes a political device adopted to ensure good governance at the grassroots level through which government and citizen's relationships are facilitated to ensure better performance and enhance good governance that is generally characterised by participation, transparency and accountability.