On July 5, 2018, the 14th national conference on e-government, titled “Digital government progress toward modern and effective administration,” took place in Hanoi. Apart from the reporting process, there were two panel discussions titled “Ensuring cybersecurity for e-government system,” and “E-government as a solution for reforms, public services provision, fighting corruption, and improving accountability.”
During the conference, Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Minh Hong announced the government’s intention to enact a new Resolution on Digital Government Development Plan for 2018-2020 toward 2025. In addition, a National Board of E-Government Review, for which Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is going to be the president, will be established to monitor and evaluate e-government development in Vietnam.
Also at the conference, for the first time, there was an official ceremony honoring rankings for e-government development in three categories: 1) ministries and ministerial-level agencies; 2) government and governmental agencies; and 3) municipalities. The rankings were calculated based on a comprehensive evaluation of six elements: 1) ICT infrastructure; 2) ICT application; 3) website/portal; 4) provision of online public services; 5) policies and regulations on ICT application; and 6) ICT-qualified human resources. The ranking is considered an effort to increase competitiveness across ministries, governmental agencies, and provinces to push for greater digitalization of public services in Vietnam.
At the beginning, Vietnam was quite hesitant in the implementation of e-government. It was not until the 1998 high-profile meeting among ASEAN countries in Hanoi that then-Prime Minister Phan Van Khai declared Vietnam’s desire to construct e-government. Two years later, the Vietnamese government signed the e-ASEAN Framework in a regional conference held in Singapore, which demonstrated a commitment to digitalize the public sector.
In 2005, Vietnam organized the first Conference on Digital Government, which has taken place annually ever since. In 2009, development of e-government was mentioned as one of the most important objectives in the Project “Acceleration” and the National Strategy on ICT Development. Even at this point, however, attitudes toward e-government were still rather reserved. Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan said: “Implementation of e-government has to be conducted at small scales, compatible with conditions of each municipality. Only after experiences are concluded, e-government can be applied at larger scales.”
Around the same time, Vietnam adopted a set of laws — on online transactions (2005), on ICT (2006), on telecommunications (2009), and on radio frequency (2009) — to create a supportive legal foundation for digitizing government services. In 2007, Resolution 64/2007/ND-CP on ICT application in governmental agencies was approved. After two years, Circular 26/2009/TT-BTTTT was ratified, categorizing public services in Vietnam into four levels: Level 1 includes those providing information about processing, documenting, and fees of public services; Level 2 services cover level 1 and allow users to download and notify completion of document forms; Level 3 services permit users to fill in and submit documents online; and Level 4 services incorporate all the previous three functions with the addition of an online payment service. In 2010, the prime minister approved the 2011-2015 National Program on applying ICT to government activities, the aim of which is to “provide information and online public services for citizens and business enterprises as well as increase transparency in the government activities.” In 2015, Resolution 36a/NQ-CP on e-government was passed. Accordingly, ICT application is regarded as “one of the key drivers for growth of knowledge economy, information society, national competitiveness, industrialization, modernization, and sustainable development in Vietnam.” During 2015-2016, 14 important documents — including six government resolutions and 8 decisions by the prime minister — about ICT were published, of which the Cybersecurity Law has been the single most important and controversial.
In numbers, the results have been impressive. Within 2015, tax registration rate increased from 65 percent to 98 percent and the length of tax submission decreased by around three times, dropping from 537 to 167 hours per year. In the first quarter of 2018, the number of online public services of levels 3 and 4 increased by 13,909, according to the Government Office report. Ministries and ministerial-level agencies provided 1,551 online public services while municipalities provided 45,374 services. The rate of internet users was reported to be 54.2 percent of the total population.
Vietnamese digital government also receives relatively good international rankings. The UN e-government survey (2016) ranked Vietnam at 89th out of 193 countries, up 10 places compared to 2014. In the World Economic Forum’s Network Readiness Ranking (2016), Vietnam’s overall performance stood at 79th out of 139 countries, increasing six places compared to 2015. Notably, Vietnam stood at third out of 139 countries in terms of telecommunication affordability, especially with regards to the price of fixed broadband internet tariffs and internet and telephone sectors competition, which both ranked first
Nevertheless, e-government development in Vietnam has many limitations. On the technical side, the websites and portals of public services at municipalities are not yet synchronized. The address book of public services on chinhphu.vn gathers all websites/portals of public services according to each municipality, ministry, and governmental agency, but its list does not always match the links that citizens frequently use. For example, the public site of Dak Lak Province on chinhphu.vn is given as https://dichvucong.daklak.gov.vn/, which only provides public services at levels 1 and 2. Meanwhile, another website of the same province — http://www.motcua.daklak.gov.vn/ — incorporates more information on levels 3 and 4.
Moreover, website address formats differ. For instance, Hanoi’s public services website is named dichvucong.hanoi.gov.vn whereas Dak Lak’s is motcua.daklak.gov.vn. These contradictions create difficulties for citizens seeking to follow and interact with governmental agencies. Thus, instead of offering one-stop service (as in the successful cases of Estonia and South Korea), the e-government system in Vietnam remains fragmented across ministries, governmental agencies, and municipalities. One key explanation is conflict among different interest groups. If the e-government process is streamlined, various parties will no longer be able to reap benefits off administrative interventions to fill in fragmentations of public services and policymaking.
In substance, the Vietnamese project has been targeting the softer edge of e-government, namely deregulation in the business sector and digitization of public services in its literal meaning: moving public services from being done manually to being done online. As a result, ICT applications are mainly aimed at improving enterprises’ access to information, easing administrative procedures (especially business and land registration), lowering administrative corruption, increasing belief in the legal system, and refining the government’s image. According to Alpha Beta’s report “Digital Nation – Policy levers for investment and growth,” Vietnam’s greatest advantage lies in domestic demand, as in the cases of Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand. The legal system is Vietnam’s weakest point. This again demonstrates the Vietnamese government’s continued hesitation to fully embrace the potential of e-government to foster democratization in the country.
The third big question is concerned with evaluating citizens’ experiences and their digital literacy. As a response to this necessity, PAPI – the Vietnam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index – was launched in 2009 and has since collected opinions from 103,059 citizens. The goal of PAPI is to engender data to inform policymakers and bureaucrats of how to better meet expectations from their citizens. According to the 2017 report, for example, 12 percent of those surveyed searched for information about policies and laws. Within this 12 percent, approximately one in five people actually used online websites or portals. The two most crucial factors influencing the frequency of using online government services are educational background and gender. The higher education level one has, the more likely that person is going to use the online government portals. Meanwhile, men are more likely to use the internet to look for policies and laws than women.
The digitization process for Vietnamese public services is most similar to the Chinese experience, even though China started the whole process much earlier, in the mid-1980s. In both cases, the focus is on applying ICT to internal government activities to improve administrative and management capacity and delivering public services through e-government applications. Both socialist countries are augmenting online services even while delaying proceeding from e-government to e-governance, as is the case in democratic countries like Estonia and South Korea.
Moreover, because the actual implementation of Vietnam’s e-government started as late as in 2009, it is still in an embryonic stage. Without political determination and genuine commitment to increase transparency in the public sector, such a costly project like digital government in Vietnam might eventually end up in vain, as in many African countries.