E-government has a key role to play in achieving the SDGs. Governments in the UNECE region are using tools like ICTs, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve public services, empower citizens and ultimately provide a better quality of life. The COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the importance of digital services, at a time when physical contacts must be reduced.
Examples of e-government include:
- removing non-tariff barriers to cross-border trade by creating electronic single windows and developing harmonized standards for digital cross-border trade procedures and information flows;
- promoting innovation in the public sector, including the use of ICT to enable citizens to co-create better services;
- creating interconnected energy systems by integrating distributed generation sources with smart distribution systems and thereby reducing energy consumption and advancing energy efficiency.
However, progress in the region is uneven, with significant variations amongst countries.
According to the UN Global Survey on Digital and Sustainable Trade Facilitation 2019 edition, in the region, the EU countries along with Switzerland and Norway have achieved average implementation rates of 77% for the group of paperless trade measures. By contrast, South-East European countries are at 47.5%, well-below the (71.7%) average implementation rate of the UNECE region as a whole.
In cross-border paperless trade, implementation is lower, at 38.8% and 25.9% respectively for Eastern European and South-Eastern European countries, and 53% for the EU.
Key recommendations on electronic trade facilitation
Advancing digital trade facilitation requires systematic implementation of the legal frameworks, simplifying existing regulatory and commercial processes, and implementing harmonized systems for cross-border exchange of data. All the above can be executed by adopting good practices and relevant international standards and guidelines, such as the ones developed by UN/CEFACT.
These tools facilitate national and international transactions through simplification and harmonization of cross-border trade procedures and information flows. For several decades, UN/CEFACT has been developing methods to facilitate processes, procedures and transactions, including the relevant use of information technologies.
The 2020 UN E-government Survey, published on 10 July by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, presents an overview of how digital government can facilitate integrated policies and services across the 193 United Nations Member States. The Survey supports countries’ efforts to provide effective, accountable and inclusive digital services to all and to bridge the digital divide and leave no one behind.
The Survey is composed of an analytical part and of data on e-government development. UNECE contributed in particular to Chapter 3 on Regional Challenges and Opportunities. UNECE’s contribution focused on digital trade facilitation reforms in Europe and Central Asia. Digital services are a major element of the regulatory or government services for facilitating international trade in Europe and Central Asia. UNECE’s contribution included innovative practices to illustrate how ICTs are being used to transform such services in support of sustainable development.
In order to facilitate countries’ progress, UNECE also contributed policy recommendations to the Survey. These can be summarised under five principles:
Firstly, trade facilitation is not an objective in itself. Rather it is a means to contribute towards efficient trading. Hence, identification of ‘low-hanging fruits’ in digital service provisions (e.g. automated customs systems) should receive policy priority while at the same time working towards longer-term policy objectives (e.g. exchange of electronic customs declarations).
Secondly, trade facilitation is dynamic, and with the evolution of transformative technologies, the provisions need to be dynamic too. Hence, assessing the costs and benefits of provisions is recommended. The measures and their benefits for the traders must be monitored periodically to ensure necessary adjustments to the provisions.
Thirdly, as a general approach, effective implementation of the policy decisions is crucial for gaining maximum benefits from the digital services. In addition, parallel systems (e.g. paper-based and digital systems for an import-export permits) may create unnecessary costs and may offset the potential benefits of the digital provisions.
Fourthly, tackling institutional capacities for accelerated response to the trading community is necessary, especially in a fast-paced and competitive global market.
Finally, the digital provisions need to be designed in a way that contributes towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and caters also to Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSME) and women traders as well as vulnerable sectors like agriculture.