Following is the full text of the speech delivered by the Director of Information Technology Services, Mr Lau Kam-hung, at the opening ceremony of the "Electronic Government in the New Millennium" Conference organised by the Information Technology Services Department marking its 10th anniversary today (Tuesday):
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be here today to open the ITSD's 10th anniversary conference on "Electronic Government in the New Millennium".
Looking around here today I see many old friends and familiar faces with which we have had the pleasure of working during the last 10 years. In the years to come I do not doubt that many of those I do not recognise will join the long list of departments and organisations which this department has served in one way or another.
One of the great changes we have all seen in the last decade has been an enormous increase in the importance of information technology to government as well as society in general.
Until the 1980s the computer was like an aeroplane: you might use it but you had nothing to do with actually making it work. This was a task for a group of highly-trained specialists -- the only people who actually got their hands on the machine.
Many of us remember the days when if you were not a member of this group you never actually saw a computer: the machine lived in special quarters of its own and lay people were not allowed in there.
In recent years we have seen the democratisation of the computer. It would seem strange to us nowadays if we went into the office of an official or a government department and we did not see a computer.
Many Hong Kong people have computers in their homes and to the younger generation using a computer seems as natural as watching television or riding a bicycle.
For private individuals or businesses this progress has come about through a form of natural evolution. Computers were acquired for various purposes by various people and they spread as it became obvious how useful they were.
In government departments this process must necessarily be more formal. A government department cannot experiment with procedures whose consistency and fairness is a matter of urgent public importance. Computers cannot be installed on desks piecemeal to see if their owners find new uses for them.
The advance of IT in government requires foresight, planning, and a positive effort to find settings where its use will produce measurable improvements in efficiency and economy.
This is where the ITSD comes in. It has been our task to help departments to survey and analyse their activities, identify the areas where IT can bring significant improvements, and plan its introduction in a way which allows our clients to keep up the standard of service which the public expects, while introducing new ways of carrying out their work.
In every case it is the department concerned which, quite rightly, eventually gets the credit. It is absolutely essential to the success of an enterprise of this kind that the people helping to introduce IT should keep in mind at all times that the object of the exercise is to help the client to achieve his own objectives.
The client must have the last word on what he is trying to do and how he wishes to do it. Besides providing technical suggestions our job is like Bagehot's description of the functions of a constitutional monarch: to advise, to encourage and to warn.
Still, having said that, it is very encouraging for us as a department to look back on the number of cases in which other departments, with our help, have achieved the targets which they had set for themselves.
Our success in this can be judged from the fact that in 1992 there were less than 100 workstations for every 1,000 civil servants in the Hong Kong government. By 1998 this figure had risen to over 400. In another two or three years the number of civil servants working with computers will exceed the number engaged in other activities.
Let me give you some brief examples of our efforts to help departments to put IT to work for them.
The Inland Revenue Department completed its first five-year information strategy plan in 1997. In March this year the department finalised its second five-year plan, which will cover the period up to 2004. So far the improvements to the department's operational efficiency achieved by introducing IT have saved 254 posts and produced other economies as well.
The Labour Department processes a great deal of information about employment matters, much of which it tries to make accessible to the public. The Internet has proven an ideal way to broaden contact between the department and the many members of the public who use its services.
The department has set up the Interactive Employment Service (iES), a web-based application which allows advertising vacancies, job search, and job matching through the Internet.
Since the service was rolled out in March the iES has become one of the most heavily visited government web sites, with an average hit rate of 72,000 a day. We are continuing to work with the department to further improve and expand this service.
The Judiciary has used IT to produce dramatic and economical improvements in the speed and accuracy of preparing court reports and transcripts. The Digital Audio Recording and Transcription Service has been implemented in all Hong Kong's courts. It provides transcripts in half the time, can handle Chinese as well as English, and has the additional advantage that the record can be played back in court if there is any dispute over what was said.
The introduction of this system has saved the government $27 million per annum.
As you can see from these examples, IT has a wide range of applications in government, even for departments that do not on the face of it appear to have much need for actual computation.
We are confident that the use of IT will continue to spread into every corner of the government machinery, and to facilitate this, we aim to develop an integrated government-wide infrastructure, which will allow us to cope with department needs on a united and integrated platform.
The key to this has been the building of a network infrastructure, connecting all bureaux and departments, onto which has been added an electronic messaging facility for both internal communication and communication with the public. And to this, we will further add a secure central gateway enabling bureaux and departments to safely access and use the Internet.
This brings me to what will certainly be, from the public's point of view, the most dramatic development in our work in the next decade, the use of IT to allow electronic delivery of services or ESD.
An essential preparation for this will soon be completed with the enactment of the Electronic Transactions Bill. This will provide the legal framework needed to allow computer users to pay money or sign documents electronically over the Internet.
And this in turn will allow us to streamline many transactions by allowing members of the public to fill in forms, make payments and generally interact with government departments without leaving their homes or offices.
Ten departments and public agencies have already joined this scheme, which will be implemented next year. We shall continue to help departments to identify areas where they can provide services electronically and achieve improvements in efficiency, convenience and cost by doing so.
In the coming decade the ITSD will gain a whole new set of clients because the department has been charged with promoting the use of IT in the community. This has led to us establishing a new division in the department and the beginning of a long-term effort to smooth the path of technological change, to help the different players in collaborating with each other in IT development, and to bring IT to a wider public.
As you will gather from the above we expect a great deal of change and progress in the introduction of electronic government in the years to come. But this is a fast-developing area and many of the possibilities have not yet been thought of. Some parts of government will benefit from being re-engineered from scratch. Some activities may benefit from a redrawing of departmental boundaries.
I wish you every success in your deliberations over the next two days and I look forward to the stimulating and innovative suggestions for this important area which I am sure you will produce.
End/Tuesday, November 16, 1999