A shift away from the corruption scandals at the central level spotlighted as part of the ‘blazing furnace’ campaign exposes a picture of petty theft and speed money running rampant in the system. Both domestic and foreign businesses are vulnerable to power abuse by local authorities who often demand ‘informal charges’ in exchange for smooth services, sometimes as simple as business registration. As Vietnam seeks to strengthen its position as a safe and attractive destination for foreign investors, e-government can help promote transparency and accountability and reduce corruption.
One major pillar of e-government development in Vietnam is the provision of digitised public services through platforms like the national portal for public services. This platform offers 31 per cent of public services at level 4 of digitisation, allowing businesses and individuals to file official documents online, integrate them into a database, make contactless payments and receive virtual responses from government agencies. The transactions traditionally taking place between local elites and businesses are now digitally integrated into the national portal, reducing opportunities for corruption.
Vietnam aims to become a developed industrial nation by 2045 and sees the digital economy as the ideal growth model to achieve this goal. Developing a well-structured e-government system is essential in this effort. E-government development provides firms incentives and mechanisms to embrace digitisation in their business models.
At the same time, e-government development is indispensable to constructing legal and infrastructural mechanisms to enable and govern e-commerce, digital finance and digital banking systems that are integral to a digital economy. For example, the Ministry of Public Security is developing the national citizenry databases to meet the need for an identity verification system.
The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has political incentives driving its ambitious e-government project. The government treats e-government as a crucial step towards reforming its chunky bureaucratic system, as the digitisation of public services provision is predicted to cut the administrative budget by VND 8.5 billion (around US$360,000) per year.
The CPV also considers e-government critical for improving surveillance. This is evident in its nationwide campaign to replace the old ID card with a chip-based one, which has resulted in a national population database. Beyond a more efficient surveillance structure, e-government represents the CPV’s deeper desire to reinforce its legitimacy and mobilise greater public support.
Corruption is not just an economic matter for party leaders but also a legitimacy crisis that taints the image of the CPV in the public’s eyes. To effectively tackle corruption, restoring confidence in the system is essential. E-government development is designed as a moral antidote that portrays the regime as a righteous vanguard of bureaucratic ethics.
E-government can facilitate civic engagement by offering a platform for citizens to express concerns and hold party members accountable. For example, the instantaneous feedback system on the national public services portal allows anyone to report their interactions with the bureaucratic system and receive a swift reply. A large proportion of user feedback calls out behaviours and procedures at the local government level that imply corruption, such as prolonging document processing time or providing confusing instructions.
E-government development in Vietnam still faces challenges, including a shortage of human capital necessary for the successful implementation of e-government. While the central government strives to organise training on ICT capabilities, the cascading results are modest, especially at the local level where some staff are still resistant to digitisation. The local bureaucracy is also resistant to e-government due to fears of losing their treasure trunks of petty corruption.
Given the economic and political incentives, e-government building efforts are likely to be concentrated in urban hubs and hotspots of foreign investment. These spaces host the skyrocketing middle class, which holds the largest sway in economic structures and public opinion. Unfortunately, such a distributive trend might exacerbate existing inequalities.
Access to e-government services has been a challenge for many groups, including those whose mother tongue is not Vietnamese, those with disabilities or low literacy, and people from low-income or rural areas. While major cities have made significant strides in e-government infrastructure building, regions such as the Northwest, Northeast, Central Highlands and Mekong Delta lag behind, especially on the availability of the internet and access to e-government portals. These poorly performing regions also happen to be those with low GDP growth rates, low urbanisation rates and a larger population of minority ethnic groups.
The government has yet to show any intention of curbing this problem. None of the objectives and key missions stated in the e-government development strategy touch on the issue of equity. Such a bleak picture attests to the incentives of the CPV.
Pham Thi Thuy Duong is a PhD student at the Department of Political Science, University of California San Diego.
Truong Thuy Quynh is an MA student at the Southeast Asian Studies Program, University of California Riverside.