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The main obstacle preventing Brazil from becoming a major regional e-government powerhouse with federal initiatives in the mold of Uruguay is not technological, but administrative.
The country lacks effective integration of the myriad of existing databases and systems, some of which are old or outdated, at three levels of government: federal, state and municipal.
The problem is not new, having been voiced by different analysts and IT officials within the public sector over the past years. And neither is it related to the quality of IT manpower.
A recent ICT e-government survey from Brazilian internet management committee CGI's information and communication technologies study center (Cetic) found that 83% of state agencies and 96% of federal ones had an IT team. Of those surveyed, 61% had a "clear IT strategy" – but mostly individual strategies.
Projects like the national smart identification system RIC, for example, remain stalled due to this decentralization and non-integration of processes, particularly within the states' data processing companies. Nearly all the country's 26 states and federal district have their own database, which basically do not communicate with each other.
"The strategies of biometric data collection, for example, are still not integrated between the units of the federation. We have integration for some systems, such as the electronic voting machine, but not in the digital identification of citizens," according to Célio Bozola, director of São Paulo state data processing service Prodesp.
Bozola spoke during the third South American forum of IT government leaders held last week in capital Brasília, during which the integration topic topped the agenda.
The overall understanding among the executives present at the event was that the non-integration of state-run IT agencies ends up holding back technological processes because of internal problems and organizational issues.
"We have no choice: we're bound to integration. This is the great challenge the public sector has in order to become more responsive in the use of all this data. How this integration will take place is the one-million dollar question, as it touches organizational, processing... and even power issues," said Rodrigo Assumpção, head of social security IT agency Dataprev.
Although Dataprev was created to process social security payrolls, the agency is now seen as vital to any countrywide IT project due to the gigantic size of its database and the potential of the citizens' information it holds. Currently, social security-specific activities account for 50% of what it does.
Dataprev is headquartered in Brasília and has processing centers in the federal capital, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The agency also maintains five development centers and has over 3,800 employees.
Together, Dataprev and federal data processing service Serpro concentrate 20-30% of all the federal government's IT activities, according to Assumpção. "The rest comes from internal development and from a vast majority of processes that are not even organically mapped."
FASTER SOLUTIONS NEEDED
In addition to more integration, Brazil's public sector IT needs to streamline the development of solutions demanded by citizens. Assumpção argues that the client is now more pressured to respond quickly to a problem and cannot wait long for a solution.
This increased agility in response time, according to him, depends on a structural and modular change.
"If we focus individually on the problems, we will always be behind the clock," he said.
While greater integration and faster response times are lacking, the country's public sector has been stepping up investment in technologies, focusing on analytics, cloud computing, security and mobility.
Since 2012, for example, income tax returns can be made from and submitted by mobile devices. The federal tax office Receita Federal is currently developing a notification system to let the taxpayer know when his tax returns are sent or if he was selected for income tax inspection.
There are also internal developments.
"In terms of BI, we are advancing in management dashboards. We're making a major purchase of data mining equipment and also piloting an internal remote working project," said Maria Rita Almeida, from Receita's technology coordination (Cotec).
"Also, this week we're distributing tablets to servers, through which they can access Receita Federal networks."