Policy documents from the European Commision (EC) outline the importance of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in making public services better, more cost effective, and more accessible. ICT are becoming more widely used and are benefiting more people. On the other hand, today over half of the EU population either does not reap these benefits in full or is effectively cut off from them. Reinforcing social, economic, and territorial cohesion by making ICT products and services more accessible from regions that are lagging behind, is an economic, social, ethical and political imperative for the Commission. Particular focus is given on public services, since they are a major part of the European economy (e.g., public procurement accounts for 16% of GDP). A key challenge identified from the Commission is to make these services better, more accessible, and more cost-effective. Considerable advances have been achieved in the rollout of ICT-based public services in many EU regions, and successes have already been registered: for example, online tax returns save millions of hours each year. However, much remains to be done in order to demonstrate impact and social acceptance in areas that are lagging behind in the development and/or adoption of such services.

This problem can be clearly identified when considering public services for enterprises in rural areas. Away from the central public authorities, such enterprises (mostly SMEs in such areas) do not have physical access to the public services required for them to do business with governmental or public agencies (such as taxation offices, legislative authorities, local authorities, chambers of commerce etc.). The tools and methods of the Information Society aim to address such problems: first, by providing the means for public authorities to deploy and offer electronic public administration services (e-government services); second, by facilitating rural SMEs in accessing these services from a distance. Key drivers for this are both Regional Authorities as well as Central Government. On the other hand, although in some occasions Regional or Central authorities develop and offer e-government services, professionals and citizens are not aware of them and do not know how to use them so that they receive benefits in their everyday business activities.

A major barrier towards this direction is the low degree of ICT adoption and use of online services from rural SMEs, which is being identified by related studies about rural development. Experience from training SMEs in rural areas (through initiatives such as the 'Go-Online Training Support' in Greece and the 'Opportunity Wales' in UK) has demonstrated that ICT training activities have to develop (i) a specially designed training curriculum that can convince SMEs about the benefits they will reap from introducing ICT in their business, (ii) innovative training models that can combine traditional forms of learning with e-learning forms (such as blended learning models), and (iii) an online point of reference which SMEs can continuously access for information and content. These three aspects are all important when aiming to train rural SMEs on the use of e-government.



 
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