|Thursday, 24 January 2002|
The 100-day program and 'E-Government'
by Chanuka Wattegama
In a developing country, the most important requirement to implement successful e-government projects is the correct attitude of the leaders, as well as of the masses. If both these parties are flexible enough, willing to change the good old method they have been using for generations, in favour of more productive and efficient systems, a systematic and effective e-government will need not be a distant dream. Let the 100-day program be an excellent onset for such an attempt!
The public sector of Sri Lanka, after a hibernation of several years, has apparently woken up with the much-needed enthusiasm after the declaration of the 100-day program of economic and social development.
Though it is too naive to assume that every impediment which prevents our own public sector systems to be effective, efficient, productive and most importantly 'user friendly', would be eradicated within just hundred days, there is no doubt this kind of shock treatments - programs that impose the officials to achieve specified objectives within seemingly short periods of time - is one of the tested methods to bring about quantum changes.
If John Kennedy, in the beginning of the 60s, had not set his foot down and declare an American should be sent to the moon before the end of that decade, it would never have happened.
The 100-day program brings another vital but one of the least discussed topics to the spotlight, namely: The Electronic Government or 'e-government' systems. Loosely defined an e-government system is where the public sector uses the latest available technological innovations both to improve their own productivity and to offer a better service to the masses. (In a similar manner, the private sector uses the e-business systems to cater their customers.) According to Janet Caldow, the Director of the IBM Institute for Electronic Government, this simple definition hardly does justice to the subject.
'In fact, electronic government is nothing short of a fundamental transformation of government and governance at a scale we have not witnessed since the beginning of the industrial era', says she, 'Asking the question "What does it take to become an "e-government?" would be like asking the question "What does it take to become an industrial state?" in the 50s.
The answer is not simple, and those who attempt to simplify its meaning may create enduring setbacks in the race for new competitive advantages in a digital society and economy'.
Though they are not recognised by the same term, several primary level e-government systems are already operational in Sri Lanka. The website of the Department of Education is an ideal example.
This website allows the students who have appeared for public examinations to check their results over Internet, instead of waiting till Principals issue the results, delivered to the latter via snail mail, with an inevitable delay of several days.
This is a simple system, which needs further improvement, but it is a genuine and innovative attempt to bring the benefits of the information and communication technologies to a larger section of the general public.
To illustrate how a well-established e-government system can make the life easier for everybody, let me take the government EPF system (which I am familiar of) as an example.
The government Employment Provident Fund (EPF) is undoubtedly one of the most complex systems the government operates for the general public of Sri Lanka. By the year 2000 this system has handled accounts for 1,855,900 active members. The total contributions towards the fund amounted to Rs. 16,853 million, while total refunds aggregated to Rs. 10,802 million.
The number of refunds during the year was 95,157. The EPF database is also the largest computer database in Sri Lanka. It is a lesser-known fact that the main reason which made Central Bank of Sri Lanka to invest in a massive IBM Main Frame computer as early as 1969, was to handle the EPF system.
The complexity of this system is further augmented by the number of parties involved. In terms of the EPF act, the Department of Labour handles the necessary paper work while the Central Bank of Sri Lanka functions as the custodian of the fund.
The employers are supposed to deduct the specified amounts from the employees' salaries and send them each month, with their own contributions to the Central Bank. At the same time, they should provide the same information to the Department of Labour.
Due to this complex nature, any minor glitch or a miscommunication between any two parties, can create an issue which may take years to settle.
Let me state my own experience. A few months back I was surprised (and a bit amused too!) to receive a letter from the Superintendent of the EPF of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (who knows me personally), requesting me to provide evidence from two of my former employers to prove 'C. L. Wattegama' and 'Chanuka Wattegama' are one and the same person, in order to amalgamate the two accounts.
Given the fact that I no longer work for any of these employers, this is obviously going to be a time consuming task for me. Actually, I cannot be the only person who face similar experiences.
In spite of the numerous attempts taken to streamline the EPF system during the past few years, still both the employees as well as employers face difficulties in interacting with it. In an ideal world, an employee should receive a cheque for the aggregate amount in her account the day she reaches 55 years, without any direct involvement from her side, but still the workflow of this system is not up to that level.
How can the EPF system be modified to be a more user friendly and effective one? The best solution is to introduce a web front end to the system. Then the concerned parties themselves can directly interact with the system using Internet as a medium. To make the payments, the system can be incorporated with an Internet payment gateway, which will directly link the system to the commercial banks. This modification will bring the following benefits:
1. The employers can directly remit the monthly payments to the system, bypassing the on-going procedure of preparing the reports and sending them physically to the authorities with the payments. This is a cost effective solution to the employers as their payroll system can easily be modified to handle the tasks automatically, instead of employing several persons to carry out the procedures.
2. The employees will be able to log into Internet and check their account balances at any given moment. (Currently, the account balances are issued only twice a year, that too with a several months delay.) The employees will hardly face any problems regarding the amalgamations. In addition, the employees can immediately make out whether their employer remits the money to their accounts as per the rules. This will prevent any employer evading the specified procedures.
3. The Labour Department and the Central Bank will be able to bring down the operational cost, as less number of officers is required after streamlining the process. Central Bank will further benefit as the number of data entry operators, as well as the data entry terminals required can be reduced.
Easier said than done. The following are some of the major challenges the government should overcome before successfully implementing such a system (as well as any e-government system):
1. The Internet penetration level in Sri Lanka is still extremely low (There is only one Internet user for 200 in the population.) For any e-government to be a reality, it is essential to first build the necessary island wide telecommunication and Internet infrastructure.
2. Security is a major concern for the operation of a successful Internet payment system. This requires proper cyber laws and security guidelines in place. Unfortunately such cyber laws and security guidelines have not yet been formulated.
3. Only a fraction of the population in Sri Lanka speaks English. Therefore, if any e-government system to be effective, it should interact with public in Sinhala and Tamil too. Many technical problems in handling vernacular languages still exist in the computer environment. Again, the computer literacy of the public also at low levels. A solution like this requires an acceptable computer literacy level in the society.
4. Given their past behaviour, the trade unions are sure to object to any e-government system, in spite of the fact that its primary goal is to help the vast majority of the general public. Fighting the trade union mentality can be the most critical challenge the government might face in launching an e-government system.
In spite of all these issues, this needs not to be an impossible task. Similar program have already been launched in many parts of India, particularly in Karnataka, the first Indian state to declare its own e-government policy. Karnataka state already has a decentralised set up in which people do not have to come to Bangalore, the state capital, for their day-to-day routine work. Most decisions are taken at the village and district levels.
It is however felt by the Karnataka government that an exhaustive database requires to be developed at a single point and be made available to all the decision-makers in the state.
A comprehensive database is scheduled to be developed and portions of the database will be made available to respective decision-makers. It is also planned to analyses the data in an intelligent manner and provide a sophisticated decision support system for the use of the Chief Minister.
The government has already commenced a systems requirement study on the project. The other prominent e-government projects undertaken by the Karnataka government include 'Bhoomi' (a support system for farmers), 'Nondani' (land registration), 'Khajane' (Computerisation of the treasuries), 'Reshme' (online system for the silk market), an agricultural price information system and several projects carried out by the Ministry of Education.
Another Indian state where many e-government projects have been introduced is Andra Pradesh, governed by the famous IT savvy Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu.
Among other things, he plans to introduce a system to allocate an ID number (with an e-mail address) to every newborn in the state, in order to build a massive single database of the state population with all their relevant information from the birth to death.
At present the bio data of individuals are available only in the paper format, that too distributed in several different departments.
The establishment of a common database is sure to bring down the delays in the present system in accessing this information.
In a developing country, the most important requirement to implement successful e-government projects is the correct attitude of the leaders, as well as of the masses. If both these parties are flexible enough, willing to change the good old method they have been using for generations, in favour of more productive and efficient systems, a systematic and effective e-government will need not be a distant dream.
Let the 100-day program be an excellent onset for such an attempt!
Produced by Lake House