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Monday, 17 January 2011






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IT for lasting peace

Sri Lanka’s progress recognized in UN ratings:

Peace is, perhaps, not the most obvious outcome of an e-government master plan. But in Sri Lanka’s case, it is one of three pillars of a strategy to modernize a country that was in the throes of Asia’s longest running civil war less than a year and a half ago, stated Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga and Chairman-ICT Committee of UNESCAP, to the December 2010 issue of FutureGOV Asia Pacific magazine

Following is the full text:

Sri Lanka has come a long way in a short time in the modernization of its public sector. Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga, tells Robin Hicks that a bright future awaits a ‘smart island’ whose leaders believe in the transformative, peace-bringing powers of technology.

Peace is, perhaps, not the most obvious outcome of an e-government master plan. But in Sri Lanka’s case, it is one of three pillars of a strategy to modernize a country that was in the throes of Asia’s longest running civil war less than a year and a half ago.

Lalith Weeratunga

The e-Sri Lanka program was launched in January 2005 to find ways to use IT to lay the foundations for lasting peace, spur economic growth, and ensure equal access to the benefits of development particularly the 77 percent of a population of 20 million that lives in rural areas.

IT services sector

Despite the distractions of a war that raged for almost three decades, e-Sri Lanka has made progress in narrowing the digital divide and re-engineering government.

It has also given credibility to the ‘Smart island, Smart people’ vision of building a knowledge-based economy, coined in 2002, a time when there was negligible activity in an IT services sector that is now the country’s fifth highest export earner.

Sri Lanka’s progress did not go unnoticed at the FutureGov Awards in October. The island nation’s haul of three awards all for e-Sri Lanka projects was matched only by that of South Korea, a country 110 places above it in the 2010 UN E-Government Rankings.

Lanka Gate, an integration platform that acts as a gateway for all e-services and electronic government information, was lauded by the judges as a progressive step towards building a connected government. The other two awards were for digital inclusion projects: Nenasala, a rural telecentre network that makes 1,100 government services available online in more than 600 centres strategically placed in religious institutions, womens’ groups and rural schools and the Sri Lanka GovSMS Portal, which gives Sri Lankans access to crop prices, weather information and railway timetables when they text the popular 1919 Government information Centre (GIC) number.

As well as funding from the World Bank, e-Sri Lanka has benefited from being run by an agency, the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA), which operates under the purview of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is keen to use ICT as a force for reform.

Last year’s Presidential TaskForce to improve English and IT literary has, mostly through Nenasala (which was the President’s idea), helped increase e-literacy to 30 percent this year- up from just four percent in 2004. The taskforce also gave a shot in the arm to Sri Lanka’s promising Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, which has been growing at around 20 percent year on year. Colombo is ranked seventh among the world’s best emerging outsourcing cities.

One of the latest modernization ideas to emerge from the highest echelons of power is the concept of the government ‘Chief Innovation Officer’, which is also part of the e-Sri Lanka program.

This is the brainchild of Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, who spoke to FutureGov Asia Pacific at the President’s Office in Colombo in October.

Positive attitude

Weeratunga is the Republic’s most senior civil servant and was Director, Re-engineering Government, at ICTA before he rose to his current role after a General Election in 2005.

Government re-engineering is a ‘critical’ function of Weeratunga’s role, the success of which depends on a particular brand of leadership, he says. Hence Chief Innovation Officers, not Chief Information Officers. “We may build structures and assign qualified teams to these structures, but that in itself is a challenge for leadership. Knowledge and skills of various specialist areas, including technology, is not enough. One also has to possess a positive attitude towards bringing about change. That is why we started breeding a new set of leaders who would act as change agents”.

A team of 200 ‘e-champions’ is now being trained at a top management school.

These officers will hold a senior ‘second level of command’ rank with enough clout to push through re-engineering ideas “to make their organizations more citizen-centric and cost-effective,” says Weeratunga. “Information management skills are, of course, important. But it is innovativeness and team effort that really matters in transforming traditional service delivering systems. We want to see ICT tools in the hands of creative people who will add value to every process and so contribute to economic development directly and indirectly.”

‘Courteous’ Governance

With the Tamil Tigers defeated, the government has more freedom to focus on a new path for e-Sri Lanka and new ways to ‘change the face of government’- a big challenge, he concedes.

In the latest World Bank ‘Ease of Doing Business’ survey, Sri Lanka ranked 102nd out of 183 countries - the same rank as last year- and 166th for how easy it is to pay taxes.

One area where Sri Lanka's public sector falls short is 'courtesy', notes Weeratunga. "In the private sector, if the service is not good in one shop, you go to another. Which is why shops go out of their way to treat you well. The bureaucracy has tended not to be courteous, because it hadn't had to be".

Weeratunga wants this to change and sees technology as a conduit. But he is under no illusions as to how difficult the transition will be. "Bureaucrats are very resistant to change. They don't even want to switch the chair they sit in," he says. "Change can be demeaning and challenges one's sense of self and status. Therefore, it takes time for civil servants to see the value in ICT."

With the Electronic Security Act in place, there is a legal framework to support the full use of ICT in government. There is also the political will from the President himself to see to it that all of Sri Lanka's 1.2 million civil servants are ICT literate.

Convincing citizens, even those in the poorer rural areas, will be easier, says Weeratunga. "Literacy is high, at 93 percent. But even people who are completely illiterate are using mobile phones and ATMs. They will grab anything that helps their day-to-day lives.

Rather than travel 200km to get information on how to apply for a passport, they can call or text 1919, which is available in three languages (Sinhalese, Tamil and English). The GIC gets 3800 calls a day. People are beginning to believe in technology."

Weeratunga has set a target of 75 percent e-literacy by 2016, which chimes with President Rajapaksa's pledge to have doubled per capita income by the same year.

This aim is also to raise the digital inclusion of government e-services from 10 to 65 percent, reduce the average waiting time for a government service (currently six hours) and improve citizen satisfaction with these services, which is now around 40 percent.

But there is a long way to go. Sri Lanka has slipped in the United Nations E-Government Rankings, from 101st in 2008 to 111th in 2010 (further than India, which fell from 113th to 119th) and is below the global average for infrastructure, e-participation and online services and above average only for human capital. Internet penetration is still only seven percent. Over 74 percent of Sri Lanka's poorer rural population have never used the Internet. And 23 percent of these people do not even know it exists, according to LIRNasia research.

The expansion of the rural telecentres network to 1,000 Nenasalas by 2012 is part of the plan to realize the 'Smart island, Smart people' vision. So is the launch of 10 e-life centres to develop entrepreneurship and e-involvement among young people and a school PC lab network. Sri Lanka's first rural BPO, Mahavilachchiya, an 'e-village in the jungle' which blends modern living with local cultural mores, is a sign of things to come - the government wants to slow the rate of urbanization, which is expected to have grown from 20 percent in 2000 to 60 percent by 2030.

"If a person can earn his or her living at the village level and can access other services for an improved quality of life, he or she will not easily be attracted to congested townships and end up in squalid slums with low sanitary conditions," says Weeratunga.

The President's Secretary also hinted that Sri Lanka could follow a similar path to India, Indonesia, and the Philippines by locally manufacturing a low-cost computer.

However, digital inclusion, he says, is a challenge best tackled in concert. "We should be working closely with the likes of India and China to solve problems that are similar in nature."

For all Sri Lanka's undoubted promise there is the chance, however unlikely, that terrorism could rear its head and put the country's progress into reverse. To page 12


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