E-governance: Digitisation of Public Sector in Pakistan

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Digitisation of Public Sector in Pakistan
Digital governance or digitisation of public sector by using technology to provide government services online is now one of the standard tools of statecraft even in the developing countries. There are some good reasons backed by evidence to believe that digital governance can and has resulted in better service delivery. In addition to improving governance through greater transparency and accountability of government functionaries, digitization helps governments to ensure efficient and effective provision of services at a fraction of the costs incurred by providing the same services through traditional means.
Besides being extremely cost-effective method of service delivery, it is also extremely client friendly. It is a paradigm shift; instead of a stakeholder coming to a government office, the state provides its services at his/her doorsteps, a click away whether living in a city or in the rural areas. Although providing these very services online is ipso facto, no guarantee of their improved quality, yet being interactive and accessible to millions of people online, digitization has its own corrective mechanism to ensure improvement. Slackness of any government agency in providing quality services will immediately become topic of discussion on print, electronic and social media, forcing the political elite to take remedial measures to save their own skins.
If the state develops proper information highways and portals, it saves the amount to be spent on brick and mortar structures to physically provide the same services besides reducing the burden on public highways. Why citizens should commute by public or private transport to the government offices to seek information if these are made available online.? Why he should be forced to go to the even nearest bank branch to pay a utility bill if this facility is available online? Additionally, by creating an open, participatory and trustworthy public sector, it also helps to improve socioeconomic inclusiveness essential for long-term sustainable growth.
During the recent years Pakistan in general and its Punjab province in particular have made significant progress in digitization their respective public sectors. However, keeping in view its importance as an integrated part of public service delivery mechanism, there is need to increase scope, improve quality and expand its outreach. Some of the issues needing careful attention are;
Firstly, digitization of public sector is a monumental task needing a vision backed by total commitment at the political and executive levels. Need for this political commitment becomes even more crucial when we consider the uncertainties involved in the entire process namely timely availability of requisite resources, particularly of specialized human resource, project execution delays, rapidity of technical change making technology redundant in few years and the shifting priorities of the changing political regimes. Add the typical turf wars among various government institutions creating difficulties in pooling of information and its sharing among public and private-the two main pillars of big data.
Consequently, if there is resolve at the highest level for the digital transformation of the country, even rudimentary legal framework and institutional structure can work wonders; if not, even the best of the above would not deliver. In this connection, bureaucracy can play a very crucial role by helping the elected representatives in the formulation of a long-term vision supported by a comprehensive legal regulatory framework which is in sync with the globally accepted best practices.
Some of the fields requiring clear cut policy formulation and legislative enactment are accessibility protocols for stakeholders, data protection, E-Commerce Frameworks, Public -Private Partnership Agreements etc. This framework must be approved by the competent forums for its institutional legitimacy and providing confidence to the stakeholders for its long-term continuity irrespective of periodic regime changes.   –
Secondly, no one can prepare an exhaustive list of public goods and services which could be made available online to the public; literally sky is the limit. According to a recent report by Mackinsy, a small country like Estonia with only 1.3 million population, provides more than 160 services online ranging from casting of votes to issuing of entitlement vouches for the poor. You can very well imagine the number of services which could be potentially provided to the citizens in Pakistan. However, prioritization is essential; prepare the list of services to be provided online, prioritize them per the ease of their digitization, needs of the citizens and availability of resources. Piloting with low volume services and learning lessons along the way could help the government to gradually move towards high volume but labour intensive services.;
Thirdly, keeping in view the number of stakeholders continuously handling colossal amount of information for providing services to the public, digitisation needs a robust but flexible institutional framework which is vertically aligned and horizontally linked. Sheer volume of data which needed to be collected, collated and made retrievable, demands its vertical alignment from the central to provincial and local tiers of the state. At the same time, it needs to be linked horizontally with the public-sector institutions as well as the private sector entities at various levels of the vertical chain above. However, the portals provided at various levels for the public to access the services made available for them online must be easy to navigate and interact.
While implementing the plan of action, it must be membered that the best of the legal framework and institutional mechanism can fail to deliver results if not properly implemented. Attract the best of the technical and managerial brains from within the country or from abroad. Let most of the digitized services be outsourced to the private sector for better professional management. Most importantly, the very technological architecture of digitization is based on the streamlining of services. It means creating appropriate algorithms for automatic classification of the big data for its easy location and retrieval by the end users. For example, if all the tasks involved in registering companies by the SECP could take place with no human effort, there should be no complaint for its less than satisfactory service delivery.
Fourthly, it is comparatively easy to provide digital services to those living in the urban areas of a country; the real challenge is to ensure their across the board availability to the rural areas and remote corners. If we can have plans for Smart Cities, why can’t we have for Smart Villages! That is why creation of a centralized agency with provincial and local branches is the most appropriate and cost-effective way to not only economize on these scarce human resources but also to avoid unnecessary fragmentation of service providers.
Fifthly, the state must pass on the savings made through digitization to the public and must not try to cash on them by pricing the online services at the same rate as are applicable off-line. We must devise a pricing structure which keeps the affordability threshold of the poor as the bench mark rather than recovery of the fixed and variable costs for the provision of these services as its prime motive. Some services must be free to everyone while no service should be priced more than one-tenth of its off-line cost to the end consumer.
Sixthly, like every technology, digitisation has its dark side also. The lethality, frequency and duration of cyber-attacks have increased manifold in recent past and are likely to increase still further. Make cyber risk a priority only next to service delivery, ensuring network security, malware protection and secured configurations as the cornerstones of cyber security strategy.
Lastly, technology is a double-edged weapon in terms of creating inequalities or bridging them. Left to itself, technology unfortunately favours those who already have and leaves out the have-nots in the lurch. Let it not happen. It is a godsend opportunity to empower everyone. Grab it. Those who are totally illiterate, will be worst affected while those who are not sufficiently tech-savvy will get less benefits from greater digitisation of the public services.
One way to help them is to encourage the development of maximum user-friendly apps., in local languages which should also have audio interaction facility.  Establishment of public portals at community centres where dedicated staff is available to help those who can’t use these services has been the most effective way of increasing digitisation outreach to the poor. Similarly, providing public services on mobile platforms is another convenient and cost-effective method of doing the same.
Here a word of caution will be in order. Digitization is a tool, not the solution; it is means to ends, not the end itself. ICT itself is not going to solve some of the fundamental challenges faced by the state. Thus, if there is wrong data in our revenue record about the ownership, possession and cultivation patterns of the agricultural farms, just digitizing it and making it available online is a laudable effort. However, it is not the ultimate solution to the correction of the land records nor it is going to make illiterate farmers tech savvy and redressing the grievances of the farmers.
(This article was published in the Daily Times on 12th April 2018 https://dailytimes.com.pk/226713/e-governance-for-a-better-pakistan/)

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