Constitutional reforms conducted in the dark: The failure of e-gov in Sri Lanka

“Parliament makes a vital contribution to democracy at many levels simultaneously. Within the institutions of government, it is the representative body through which the will of the people finds expression, in which their diversity is manifested, and in which the differences between them are debated and negotiated. At its best, parliament embodies the distinctive democratic attributes of discussion and compromise, as the means through which a public interest is realized that is more than the sum of individual or sectional interests. Moreover, the effectiveness with which parliament carries out its central functions of legislation, budgetary control and oversight of the executive is essential to the quality of democratic life. In carrying out these tasks it works together with the associations of civil society, and has the distinctive responsibility of safeguarding the individual democratic rights of citizens. It can only do all this, finally, if it observes democratic norms, by showing itself open, accessible and accountable to the electorate in its own mode of operation” (Parliament and democracy in the twenty-first century: A guide to good practice, Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2006)

Emphasis mine.

I may be wrong in assuming that the raison d’être of any e-government initiative is to make government more accountable and transparent as well as governance more efficient and effective. Yet Sri Lanka operates on a different logic. There is of course the usual hype and hoopla paraded yearly by the Information and Communications Agency (ICTA) about how well it and Sri Lanka does in e-government rankings. However, the passage of the 18th amendment in law flags what’s significantly wrong with e-government in Sri Lanka.

There is no transparency. There is no accountability.

The image above (click here for larger version) is off Google, and plots the traffic on Twitter during the course of the day with the keyword Sri Lanka. On a day in which one of the most significant and essentially heinous amendments was being debated, there is nary any traffic for most of the day, up until the time of the vote in parliament at 7pm, after which there is a clear spike. The earlier spike is around lunchtime. A source present in the public gallery at parliament for most of the day said that no one, not even journalists, were allowed to take mobile phones in. Only MPs were, and this person said that most MPs were too busy texting on their phones to listen to, much less respond to, the submissions made by MPs on the floor of the house.

I’m about as plugged into Internet, web and terrestrial broadcast based information networks on Sri Lanka as can be. During the day, I also repeatedly checked live web streams of Rupavahini and ITN (State media) to ascertain whether there was any emphasis at all on the deliberations in parliament, however biased or bad. There was none. For most of the day, ITN ran with music request shows and Rupavahani ran with banal talk shows on entertainment, or comic Sinhala films.

At around 4pm, after being plugged in vain into RSS, Twitter, Facebook, websites, radio and live TV feeds in addition to being available via the phone and fax for any updates on what was going on in parliament, I tweeted my frustration on the Groundviews account,

It’s really bizarre. Outside of parliament, there is NO INFORMATION on current debate over 18 A. NOTHING.

Leaving aside the outrageous manner in which the 18th amendment was rushed through, the marked lack of any public debate was in part due to the almost complete media blackout about the contents of the proposed bill in state media, save for spin and propaganda very far from the truth. Private mainstream media was just slightly better, but on the crucial day of the debate in parliament, was also unable to give updates on what our MPs said, or did not. There is of course the hansard for history, but isn’t e-gov supposed to make the proceedings of the house more public, and in real time? The UK’s done it, and so has the Canadian parliament in a much more comprehensive manner. We have a website for parliament, but it is about as static and uninteresting as a site can be, with no real way for the public to engagement with their representatives or vice versa.

And so we have a situation in which debates in parliament, particularly on one of the most important amendments to the constitutions ever proposed, were essentially conducted in secret – with no real time public oversight or media scrutiny.

Though there is no longer any record of it I can find on the web (which is in itself revealing) a document titled The use of Information and Communication Technology in Parliament: Benefit Cost Analysis published by the Department of Information Systems and Management Parliament of Sri Lanka in 2008 makes for very interesting reading. Dealing with a complete overhaul of our parliament IT infrastructure and approach to ICTs in parliamentary proceedings, it is unclear to what degree the proposals and ideas in this document were actioned. Going by the 18th amendment fiasco, clearly nothing much has been done.

The quote I began this blog post with is in fact reflected in this document. And yet, two years on, parliamentary proceedings remain in the dark ages, and our representatives once elected operate independent of any meaningful public scrutiny. Post facto reporting is sketchy at best, and though all proceedings are recorded, these are unavailable to the general public, much less put online as archives or in real-time.

Food for thought the next time the boffins at ICTA parade e-gov in Sri Lanka as a success story.

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