An article on the future of e-government from the US proclaims that Web 2.0 will “transform service delivery, make smarter policies, flatten silos and, most importantly, reinvigorate democracy” and facilitate a shift “from monolithic government agencies to pluralistic, networked governance Webs that fuse the knowledge, skills and resources of the masses.”
There are undoubtably great examples of e-government working meaningfully to empower citizens (and even non citizens). Two diverse examples are the British Government e-petition service and the US Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) blog, Evolution of Security. The British Government’s e-petition service statistics are interesting:
- Over 29,000 petitions have been submitted, of which over 8,500 are currently live and available for signing, over 6,000 have finished and 14,601 have been rejected outright.
- There have been over 5.8 million signatures, originating from over 3.9 million different email addresses.
In Sri Lanka however, e-gov remains just a great idea.
The only e-gov website I’ve personally used is that of the Department of Immigration and Emigration to renew my passport. Of the others, the less said the better. The Government of Sri Lanka Official Web Portal is a rather sad affair. The standard of English across the site is atrocious – but I’ll let that pass (try reading their “Descliamer” (sic)). E-Gov in Sri Lanka should after all be tailored first to the needs of those who speak Sinhala and Tamil. But tellingly, the site is only available in Sinhala and English – so much for constitutionally guaranteed language rights!
Worse, the site is replete with bad links and erroneous information. Try for example clicking on Disasters and Emergencies. . The NGO link has a hilarious misspelling (or maybe it was deliberate). The Health and Nutrition section has a link to yet another portal (a portal linking to a portal – and I thought e-gov was about efficiency?) which does not work. And just check out the link to Traditional Medicines of Sri Lanka (even though there actually is a Department of Ayurveda that the portal is blissfully unaware of). The list goes on. Sadly, the most useful website of them all – that of the Government Information Centre – is hidden behind a button called GIC – 1919, which makes sense only after you know what 1919 and GIC stands for. You know there’s something seriously wrong with e-gov when the humanitarian section of official website of the President of Sri Lanka has only a single mention of a human (though one wonders whether the person mentioned also fell into the animal welfare directives of the Mahinda Chintana).
In sum, e-gov in Sri Lanka is a mirror image of government – it simply does not work as it should. The problem here is one that Anthony Williams points to as well. “Single-window services constitute one-way information flows to the citizen. In today’s social-media environment, these one-way conversations fail to build credibility and trust in government. More importantly, they fail to harness the knowledge, skills and resources that could be tapped by government by using a more collaborative approach to service delivery and policy-making.”
The question then arises as to whether governments are really interested in this kind of two-way conversation with its citizens or indeed have the capacity (human, technical and financial) to moderate and fuel such discussions all the official languages of a country. Sri Lanka’s regime certainly isn’t. There’s simply no political will to create, to sustain and act upon any information that embarrass the incumbent regime. Forget about “G-Webs” as Anthony calls them – in Sri Lanka e-gov will only ever be a one way, top down, static website driven monologue. It’s always about “delivery” but never about feedback, participatory decision making, transparency or accountability – never mind what ICTA and the World Bank would have us believe.
Why for example is it that the monumental corruption in government as brought out by the COPE Reports fail to register on the Official Website of the Government of Sri Lanka? Try searching for “Cope Reports” and the answer is revealing. (Confusingly, Official Website of the Government of Sri Lanka is not the same as the Government of Sri Lanka Official Web Portal – so much for non-duplication of services).
I guess over 2 billion rupees lost to corruption in Government is really outside the remit of e-gov, save for the website of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (which also does not operate in Tamil). Mind you, this is the same government that then has the gall to accuse of NGOs of non-transparency and financial mismanagement.
From the non-functional and dysfunctional to the blatantly racist, Sri Lanka’s so called e-gov framework is a mess that does not in any way hold government more responsive, accountable and transparent to citizens.
As Anthony points out, “You can’t expect radical change too fast. Governments are large, complex beasts subject to a number of constraints. In fact, the institutions of democratic government were deliberately designed to induce stability and prevent radical change. Stability can be quite healthy, but implementing change is difficult and onerous when deep and resilient traditions combine to frustrate progress.”
While I agree, what’s missing here is an emphasis on governance and how ICTs can help strengthen it in contra-distinction to e-government. Citizens can now use a range of methods – from mobile phones to digital cameras – to document the litany of grievances with regards to illiberal governance. From capturing the many aspects of corruption to the lackadaisical attitudes of local government authorities that for example result in garbage that’s uncollected for days on end, ICTs allow civil society hold government and non-governmental bodies accountable even when they are themselves unable and unwilling to do so.
Key ideas in this regard could be:
- Tie ups with mobile telecoms companies can leverage geo-location based cell broadcasting to deliver a range of timely information to citizens, from details of utility breakdowns to disaster early warning and security alerts. (Typically though, the Sri Lankan regime’s sheer ineptitude commanded the closure of mobile communications channels even when it had earlier promised to leverage them in the interests of public security).
- Run competitions to get civil society animated about the potential to use mobile phones and mobile devices to secure their rights and also, in the rare instance, to commend public officials for their work. The problem in Sri Lanka is that you have more voters than citizens – those who are aware of and will fight for their rights are few.
- Support citizen journalism (CJ) initiatives. Groundviews, Vikalpa, VOR Radio and Vikalpa Video demonstrate through technology and content a bit of what’s really possible by getting citizens to record what they experience. The current reach and readership of Groundviews (disclosure – I edit the site) is particularly revealing of the thirst for alternative news and information that critiques the status quo. Traditional media in Sri Lanka is picking up on the potential of citizen journalists. Key media rights organisations and trade unions in Sri Lanka have already recognised bloggers as journalists. These in effect are the G-Webs that Anthony refers to in his interview, but are far more likely to strengthen governance than any e-gov initiative in Sri Lanka.
- Support mobile government (m-government). Sri Lankans already own and use more mobiles than PC. As Lirneasia’s pathbreaking research suggests, mobiles are used and owned by those who will never buy a PC. M-government will not replace e-government, but will complement it by providing services through SMS and voice telephony (free calls to government call centres like GIC and automated services). Countries like Dubai have already gone ahead and developed mobile governance portals, so why not, as this researcher from Lirneasia suggests, leverage mobile phones for governance in Sri Lanka?
- Public private partnerships. The only way you are going to get citizens to use these services is to partner with the private sector and support local business development and entrepreneurship. Easyseva is a new and interesting model in this regard that puts the government’s utterly unsustainable and crumbling cyber-cafe plans to shame.
- Leverage Web 2.0 technologies – All citizens don’t need to use PC or mobiles to benefit from stronger governance mechanisms, but the few who do can be serviced much better by leveraging Web 2.0 technologies. Anthony points to a few examples that work in the US and could possible be adapted for Sri Lanka provided they are accessible via mobile devices and in the vernacular. All of e-gov is not about direct interactions with citizens, but about making government itself more efficient. A plethora of Web 2.0 technologies that help coordination and collaboration can be leveraged, alongside mobile device based information generation and delivery, to support a more efficient government. On the other hand, some of these layers of information generated within government primarily for its own consumption can easily be exported to programmes like Google Earth for little or no cost, enabling citizens to access and annotate information.
The elephant in the room however is the political will necessary to support and act upon information generated by these mechanisms. Governments, not NGOs, are primarily responsible for the well-being of citizens. As Anthony notes, “It’s about political will and a willingness to be open and to incorporate feedback and put it into practice. At the same time, digital communications make geography less relevant and reinforce the need to open up the policy-making process to global participation. Governments that choose not to open up or those that fail to foster active participation in governance will eventually lose legitimacy and authority.”
Has e-gov in Sri Lanka made government or governance better? Is it not the case that most of the strategies employed by ICTA for e-gov are doomed to failure, even if no one in it, for obvious reasons can or will acknowledge it? Can e-gov mechanisms really succeed or stand any chance of success when you have thugs in government running amok, a culture of impunity, the breakdown in the rule of law and massive levels of corruption with absolutely nothing citizens can do through current e-gov mechanisms to address these issues?
More effective, meaningful and sustainable solutions to our growing democratic deficit lie in exploring ways through which ICTs, including mobile phones, can help empower citizen centric governance mechanisms. It’s possibly the case that government and governmental agencies will be deeply suspicious of or even actively hostile to such measures. But as Anthony succinctly notes, “Governments can either be active participants in this process or unwilling bystanders.”
Watch this space.
UPDATED – 14th April 2008
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) confirms that South Asia remains far below the world average and is the lowest ranking region in Asia when it comes to e-government. Sri Lanka in fact has slipped in the UN DESA e-gov rankings, from 94 in 2005 to 101 in 2008 amongst the countries surveyed.
Download the report here.