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.

Post-war ICT and media

My last column in the Sunday Leader enumerated some ideas post-war government and the ICT Agency could champion to strengthen media freedom and e-governance respectively.

One blueprint worth emulating in post-war Sri Lanka for more open, accountable government comes from Vivek Kundra, the new federal chief information officer in the US under the Obama administration. Data.gov is a great example of how information placed in the public domain can stimulate creative thinking to shared challenges and development. The NY Times has a good write up about this.

Post-war government in Sri Lanka can also re-look at RTI legislation and meaningful community radio. As I noted in my column,

Post-war Sri Lanka cannot be what it was before the war, or during it. Tarun Tejpal, award winning Indian author and the brains behind one of India’s leading investigative journalism websites Tehelka.com, said that they were silent when India was at war with Pakistan, but openly critical of the defence establishment and government once the war was over. We have a different recent history – where independent media tried and failed to report the war in the public interest, with many journalists killed with impunity and forced into hiding or exile. There is no place for the vicious war against free media in post-war Sri Lanka. Likewise, if war militated against Right to Know legislation, renewed agitation by civil society must result in its rapid establishment. If Bangladesh with a military regime and India with a billion people could do it, so can we. While it may be too much and too early to ask Government to give up its vice grip of State media, decades of opposition to and censorship of real community radio must end. I was in Nissankamallapura two weeks ago, a small, relatively remote village in Polonnaruwa, to help 48 villages that have collectively lodged a request to set up Saru Praja Radio to broadcast on 96.1 FM news and information produced by villagers for their own community. It is a remarkable venture by peoples who are no strangers to the human cost of war. Post-war Sri Lankan must foster the development of such hyper-local media – media made by and for regions in the vernacular – that can fuel equitable, endogenous and sustainable development, precisely what the government desires. All of this supports the need for post-war governance to be transparent and accountable. A fraternal cabal that passes today for government and overrides parliament is incompatible with our democratic potential. Initiatives such as the new Open Government initiative under the Obama Administration in the US are instructive in this regard, with examples such as http://www.data.gov and http://www.regulations.gov useful for our own ICT Agency to champion, adapt and adopt along with of course initiatives to empower local and Provincial government. Everyone knows what needs to be done, but the war has always been an excuse for non-implementation.

Western Provincial Council candidates go online: So what?

Duminda SIlva was the first that I know of to launch a website to support his campaign. The bloke looks like Queen Elizabeth on a bad hair day. He has an interesting track record and his (erstwhile) website claims his “foundation” has “donated 9,850 families”, which makes about as much sense as why anyone who would vote for such vile swine. As Indi notes,

Duminda is a repugnant human being who happens to have money. The way he treats women alone is disqualification for public service. And yet he wins. Why? Perhaps because we haven’t offered an alternative. I’m now trying to figure out if/where I’ve registered to vote. I think I’m part of the problem.

So what are the alternatives? Two other candidates from the UNP and JHU have created websites and even entered Facebook.

Continue reading

Some thoughts on mobile phones and the digital divide

Nokia 1100. The best selling phone in the world. Image courtesy Wikipedia.    

 

 

 

Nokia 1100. The best selling phone in the world. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Ken Banks has a super article up on PC World on using mobile phones to address the digital divide. In it Ken points to two aspects of mobile phones and their usage that not everyone even in developing countries quite understands. 

“They can make and receive calls, they have an address book, they can send and receive SMS, and the built-in alarm is very popular.”

“with many of the low-end handsets found in the markets and shops in developing countries, has no browser of any kind and doesn’t support GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or any other form of data transmission. Accessing the Internet? Dream on.”

I don’t know anything about sub-saharan Africa, but in Sri Lanka, wireless internet access footprints are expanding year after year. Today it is possible to get 3G coverage in many urban areas and WiMax coverage even further out afield. GPRS coverage almost blankets most of the areas in Sri Lanka. Areas that don’t have any of this will only get smaller. Even in 2003, when I was often on the A9 to Jaffna, I used to check my email via my old and trusted Nokia 3410 on the road. Today, I can tether my mobile to my laptop and access the net at speeds close to the “broadband” I get from my ADSL at home.

However, the question is whether those at the Bottom of the Pyramid access the internet through their mobiles or have any interest in doing so. I would think not. At least, not yet. While voice telephony and SMS usage is high, the potential of (new) mobile and devices that can produce, access and disseminate web based content will take years to take root even in the areas that are covered with high-speed internet mobile access.

But is this really a problem? I note in a recent paper on mobile phones and governance that,

From Zimbabwe and Kenya to China and Kuwait , from electoral processes and women’s suffrage to the voicing dissent against oppression, mobiles are already revolutionising our approach to and understanding of public participation in governance. Mobiles have already demonstrated in many countries around the world that in the hands of a vibrant civil society they are powerful tools that hold government and public institutions accountable, their interactions transparent and their transactions efficient. Conversations inspired, produced, stored and disseminated through mobiles are rapidly changing the manner in which we imagine the State, interact with government and participate in the mechanisms and institutions of democratic governance.

I endorse Ken’s suggestion for the development of a subsidized, fully Internet-ready handset for developing markets, but his own work with FrontlineSMS suggests that for the millions who use the phones we discarded years ago at the bottom of the pyramid, replacing handsets is not really a priority even if they are subsidised. Value has to be seen and realised in being able to access mobile content via mobiles, and that value today is simply not there for most consumers particularly at the bottom of the pyramid. I submit that it will also not automatically come with a new device / handset.

Part of this value has to be created by imagining governance that is responsive through mobiles. Citizens who feel that using the web on their mobiles to access information, participate in local government, produce information for the benefit of their local community and use it as a device in much the same way we approach social networking (such as Facebook on PCs and our high-end handsets) may create value and buy-in to use web enabled mobiles and bear the total cost of ownership over time, which will include data charges. 

Telcos can play a role. Today, many data plans and much of the content that leverages high speed mobile internet are those linked to entertainment. There is ZERO emphasis on governance. The emphasis on the market and resulting applications help (agrarian) producers at the local level get a better deal, but doesn’t capture the interest of others at the grassroots. And without sufficient interest and subsequent benefit to self and community, there’s no motive to upgrade from the likes of the Nokia 1100.   

Civil society can play a role. By leveraging some of the new technologies that seamlessly merge the web on the PC and the web on the mobile to create social networks, it’s possible to create virtual communities that produce and exchange information on shared interests, goals and challenges. 

Telemedicine can also play a role as an incentive for mobile internet. 

The issue of cost that Ken points to is important. The mobile web has to work differently to the web on the PC. The devices don’t lend themselves to laborious Google searches. There is limited screen space to display information. There are issues of language, with some scripts such as Sinhala requiring a larger font size (and therefore more screen space or less information on smaller screens) than English / Romanic fonts. There are issues of literacy to boot.

I have always though of mobiles empowering communities as an eco-system of complementary technologies. The lowest common denominator and the most useful to date is SMS. Add to this vernacular IVR services (which requires limited literacy) and wholly SMS driven information retrieval (such as that which many banks have on mobiles in Sri Lanka with details of credit card special deals and offers) and you have a range of technologies that aren’t impeded by the lack of internet accessibility on existing mobile handsets in the hands of the majority of consumers.

Ken’s full sentence in one of the excerpts above is as follows,

The problem is that the Nokia 1100, as with many of the low-end handsets found in the markets and shops in developing countries, has no browser of any kind and doesn’t support GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or any other form of data transmission.

Emphasis mine.

It’s a problem yes if you see it as providing everyone with web access.

However, the point I wish to make is that the internet isn’t just about the web or accessing it over a mobile web browser. SMS and IVR can hook into real time, live data sources on the internet (e.g. at its simplest, think of weather forecasting on-demand over voice or SMS for fisherfolk). Mobiles with just SMS can provide information to the web (think Twitter’esque services) that can in turn feed back into mobiles via SMS (think the erstwhile Rasasa). Think subsidised numbers that IDPs can call to access and listen to radio programmes with vital information. Think Government Information services that use IVR, are free calls, that enable all consumers to access information otherwise only available through the web. Think of cybercafes as stations to access printed documentation that is printed on demand through innovative SMS services.

Using Ken’s FrontlineSMS and a range of other tools and services, such as Sahana’s SMS modules, I will over the next three years work on some of these areas in Sri Lanka.

Democratic governance and mobile phones

“Don’t get grandma hear it” was what US soldier Stephen Philips was reported in the Newsweek as saying when his cell phone redialled home during a fire-fight in Afghanistan and broadcast the chaos into his parent’s answering machine . Though it would have been traumatic for the parents of Stephen Philips, yet this is an example of how mobile phones connect us all to far-flung yet vital realities. From Zimbabwe and Kenya to China and Kuwait , from electoral processes and women’s suffrage to the voicing dissent against oppression, mobiles are already revolutionising our approach to and understanding of public participation in governance. Mobiles have already demonstrated in many countries around the world that in the hands of a vibrant civil society they are powerful tools that hold government and public institutions accountable, their interactions transparent and their transactions efficient. Conversations inspired, produced, stored and disseminated through mobiles are rapidly changing the manner in which we imagine the State, interact with government and participate in the mechanisms and institutions of democratic governance.

Read my full paper here

UPDATE – 13th June 2008

This essay is published in the i4D magazine June 2008 issue. Download and read the PDF as it appears in print and online here.

E-Petitions

There’s an interesting article in the politics.co.uk that debates the rise of e-petitions in England, as well as its pros and cons. As it notes,

The Hansard Society’s eDemocracy programme director, Andy Williamson, spoke passionately about their importance in Westminster last week. He talked of “closing the gap between citizens and parliament” and described e-petitions as “the start of the transformation of parliament into the digital age”. Tentative efforts from the Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliament, as with many devolution-related issues, are leading the way. According to its Audit of Political Engagement, people are more likely to sign a petition than engage in any other political act.

The e-petition site shows some interesting statistics. Till the end of October 2007:

 

  • 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.

 

Read the politics.co.uk article in full here, which notes that despite these figures, there’s no real guarantee even in England that e-petitions will ultimately succeed in their essential goal of bringing government closer to citizens.

Sadly, as I noted in February 2007, “…I don’t believe that for all their hype and hoopla of e-government in Sri Lanka, ICTA is going to follow the Downing Street model anytime soon.”

E-Government vs. E-Governance in Sri Lanka – A place for Web 2.0 and mobiles?

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.”

Phew!

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:

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.