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.

Using mobiles to teach English

Developing Telecoms has a very interesting story on how in Bangladesh, mobiles are being used by the BBC to teach English.

Mobile users in Bangladesh have accessed more than 1 million English lessons using a new service, BBC Janala (‘Window’), which is promising to transform the way people learn language through m-technology in the developing world. Launched in just November 2009 by the BBC World Service Trust, the service has proved hugely popular with the country’s growing 50 million mobile users, many of whom want to learn English to improve their access to the global economy.

The first of its kind in the world, BBC Janala has turned the mobile phone into a low-cost education device by offering hundreds of 3 minute audio lessons and SMS quizzes through people’s handsets. By simply dialling 3000, almost anyone can learn with new classes each day ranging from: ‘Essential English’ for beginners, to ‘How to tell a story’ for those more advanced.

The BBC World Service Trust is pioneering the use of mobiles in South Asia for education and empowerment, including using ring tones for safe sex awareness in India.

When will the languorous ICT Agency of Sri Lanka, which itself needs lessons in English, realise the domestic potential of these cutting-edge regional examples?

Nepotism and significant corruption in Sri Lanka’s ICT Agency (ICTA)?

Anticorruptsl.com, a website of indeterminable origin, has a damning expose of significant corruption and nepotism in the operations of Sri Lanka’s Information and Communications Technology Agency (ICTA). The article, which is in Sinhala, points to nepotism in the award of key contracts and huge anomalies in pricing and procurement. Four key examples noted in this article alone amount to over US$ 3.5 million in fraud.

ICTA Agreement
ICTA Agreement

I’ve included a PDF of the article here for those who don’t have Sinhala fonts, and in case this website is also suddenly blocked in Sri Lanka. It’s not clear from the Sinhala original what exactly the ICTA project referred to is, though I reckon it is ICTA’s Local Government Network Project.

Websites like Anticorruptsl.com, which give no information as to where they are based and what their sources are, need to be treated with skepticism. At the same time, websites like these can be an effective means through which whistle-blowers within institutions (e.g. highly placed individuals in management) can expose corruption without fear of retribution and harm.

The information contained in the report on ICTA includes scanned images of what appear to be, given the low resolution, faxed copies of original documentation. This increases the veracity of the report and at the very least, should result in independent inquiries by investigative media and key donors, including the World Bank, into what appears to be corruption on a very large scale over a number of years at ICTA.

What is also disturbing is the quality of equipment provided by ICTA as part of its e-gov projects. Anticorruptsl.com publishes letters from the DS of Redimaliyadda and the Galagedara PC, pointing to significant concerns and problems over hardware and software quality, networking infrastructure, internet service provisioning, support and quality assurance. Apparently, quality assurance mechanisms, included in the original contract, have never been adhered to.

The article ends by noting that,

SrdcmlI ckdêm;sjrhdf.a iDcq wëlaIKh hgf;a mj;sk ICTA wdh;kh w;aika l< fï .súiqu ksid remsh,a fldaá .Kkl uyck uqo,a úkdYù we;’ zzlÈu ck;djla – lÈu ÈjhsklaZZ (Smart People, Smart Island) hk f;audj hgf;a l%shd;aul jk E – Sri Lanka jev igyk wfma rfÜ zzlosu fidrlïZZ isÿlrk w;r ;ud foaYfm%añhl= hehs lshd isák kdhlhl= iys; fï rg zzlÈu ÈjhsklaZZnj fmkajd fohs’

English translation: This contract of ICTA, which is under the direct oversight of President Rajapakse, has already lost millions of rupees of public money to corruption. The e-Sri Lanka programme, operating under the mantra of “Smart People, Smart Island” has resulting in “Smart Fraud” in Sri Lanka. Condoning this corruption, we also have a leader who claims at the same time that he is a patriot in this “Smart Island”.

ICTA’s E-Sri Lanka music video and the Year of English

Never mind that the Chief Operating Officer of ICTA Reshan Dewapura and our President don’t see eye to eye when it comes to IT literacy rates in Sri Lanka. For the President, our IT literacy rate is 23%, whereas for Reshan it’s 16%. IT literacy as some have pointed out is a politically dependent variable.

icta

The President has declared 2009 as the year of English and Information Technology. This is a good thing, since many in his own administration stand to benefit immensely from the emphasis on developing competancies for good governance. I was interested to note that the President says,

English, on the other hand, will be our language to reach out to the world and access the global pool of knowledge and technology. As the national initiative on English gathers momentum and achieves desired results, I visualise in fact a trilingual Sri Lankan society in the long run. My policy framework, ‘Mahinda Chintana’, clearly lays down our policy on language. The inalienable link between language and culture is recognised and respected. To the people of my country, Sinhala and Tamil are not mere tools of communication. They encapsulate our values and world-views, give expression to our inner feelings and define our cultural categories. They embody the soul of our people. They confer to us our distinct identity. (Emphasis mine)

This is a very good basis of appreciating the pronouncement from Gen Sarath Fonseka that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese.

But back on to ICT and the video, of the millions that must have been spent producing this ostensibly to promote ICTA and its work, I’m not entirely convinced that it was the best use of resources? The video for example doesn’t feature at all real footage of real ICT use. Images of children listening to iPods is great optics, but far removed from reality. What about the superb work and thought leadership of Horizon Lanka Foundation and its work in Mahavilachchiya? Are there not visuals here of real strides in the adoption of ICT by rural communities not worth highlighting?

I don’t find the video particularly appealing or meaningful, but it may be addressing a different target group. What is tragically ironic however is the cover in which ICTA chooses to distribute the DVD and another CD soundtrack, has gems like the following:

“…Enabling each Lanka proudly raise his head like a ship’s strong mast
For the gamut of knowledge overflowing in the world through vast
Will be at finger-tips of the man ‘e-Sri Lanka’ will recast”

I have no idea what the devil this means. Perhaps ICTA’s aim here was to suggest that the programmes it promotes nationally are those that are most needed first within its own offices?

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.

Blogging in UNICODE Sinhala in Sri Lanka

There’s an interesting debate on about the merits of blogging in Sinhala, brought about by Apramana’s Sinhala Blog Marathon. The two central issues of contention are whether blogs in Sinhala capture enough of an audience to be monetised and whether UNICODE is a viable means of writing and reading content in Sinhala online.

The former issue is one that has been debated at incredible length on Lirneasia’s blog, among other places. Rumblinglankan’s post on the other hand, questions the viability of Sinhala blogging because of its abysmal readership. It’s also a post that got some interesting comments by those who feel, as I strongly do, that it is vital to encourage and strengthen blogging in the swabhasha.

Vikalpa gets around 263 pageviews a day. For a site that is entirely in UNICODE, that’s not half bad in comparison to the traffic on other blogs located in Sri Lanka (Groundviews gets around 700 page views a day on average).

The concerns about the installation of UNICODE fonts on Windows XP aside, Rumblinglankan’s contention that UNICODE Sinhala is still not ready for mainstream blogging is different to my personal experience. On the installation front, I agree that things could be better. Though I’ve never had a problem in the installation of UNICODE fonts, many I know including experienced journalists who are proficient in using PCs, have. We also often get complaints from users who have not installed UNICODE on their computers that all they see on their screens is gibberish (easily solved by emailing them with a pointer to the site’s Font Installation help page). I’ve been told repeatedly that UNICODE is annoyingly dissimilar to what many touch typists in Sinhala have learnt as the keyboard mapping in non-UNICODE fonts. There are also some other font rendering issues that have cropped up in our work, having used UNICODE exclusively and extensively on Vikalpa and the University of Colombo’s excellent UNICODE conversion tools. In sum, it’s easier to view UNICODE Sinhala fonts than to enter them. And the fact that they simply don’t display accurately on Macs is a bloody annoyance, but thankfully Bootcamp or Parallels come in handy here. The ICTA UNICODE enabling pack works fine on both.

I tend to agree with Indi’s comments in Rumblinglankan’s post that if we don’t begin to produce and promote Sinhala content, we’ll never have enough impetus to get more people blogging and online. Blogging in Sinhala is not always about or pegged to the ability to monetise content. The growth of Sinhala blogs on Kottu over the past year along is testimony that more and more people are blogging in general, and blogging in Sinhala in particular (and Kottu does not aggregate all blogs in and on Sri Lanka). Hyper-local media in Sri Lanka will not be based on English. Though traditional media forays on to the web still, by and large, do not use UNICODE when publishing content in Sinhala / Tamil, I see the transition to it as inevitable.

For example, Vikalpa attracts a fair bit of traffic from the diaspora – we can only assume that there is a significant audience out of Sri Lanka who do read content in Sinhala and in fact, in the case of Vikalpa, look out for content sadly not to be found in the Fourth Estate.

Personally, the most compelling reason to go with Sinhala / Tamil UNICODE on Vikalpa was that content thus entered could be searched for and accessed through Google, Live, Yahoo and the like. Vikalpa is designed to be a record of alternative viewpoints for posterity and UNICODE made the content as accessible and future proof as possible.

As an aside, it’s interesting in this regard to note the growth of the Sinhala and Tamil SMS applications and services on mobile phones in Sri Lanka, pioneered largely by the thought-leadership and technical prowess of Microimage. However, while the Groundviews Mobile attracts around a 100 page views a day, the Vikalpa mobile site that I created using the same technology worked perfectly on my mobile phone bought in Sri Lanka from Softlogic but did not on more sophisticated N-series phones bought abroad. I can only guess that the Nokia phones Softlogic sells in Sri Lanka, with their built in Sinhala character-set, support UNICODE Sinhala font rendering through the phone’s built in browser whereas phones outside of Sri Lanka obviously don’t. (Which begs the question, is there a software upgrade for Nokia’s that Softlogic can do to make them render Sinhala fonts?)

“The Truth Can Be Adjusted” – Communications and media censorship in Sri Lanka

I watched the brilliant Michael Clayton yesterday, a movie with a tagline that’s deeply resonant in Sri Lanka.

The obnoxious Sri Lankan President and his government, over the course of 2007 and particularly this year, has censored media and communications in Sri Lanka violently and with complete impunity, adjusting the “Truth” as they see it so that no other critical narrative or analysis sees the light of day.

The most recent edict from the Government curtailing communications came on our “independence day” when SMS communications were shut off. As Rohan Samarajiva from Lirneasia notes:

The lack of strong opposition to their censorious actions has now led the government to take another step: to shut down SMS use on Independence morning. Censorship is coming close to home.

Mobile or fixed phones (the million plus CDMA phones can also for this while people are moving around) can be used to convey messages and coordinate actions. So can SMS. If the government believes that SMS poses a security threat, it should come out and tell us exactly what that threat is, before shutting down a service we have paid for and are entitled to use.

The Telecommunications Act lays down specific provisions for these kinds of actions. I want to know whether these lawful provisions were followed. Were these provisions followed when the phone networks were shut down for long periods in the North and the East?

If not, the actions taken last night to shut down SMS were unlawful. The shutting down of the phone networks in the North and East were illegal. I believe that it is necessary to protest these unlawful and arbitrary actions if we are to prevent the extension of the Great Firewall to this country as well. Otherwise we will not end up like China; our fate will be that of Burma. (Emphasis mine)

In February 2007, Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) severely restricted communications to the embattled Jaffna Peninsula and mobile communications were frequently cut off in the Eastern Province. Hans Wijesuriya failed to give me a straight answer to an explicit question I posed to him last year as to why Dialog Telekom (with no written instruction) supinely complied to the Government’s diktat’s to curtail communications. The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Director General, Kanchana Ratwatte, as reported here, thinks it is “routine” to shut off communications during major military offensives, with absolutely no emphasis on or interest in the full and quick restoration of services.Access to Tamilnet continues to be blocked by all major ISPs in Sri Lanka and can only be accessed by way of proxies.

Accordingly and with due respect to Rohan, asking the Rajapakse administration to justify its actions as lawful is a complete and utter waste of time. Gotabaya Rajapakse actions alone against media freedom and media personnel is a case in point of the futility of any sort of constructive dialogue with this government on media freedom. In April 2007, he made a vicious phone call threatening the Editor of the leading English newspaper The Daily Mirror.

Nothing was done.

This month he openly stated that media has to be censored and criminal defamation brought back.

No official clarification regarding his statement or retraction was made.

The utter fiasco regarding the outrageous behaviour of the unfortunately animated lump of bovine excrement that is Mervyn Silva and its incredible aftermath is another indication that the President himself is scarce interested in any sort of action that holds to account, and keep in check, actions that erode media freedom and seriously erode the safety and security of journalists.

And this is just scratching the surface of what the President, his vicious brothers and a coterie of brutish thugs and acquiescent apparatchiks have done to significantly erode media freedom and curtail free communications within and between communities in Sri Lanka since they assumed office in late 2005. It is quite simply the emergence of the same savage intolerance for critical opinions and dissent that we find in the LTTE’s approach to and understanding of media in territories under their control.

Finally, it also occurs to me that ICTA‘s raison d’etre as the the apex ICT body of the State and an agency that promotes and promises, through communications, stronger and more effective governance mechanisms can be seriously questioned in light of egregious Government censorship and media repression. For every single project and initiative ICTA touts as yet another groundbreaking example of e-government that empowers communities, this President and his government have been directly responsible for significantly undermining democratic governance by flagrantly violating fundamental rights of citizens and entire communities.

The truth can indeed be adjusted. In Sri Lanka today, the only “truth” is that which the President countenances. Every other counter narrative is stamped out, with a vengeance rivalling that of the LTTE at the height of its power and hubris.

It’s difficult to think of ICT for peacebuilding when, much like Burma, you have to deal with a State hell bent on shutting you up. Groundviews, Vikalpa, VOR Radio and Vikalpa Video are, amongst others, four significant initiatives I created to maintain the space for critical dialogues. I don’t know how long I have before the likes of Gotabaya or Mervyn decide that they too are not kosher against a reprehensible Chintanaya that simply trucks no dissent.