Digital Governance: A Public Policy Perspective

Shahid Hussain Raja

Digital governance essentially means online provision of public goods and services such as casting of votes, issuance/renewal of licences, payment of government dues/utility bills etc to the general public by the government agencies by using the internet portals instead of citizens going to the respective offices of the these agencies for getting these services. However,theses internet portals in the form of websites and apps are in addition to and not the substitution of traditional brick and morter offices.

Need, importance and benefits of digitisation of public sector by using digital technologies as an integrated part of its service delivery mechanism cannot be overemphasised. Besides improving governance through greater transparency and accountability of government functionaries, it 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. Additionally, by creating an open, participatory and trustworthy public sector, it also helps to improve socioeconomic inclusiveness essential for long-term sustainable growth.

However, despite recognizing the need for the digitization of public services, governments in the developing countries are not giving it the importance it deserves. According to a study carried out by Microsoft, lack of supporting government policies and ICT infrastructure, uncertain economic environment, cyber threats and security, lack of organizational leadership skills to execute, and no urgency to counter industry disruptors are few of the barriers to digital transformations.

While agreeing with these findings I believe it is the capacity deficit of the public servants coupled with their inherent tendency to resist the change which are hindering progress in digital transformation of the public sector. Consequently, unless the bureaucracy is sufficiently motivated, educated and if need be, compelled to go for accelerated digitization, their urge to resist change will keep the country at lower levels of modernization.

In my article, I will be discussing the four areas to focus, four public policy issues to tackle and four steps to take for putting a country to its long-term trajectory of digital transformation

Four Areas to Focus

There are four areas namely quantity, quality, access and affordability of public services through digitization which need close attention.

1.Quantity/Range of Services: 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. Per Mackinsy, a small country like Estonia with only 1.3 million population, provides more than 160 services ranging from casting of votes to issuing of entitlement vouches for the poor online to its citizens. You can very well imagine the number of services which could be potentially provided to the citizens of developed or large countries. However, prioritization is essential for any country embarking on digital transformation or upscaling it. Best course of action is to prepare the list, 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.

2. Quality of Services: With few exceptions, here and there, all over the world, state institutions are often accused of inefficiency, non-responsiveness and lower quality of services. Providing these very services online is ipso facto, no guarantee of their improved quality. But there are some good reasons to believe that digital governance can and has resulted in improved services. Firstly, the basic objective of the digitization is to improve the quality of public goods and services; as such no government agency, can afford to be negligent on this count. Secondly, being interactive and accessible to millions of people online has its own corrective mechanism to ensure improvement. Thirdly, 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. Fourthly, most of these services will be handled by the professional people and majority of them will be outsourced to the private sector. Professional management and private sector involvement are strategic drivers for improved services. Lastly and 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 could take place with no human effort, there should be no complaint for its less than satisfactory service delivery. -

3. Access: Ensuring availability of hassle-free, timely, accurate and relevant information and services to the end users is the biggest public policy challenge. If you develop proper information highways and portals, you reduce 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? It is a paradigm shift now-instead of a stakeholder coming to your office, the state is to provide the services at his/her doorsteps, a click away whether living in a city or in the rural areas. It is comparatively easy to provide digital services to those living in the urban areas of a country; the real challenge for civil servants is to ensure its across the board availability to the rural areas and remote corners-an uphill task but not impossible. 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. Only a centrally linked provision of big data and services on a range of platforms with similar access requirements, can ensure a seamless experience for the end users even in the rural areas.

4. Affordability: One of the most beneficial aspects of digitization is its comparative affordability even by the poorest of the poor. One source of this affordability is of course the savings to be made by the public in terms of time and resources spent by them to visit offices if the state provides them the same services online. Secondly, there are savings to be made by the state also by providing the public services online instead of creating brick and mortar structures for this purpose. However, the state must pass on these savings dividends 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 come with a pricing structure which keeps the affordability threshold of the poor as the bench march 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 but for others, remember the rule of thumb-online issuance of any public service (i.e. renewal of passports or driving license should not be priced more than one-tenth of its off-line cost to the end consumer.

Four Issues to Tackle

All along the road to digital transformation of the public services, there will be issues to tackle-four need special attention

1. Management- Digital transformation of a country is a huge societal project involving multiple stakeholders who are continuously handling colossal amount of data for providing services to the public for improving their quality of life. It becomes all the more challenging when we take into account the uncertainties involved in the entire process- timely availability of requisite resources, 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. The public servants must cope with these management issues arising out of the diffused ownership of information to be collected and diversity of services to be provided in the nook and corner of the country ensuring their ready availability and almost free of cost access. And that too in the face of critical shortage of specialized expertise.

2. Cyber Security: 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. While greater digitisation provides more opportunities for hackers who are increasing in number and improving their sophistication, the slow pace of counter-cyber-attack technologies is making the situation even more complex. 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.

3. Change Management: Technological changes being very disruptive due to their inherent logic, are a great source of stress for the public servants. And digitisation of public services is not an incremental change, rather a paradigm shift demanding attitudinal and behavioural changes in civil servants. You can very well imagine the anxiety and the frustration of public servants who is supposed to change the entire framework of thinking and doing the normal work. Manage this change scientifically through improved personal competency and constant capacity building of those involved bedside providing them the congenial working conditions and an amiable cultural environment.

4. Digital Divide: Technology is a double-edged weapon in terms of creating inequalities or bridging them. Left to itself, it 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.

Four Steps For Digital Transformation

Like any other public policy issue, these are the four standard steps to be taken for the implementation of a comprehensive plan of digital transformation of the country

1. Formulation of a Vision: Any transformation starts with a vision backed by total commitment at the political and executive levels. Same is the case for the digitisation of the public sector. It is incumbent upon the civil servants to help political elite in the formulation of a long-term vision by making them aware of the need, importance and the benefits of digitising public sector in the rapidly globalizing world. They should explain to the political elite how crucial digitisation of public services is for the realisation of their goal to make the country a just, prosperous and modern nation-state having a status in the comity of nations. Try to convince them that information highways are as crucial for the economic growth of a country as motorways and another infrastructural project are. Remember, political commitment at the highest level in terms of resource allocation and providing guidance is the most crucial but also the most difficult element for the successful and sustainable implementation of any plan of action. If it is there, even rudimentary legal framework and institutional structure can work wonders; if not, even the best of the above would not deliver.

2. Framing of Legal/Regulatory Framework: After the formulation of a long-term vision where the country would be in medium to long term in terms of digital transformation, bureaucracy needs to assist the elected representatives in framing a comprehensive legal regulatory framework which is 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.

For this you do not need to reinvent the wheel; any good legislation already in force anywhere in the world can be adapted and enforced with suitable amendments. Do seek the assistance of the donor agencies and the technocrats but use your own knowledge and experience to draft practicable public policies as well as legislative provisions for improving the legal/regulatory framework already in force or proposing new sets of rules and regulations for putting the country on the long-term trajectory of digital transformation. 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.

3. Creation of Institutional Arrangements: To implement the legislation approved you need a robust but flexible institutional framework which must meet two crucial tests-Vertical Alignment and Horizontal Linkage. 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. Needless to over-emphasise, 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. Again, you do not have to be entirely innovative. You can find extremely useful and effective models from across the globe. Leave it to the consultants to do the research

4. Implementation Strategies: Here is the test of the leadership capabilities of the civil servants. Who knows better than you 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. Despite all the misgivings people have about the critical shortage of this crucial element in a developing country, we can find dedicated and hardworking people with impeccable integrity to run these institutions. Of course, if such a talent is not available locally, employ expatriates or even foreigners to run these institutions with capable and dedicated staff. Resist the temptation of heading these institutions yourself because of the better terms and conditions of these posts; these are meant to attract the best talent. Keep yourself with regulation and the creation of an enabling environment and let the whiz kids and the business champions run the show.

Tailpiece

Here a word of caution will be in order. ICT is a tool, not the solution; it is means to ends, not the end itself. You must realize that 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.

It is one of the chapters included in my EBook “10 Essential Skills for Public Servant:A HandBook” avaialable at Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0723GMMT1