In a country where governmental service deliveries are plagued with archaic systems, where entrenched analogue work cultures dominate, where delay, harassments and irregularities in getting services become the norm, materialising techno-utopian vision in the form of Digital Bangladesh drive in that setting is like squaring the circle. And yet the incumbent government dared to dream and has been relentlessly pursuing it to ease and accelerate the service process, improve living conditions, ensure transparency and eradicate corruption from public sectors for more than a decade.
Digitalisation was one of the main planks of its election campaign that helped bring the Awami League to power and it continues to be so. Since it announced the Digital Bangladesh campaign 13 years ago, the government has placed a significant number of its services online. Now the pertinent questions: Is digitisation going according to plan? Have digital services come of age? Is the uptake of digital services up to the mark? Recent surveys by two separate entities that appeared in national dailies have yielded a mixed bag of findings.
The first study conducted by the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) is indeed a shot in the arm. It lays bare that aside from ensuring service delivery, the digitalisation of 66 percent of the services offered by six ministries/divisions has cut down both the time and money of the ordinary citizens. The survey, which was made up of interviews with service seekers and providers, reveals that 92 percent saved money, 96 percent saved time and 70 percent were relieved of the hassle they faced at government offices during the pre-digital era.
The study brings up a relative figure of services between digital and pre-digital time. For instance, it refers to a case where applying online for reissuing a lost certificate to an education board took an applicant just 3 days with a cost of 10 percent of that of pre-digital time, when it would take one to six months for the same task.
Again, the review points out the marked improvements made by the land ministry that was once notorious for its irregularities and labyrinthine system. Ten services under five departments of the ministry have come under digitalisation. These services, including mutated ledger, e-mutation, collection of e-leaflets, payment of land development tax, etc. have substantially taken hassles out of the process. For example, what would have earlier taken someone at least 4 weeks for land mutation, can be obtained at the touch of a button in only seven days with the launch of e-mutation in July 2019, according to the report.
Notably, as many as 161 services out of the 244 provided by 28 agencies under six ministries and divisions have gone digital. Among the ministries citizens seek service from, are education, land, and health and family welfare. So far more than 30 million people supposedly paid land development tax online. Around 50 percent of the participants surveyed by the IMED admitted the digitalisation of these services brought remarkably down their sufferings.
Now that we have got half of the picture, let us zero in on another performance review done by the Central Procurement Technical Unit (CPTU) to be apprised of the other half. Having evaluated 67 selected digital services of 26 ministries and divisions based on interviews with service providers and recipients, the CPTU concluded that people are not deriving the maximum benefit from the 761 services the government have digitalised to date. The nominal presence of a number of those services has only made things worse. Slow internet, faulty server, corruption, bribery, unfriendly user interface, and shortage of manpower among other reasons are to blame for this state.
Although the general perception of the respondents is positive about digital services, they are facing a plethora of problems when requesting land mutation, e-dockets, loan services, e-passports, e-trade licences, machine-readable passports, and health services on call, among others.
According to findings, the users complained of inordinately slow server access while seeking services from e-dockets and land mutation websites. Besides, intermediaries in the land offices are on the prowl to discourage people from taking services online by disseminating fake information.
The review of data found the websites through which the services can be requested are not updated regularly, at the same time many services are no longer up and running for a lack of skilled workforce in operating the online platforms.
E-passport has brought convenience to many by relieving them of Sisyphean tasks involved in the earlier moth-eaten passport regime. But then, frequent server glitches and piecemeal progress in the process along with alleged irregularities in the passport offices have put a damper on otherwise an excellent initiative. The same holds for the online MRP service of the Department of Immigration & Passports, with added woes to it caused by snail-paced delivery and ineptitudes of staff in providing digital services, the report discloses.
The review brought bribery practices by a section of the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) employees to light. It says those intending to avail e-trade licences, a digital service of the DSCC, are often allegedly encountered with demands for kickbacks. Contrary to the other digital services, the national e-Government Procurement (e-GP) portal owned and supervised by the CPTU to facilitate procurement activities by the public agencies is turning out to be bearing fruit. Nonetheless, the portal, which has witnessed more than 2.56 million hits, needs to be tweaked in terms of a user interface and improved accessibility and bandwidth.
The pictures that emerged from two studies can be an eye-opener for our policy planners. It is plain to see that if used properly, digitalisation can be a real blessing for the general public, as revealed in the study by the IMED. With usual poor internet connectivity, low digital literacy and inadequate uptake of digital services, the country may continue to tread water, but many of the problems, as stated in the CPTU report, facing government services are perennial and systemic that can be dealt with deft management and constant oversight.
There is no denying that the government has done a lot in this area. However, a lot more, such as desired reforms of policy, need to be done to make its digitalisation drive a huge success. Therefore, it should go the whole hog to achieve the target. The best way to go about this is by enhancing broadband networks, ramping up the internet penetration rate, improving digital literacy, bridging the digital divide and stepping up the uptake of digital services on a priority basis.
As well as arming all service agencies with technically skilled manpower and logistics, and fixing flaws that are still causing mess and irregularities, setting up a digital agency to monitor necessary reforms should be high on the relevant authority’s agenda. Above all, getting around underlying issues associated with digitalisation will eventually dictate the trajectory of its resounding success.
[Md Farooque Hossain is an IT specialist]