Nepal's e-governance pipe dreamsAn automated system will make the stream of illegal income dry up for politicians and bureaucrats.
Even discussions on electronic governance, or e-governance, might sound like misplaced priority in present-day Nepal when, in general, the brick-and-mortar governance itself is making a volte-face. Nepal ranks 137 among 193 countries in the e-governance development index (EGDI) in a world that excelled in e-governance over the last 30 years by using information and communication technology (ICT). The United Nations defines e-governance as "the application of ICT in government operations, achieving public ends by digital means". Therefore, e-governance has the twin objectives of paperless and speedy public policy decisions through bureaucratic processes and operations and efficient and effective service delivery to citizens and businesses. The end goal is good governance by every level of government.
But, for Nepal, e-governance-enabled public service delivery has increasingly become a pipe dream for all and sundry. Long queues of people in front of the Passport Department, vehicle registration offices and a waiting list of about a million across the country to obtain a driving licence are only a few examples that manifest very inefficient, if any, use of ICT by even resourceful government offices.
Despite repeated claims of successive governments of all political hues that in several areas like registration where companies can be registered online, and e-procurement protocols and platforms and consolidated e-identification like the Nagarik app are usable, the beneficiaries are still forced to be physically present at the concerned offices to obtain these services. The country experienced a disastrous failure in implementing the e-learning mode for students of all levels during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Central Bureau of Statistics chose to deploy door-to-door enumerators with pencil and paper instead of making the best use of the state-of-the-art ICT and digital platforms in the recent national census. A very ambitious integrated accounting software, SuTRA (Sub-national Treasury Regulatory Application), originally designed as online compliance, was later relaxed to be (also) offline and now faces the challenge of non-utilisation and increasing non-compliance. These are accurate reflections of the tardy pace of adoption of e-governance in Nepal, almost in every sector.
It's been two decades since the Asian Development Bank supported Nepal in the Governance Reform Programme (2001). A study report on the importance and rationale of paperless government was prepared by the then joint secretary in the Ministry of General Administration Deependra Bahadur Thapa. Nepal also enacted essential laws required for operationalising e-governance. The Electronic Transaction Act 2006, which theoretically legalised the digital signatures for "some" contracts and transactions, and the Information Technology Umbrella Act 2014 are key legal breakthroughs. The IT Policy 2010, ICT Policy 2015, e-Governance Master Plan (eGMP) 2007 and eGMP-II 2015 and 10 Year Master Plan 2011, among others, complemented these laws.
Nepal also experimented with different institutional frameworks. An independent Ministry for Science and Technology was set up as early as 1996, which was later merged with other ministries, later settling down as the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. A High-Level Commission of Information and Technology (HLCIT) was intermittently formed and dissolved on a political whim. The Department of Information Technology was established in the early 2000s. But lack of integrated and coordinated approach among the government agencies has rendered these edifices appallingly ineffective. For example, a perpetual confusion among the policymakers whether the Department of IT should be under the Ministry of Communication or the Ministry of Science and Technology has essentially marred the efficiency of the Department, which is now, weirdly enough, under the communication portfolio.
Many useful recommendations encompassing legal, structural and operational aspects made by a high-level seminar in 2007 organised jointly by the Asian Development Bank, UNDP and Government of Nepal are still relevant but far short of implementation. Since then, about a dozen similar other studies/recommendations have also been shelved.
Despite many tall claims, Nepal's ranking in the EGDI and our own ground experience vindicate that the country has miserably failed to pick up even a moderate pace in adopting and implementing e-governance in a fashion that contributed to better economic efficiency. A clear lack of political will in enhancing good governance in general and internalising the importance of e-governance, in particular, remains a significant bottleneck. This lackadaisical approach of the political class to transitioning into e-governance is not without a deep-rooted vested interest. Any meaningful move towards good governance would mean plugging the loopholes that politicians and bureaucrats are exploiting for rent-seeking and corruption. A full-proof automated system under e-governance will make the stream of their illegal income dry up. This is evident in the foiled e-procurement system despite several attempts to implement a fair and transparent bidding process. The e-service is now limited only to listing rather than completing the award of the contract.
Two other key hurdles, inadequate ICT infrastructure and poor digital literacy need to be addressed. Under-investment in connectivity and its sustainability is causing a severe IT infrastructure deficit. ICT services are city-centric, exacerbating the digital divide between rural and urban (poor and rich) populations. Issues related to bandwidth, quality and security of services remain unresolved across services and geography. Despite the publicity about impressive penetration of mobile phones, personal computers and internet connectivity, knowledge and awareness about the services available electronically and how they are accessed is very limited. There is a clear trust deficit among the public that any tier of government is even likely to deliver "finally" usable services (and goods) through electronic platforms.
Nevertheless, on the demand side, the digitally literate class of the population is increasingly keen to switch to e-governance and other electronically enabled services. The proportion of such a population is rapidly growing. On the supply side, however, the government structure of all three levels—federal, provincial and local—still are not forthcoming to promote e-governance under the pretext of lack of trained workforce, infrastructure and people's hesitancy. Even if that is the case, there is no alternative to redirecting investment into developing the required human resource, digital infrastructure and mass awareness before it is too late.