Digital by defaultEstonia demonstrates how small countries like Nepal can be digitised in a timely manner
The government of Nepal recently renamed the Ministry of Information and Communication (IC) as the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The name change supposedly signals the government’s desire to put ICT at the center of socio-economic development activities. But, the move shows that the government is still only serious about developing physical infrastructure. Therefore, it would be wise for the new leadership to read and fathom what the cofounder of Netscape, Marc Lowell Andreessen, has to say about the new digital economy before developing policies and plans designed to propel the country towards the new ‘digital age’.
Recently, while explaining how “software is eating the world”, Andreessen pointed out that every industry, including the government will be disrupted, if it fails to adapt to the digital revolution that is shaping our societies and economies at the frightening pace. Many established businesses of the last century have already been disrupted because they failed to respond to the rapidly changing technological landscape in a timely manner.
From revolution to disruption
Uber, Airbnb, Facebook, and YouTube were all founded after the turn of the millennium and they have already disrupted industries that have been around for decades. For instance, Uber is an example of a software that is eating away the taxi business. Likewise, Airbnb is doing the same to the hotel business, Facebook to social interaction space, while YouTube is gradually replacing television. The Arab Spring that brought about radical political transformations in the Middle East, is not exactly a politics-eating software. Even so, the central role of the software cannot be dismissed.
A recently released report by Forrester Research, an independent technology and market research company, calls this new phenomenon ‘digital disruption’. The study mentions that digital disruption’ is a permanent shift that will ultimately end up creating new business models because it is faster, more disruptive, and more pervasive than the change drivers that came earlier.
The first world countries were quick to understand this new reality and went about disrupting themselves digitally. For example, countries like Estonia, Finland, South Korea, Singapore, the UK, and the US have made serious efforts to digitise the government and are now successfully delivering public services over the internet making visits to government offices an occasional event.
Small country, large progess
The Estonian government is by far the most tech savvy in the world. The small Baltic nation started its digitisation efforts 20 years ago and has now fully transformed the country into a digital nation where people elect their parliament using the Internet. During the parliamentary election of 2015, around 30 percent of the Estonian people voted online from all over the world.
The phenomenal success of the Estonian government came about as they did not limit their e-government efforts to only building websites or silos-based information systems. Instead, they went beyond the ICT mindset and went about redesigning their entire information infrastructure from the scratchfocusing on openness, privacy, security, full integration, and future-proofing.
After fully digitising the country, Estonians are set to redefine democracy and governance in the smartphone era. While many developing countries are still struggling to replace paper-based licenses and identifications with smart cards, Estonians have already started using Mobile ID-enabled SIM cards provided by their telecommunications operators. The system can be accessed by simply typing PIN codes on a smartphone. Such level of advancement and simplicity cannot be materialised unless a country has established a robust digital signature infrastructure.
A digital signature is a government-certified digital identification code that can be attached to an electronically transmitted message that uniquely identifies the sender. At the same time, digital signature also ensures that a document or a message that is being sent has not been tampered during transmission. Like a written signature, the purpose of a digital signature is to guarantee that the individual sending the message really is who he or she claims to be. It would be foolish to expect citizens to trust and use e-commerce and e-government services before a robust digital signature ecosystem is put in place. Nepal is also in the final stage of preparations for the implementation of digital signatures.
Regardless, the new government needs to make a couple of adjustments immediately. First, establish a new ministry: Ministry of Internet and Digital Economy. Second, establish few more government agencies that can contribute to Nepal’s sustainable digital transformation. Third, understand the fact that a digital savvy leadership is a game changer and establish Chief Information Officers (CIOs) in the central government agencies, if they are to avoid getting disrupted by the tsunami of the digital revolution. For instance, joint secretary level CIOs in ministries and ministerial level agencies to start with.
Efficiency and transparency
Any excuse furnished by the government to avoid using the internet to promote democracy and socio-economic development should not be acceptable in the 21st century, because even relatively conservative countries like the Saudi Arabia are out to harness the benefits of the internet. The Saudi leadership has developed an online government dashboard to promote transparency by displaying key performance indicators of each ministry for which each minister will be held accountable. According to the Saudi government, the idea behind such a radical move is to mobilise the entire nation to improve government’s performance. This transparency-minded effort has improved the accountability of the Saudi government, because decisions that used to take two years now only takes two weeks.
Without maximum transparency, the idea of pushing good governance through informed and active involvement of the citizenry in the polls and policy making
is unlikely to move beyond political rhetoric in Nepal.
Shah is the co-author of ‘Strategic IT Planning for Public Organisations: A Toolkit’ published by the UN in 2009