Why digitising our public services is so important
It is hardly a subject that is discussed in the public domain nowadays, but one recalls "Digital Bangladesh" being the centrepiece of the ruling party's electoral campaign in 2008 and onwards. The aim was to transform the bureaucracy-ridden system, making it faster, more efficient and of course less prone to graft. But such a grandiose mission, till now, remains largely unaccomplished.
The finance minister in his budget speech eight years ago promised to establish e-government—the use of information and communication technologies by the public service organisations—by 2014. It is 2018, and yet Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, wouldn't give the government the pass mark for its digitisation efforts.
True, there are a number of success stories. Take mobile financial services for instance. More than Tk 10 billion is transacted every day through mobile financial services, but the financial sector, in general, lags behind in adopting digitisation.
Digitising the public procurement, worth USD 10 billion a year, is also a major success. In 2011, the government launched electronic government procurement that has reduced red-tape and contract processing time, boosting competition, thus efficiency. These days no one has to submit a tender application in person. The most important change it managed to bring was that it decreased undue influence and corruption in the bidding process. Yes, we still hear news reports about rival bidders scuffling, at times, quite violently, but at least no one can now "snatch" the tender box by force.
The education ministry now carries out the admission process in thousands of colleges scattered across the country through a combined digitised process—a feat that is often underreported. National University also conducts its gigantic admission process in a similar way. This hasn't only proven to be convenient for hundreds of thousands of students but also significantly erased the scope for external influence in the admission procedure.
In addition, you can have a number of basic government services online, although they are not comprehensive. For example, you can apply for your passport and submit tax returns online, but a large part of the entire procedure has to be done offline or in person. You do not need to go to a government office in order to collect official forms such as for job application; you can download it from the Internet, but a vast part of that is yet to be digitised.
In the rural areas, the government has set up 5,000 digital centres in Union Councils to provide the rural population with much needed basic services such as availing birth and death certificates, paying utility bills, agriculture and health information, etc. The government also launched hundreds of web portals containing basic information about, say, an Upazilla or district and other public departments, but these portals are barely updated or resourceful. So there are improvements, but whether they have made our messy public service apparatus substantially efficient is still in question.
One area that requires immediate digitisation is our complex land record administration. It represents everything that's wrong with our laborious and outdated public service.
The land administration system has hardly been improved since the colonial era, and digitising the system has been in discussion for nearly a decade. Currently, the records are kept on paper, and it's not unusual for one to find his or her land record unduly modified by a mistaken or unscrupulous land official. Oftentimes the extremely outdated records do not reflect the reality on the ground: as an advisor to the prime minister's office put it, there's more land owned than actually exists!
The fact that about 80 percent criminal activities in Bangladesh are somehow linked to land disputes—according to the Association for Land Reform and Development—indicates the severity of the problem. What's more, if one wants to certify his purchase or sale of land, he or she needs to visit several government offices.
All these public woes, red-tape and scope for errors and corruption would be almost non-existent, if the government could digitise the entire land records as it had promised years ago.
Inability to automate the income tax filing system is another failure. According to a report by Prothom Alo, the government wants NBR to collect Tk 710 billion more than it did last year, but experts have long stressed the need to ease the process of paying taxes. What else could better serve this objective than a digital process in which people can pay their taxes directly from their bank account with little paperwork?
Speaking of reducing public woes, a huge number of people gather around train stations to collect a ticket or two before Eid. The government has tried to introduce e-ticket, but it's not fully functional as yet.
The digitisation of courts is credited to have reduced case disposal time. The digital evidence recording system introduced in courts across the country can store testimonies and cross-examinations, (which in the past used to be done by hand), in computer server. The Supreme Court's verdict and ruling are regularly uploaded in its website.
All these constitute progress and have reduced room for error, but it would be better if the judiciary considers converting its old judgements and documents into searchable digital texts using an optical character recognition (OCR) system.
The government's a2i programme granted a private university Tk 2.3 million to develop an OCR system, for Bengali font, to convert written, printed or image character into digital text. Such software was supposed to allow the government to convert its old hand-written or typed documents into digital files and store them in a database.
This would be extremely beneficial for all parties involved since one would be able to search documents quickly using a relevant phrase or term. Moreover, if the government uploads its non-confidential documents in relevant websites, it would help ensure accountability and transparency, since journalists would be able to scrutinise them more. Ancient archaeological or historical documents could also be archived digitally to foster academic research. However, one has witnessed little progress in this regard.
Given the fact that Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the more the government digitises itself, the more the benefits that people can enjoy. Because digitisation cuts down red-tape, the scope for corruption will also decrease and the government will have to expend less of its resources. The government should, therefore, live up to its promise not only to make life easier for the public, but to also make its own work more efficient.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.