Digital Bangladesh: One step forward, two steps back?
In a technological backwater like Bangladesh, a full digital transformation with all of its administrative procedures moved online – and all citizens enjoying equal and unrestricted access to its benefits – is perhaps too much to expect. But it's a dream that has shown tremendous resilience. "Digital Bangladesh" continues to be a central plank of the ruling Awami League, despite the failure of its techno-utopian Vision 2021, which had brought it to power in 2008. Citizens, too, are warming up to the idea of an increasingly networked life.
But the transformation achieved so far has been nothing short of chaotic. Take the example of the digitalisation drive, meant to replace the analogue government work culture by putting all public services online. Before the drive, interacting with responsible agencies was a Sisyphean nightmare: You had to slog through a mess of paperwork and countless offices, not to mention the corruption and mismanagement that became synonymous with the "system." Digitalisation is supposed to make life easier by bringing bureaucracy at the fingertips of service-seekers. So, how has been their experience?
Two recent reports published by The Daily Star show mixed results: while many services have been digitalised and had some positive changes, their cumulative effects have been anything but satisfactory, thanks to website and connectivity issues as well as disruptive practices inherited from the analogue time.
The first report, based on a review by the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED), leaves room for hope. It says that 161 services out of the 244 provided under six ministries/divisions – that is, about 66 percent of their services – have been digitalised, and it helped save both time and money for ordinary people. Of them, according to the survey, 92 percent saved money, 96 percent saved time, and 70 percent were relieved of the hassles of the pre-digital era. Among the ministries they sought service from are education, land, and health and family welfare.
The land ministry, once dreaded for its labyrinthine system, saw noticeable progress. The government reportedly digitalised 10 services under five departments of the ministry. These include e-mutation, mutated ledger, payment of land development tax, collection of e-leaflets, etc. Since July 1, 2019, when the door to e-mutation was opened, land mutation can be obtained in seven days. Earlier, it would take at least 28 days. So far, more than 30 million people reportedly paid land development tax online, without spending additional money. Half of the people surveyed by the IMED said their sufferings reduced because of the digitalisation of these services.
This is only half the picture, however. We come to know of the other half from another review done by the Central Procurement Technical Unit (CPTU). The CPTU, after evaluating the performance of digital services provided by 26 ministries/divisions, concluded that people were not getting the maximum benefit from the 761 government services digitalised so far, mostly because of user-unfriendly sites, bad servers and poor internet speed. Additionally, a number of those services exist in name only.
Although the surveyed beneficiaries generally expressed optimism about the digitalisation drive, many admitted facing problems while trying to obtain services such as e-dockets, land mutation, e-passport, machine readable passport, loan service, e-trade licence, etc. Either the websites through which services can be requested are not updated, or certain services are no longer operational because of a lack of skilled manpower, or user interfaces are too complicated, or servers are down frequently. Add to that the pre-existing challenges such as poor planning, irregularities and corruption, allowed through manual processes involving officials and middlemen, which makes things further problematic.
The picture that emerges from these contrasting findings is of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar drive not being allowed to reach its full potential. No one expects Bangladesh to have the digital infrastructure that advanced countries do. But corruption and inefficiency, either of the system in place or the people running it, are challenges that a good infrastructure alone can't fix. If digitalisation hasn't turned out to be the huge boon that it was supposed to be, it's because of these persistent problems.
Unfortunately, our e-office and e-government frameworks still seem to be in a nascent state. There is no clear guideline for digital transformation, no central monitoring authority for all digital services, and no centralised data storage to streamline all the information – NID, TIN, passport, birth, land, vehicle or other registration records, for example – passing through the system. Proper utilisation and sharing of data are as important as proper digitisation of it. But ours is an island of misfit agencies, each with their unique digital architecture, with little interoperability among them. You hear ministers talk about digitalising 2,800 public services, but rarely do they acknowledge the governance issues that can cripple their chances of success.
Can the government go fully paperless anytime soon? Perhaps that's the wrong question to ask right now. The more important question is how we are preparing for that. Besides setting up more digital centres and putting more public services online, the government should also focus on fixing the loopholes of the existing system. Asking the right questions is vital. For example, what percentage of citizens are requesting services online? How many of them are doing it without the help of intermediaries? What percentage of citizens are being alienated by the digitalisation process, and why? How to ensure their inclusion? How future-proof are the services offered? How to make them easier to obtain? How to reduce manual interventions? Last but not least: how to stop the digitalisation of corruption and inefficiencies?
There is a lot that remains to be done, and reformed. Strengthening our broadband networks, improving the internet penetration rate, and closing the digital divide are key priorities. But the government should urgently fix the problems plaguing its digitalisation drive. The future rests on its success to do so.
Badiuzzaman Bay is assistant editor at The Daily Star.