SERVING the citizens through electronic governance or “eGovernance”, is more essential for the developing countries than forthe developed and less populousones. The government in a densely populous country like Bangladesh can better serve the citizens through Information and CommunicationTechnologies (ICTs). Branding the country as Digital Bangladesh might have drawn the attention of local and international communities, but the country's success in adopting eGovernance is not noticeable if compared to some provinces of theneighboring country, India.
During the last parliamentary election of India, the successful project 'SWAGAT' in Gujarat often came to the limelight because it made the BJP leader, Narendra Modi,a hero of India,who was later voted as Prime Minister of one of the biggest countries of the world. Actually, SWAGAT is almost synonymous to the eGovernance services; people of the region arejust a click away from accessing the citizen services.
The people of Gujarat are going into the true digital revolution with the power of eGovernance. The citizen service project receivedthe UN Public Service Award in 2010 for 'Improving Transparency, Accountability and Responsiveness in Public Service.'
The recent election of India was a part of digital politics; Mr Modi's online campaign and many of his speeches focused on the critical part of the technological applications. It seemed he moved forward with the advice of the technologically sound colleagues.
Digital politics update the norms of democracy by using eGovernance, allowing greater access to fundamental rights for all the people. eGovernance builds infrastructure to explore the power of ICTs at the every level of government and public sector for the sake of strengthening 'good governance.'
After the widespread success of e-commerce and social media based economics, the internet is catapulting the government system, in which the chance of corruption is much less and transparency exists firmly. The system reduces public costs, and employing many government officials becomes unnecessary in many fields of the administration.
eGovernance means getting a passport issued without having to go to passport office; paying taxes without talking to NBR staffs; no need of going to banks for payment; it would be unnecessary to knock on the door of government offices; people would forget to queue up to get government services; bureaucracy would disappear, and the chance of 'give and take' would be gone.
The mindset of the bureaucrats in this country is firmly fixed on the way administration has been shaped and run during the British Colonial era. People never enjoyed their 'right to information.' The Right To Information Act hasn't yet been able to budge the fixed mindset of the bureaucrats hence transparency is very much in question.
Inside the bureaucracy there is an unseen force, which is intentionally trying to foil eGovernance adaptation; many of the government's eGovernance projects failed due to the purposeful acts. Some quarters inside government offices possibly do not want to lose their bureaucratic control over the people.
The concept of eGovernance in the country is very confined, still dwelling on the cyber idea of the early 90s. It is limited to making a website of the ministry with the profile of the minister and secretary. But making the service people-friendly is a challenging task, and most of the bureaucrats are not ready to face the challenge.
Unlimited knowledge/information is now being stored in computer hard discs, or on a big server. This knowledge is being disseminated across the world through the internet. Information technology is the force placing urgency for establishing a knowledge-based society. A society can see its enormous growth with the proper dissemination of knowledge, and allowing the creation of a perfect eGovernance system can open the door to a knowledge-based society. The first task of a knowledge-based society is the gathering of information, and on the basis of the informationknowledge is created and then disseminated.
As yet the knowledge contributed in the Bangla language isn't ready to be entered in the server. There is almost nothing about Bangla eGovernance for native speakers, except a few websites and some computing software, most of which are not up to the standard. We couldn't convert our own knowledge into English, and even our English knowledge isn't sufficient to take help from Western sources mostly inthe English language. Even a better ICT infrastructurecannot do anything for a knowledge-based societyif we don't have sufficient and relevant knowledge.
To develop skills, Bangladesh Public Administration Training Centre, BPATC, is running the Information Technology and eGovernment (ITEG) program. But before talking about eGovernance, the government should first establish its own infrastructure and system within the intra and inter-agencies. Most of the staff would be well versed on IT and aware of the emerging power of the technology. A pool of professionals for inventing suitable eGovernance tools would be built, and a bridge would be built between the IT professionals and bureaucrats.
Politicians of the country shouldn't take IT as hassles and as inviting new problems. They should start harnessing it; setting eGovernance goals would take them nearer to their people and their election agenda would be addressed in the fastest way ever. Now the crux of politics lies in connecting the people through ICTs; cyberspace is the place where people can organise themselves, select their leaders, and change the fate of the people.
There are some contradictory service rules in the Bangladesh Civil Service Rules which evolved out of the British period, which must be changed and modified to embrace cyber rules for the interests of ICT-based citizen services. Cyber connectivity is the solution to bringing up a buried file to the upper level. People may not have to wait years to retrieve a file from the stack of files.
In the name of eGovernance, Bangladesh is making the citizen services troublesome. To get a machine readable passport you have to submit more papers than before; in addition to the online application, more bureaucratic bottlenecks are created in obtaining the passport. In fact, the country has failed to produce its own passports, and still depends on a foreign company for supplying these low quality passports.
It would be a wrong endeavour to integrate citizen services into the national ID number, because the ID card project is being run by inefficient people. The social context of the country is different, most of the villagers and poor people don't have a place to keep ID cards. Many people are floating and changingtheir home frequently. Updating information on the ID card has become a big hassle, more difficult than obtaining an ID card. Mixing these things together brings no result except jeopardising the citizen services. The answer is, all citizen services should be online; updating information would be in the hands of the citizens. In the name of digitalisation,a new form of bureaucracy would foil the attempt of adopting eGovernance, and thus would cause waste of public money.
All the tools of eGovernance should be focused on the people. But surveillance, citizen tracking, and spying on opposition leaders in the name of security belong to cyberwarfare, which is typically out of the category of eGovernance.
For a long time, the citizens of the country have been struggling for high speed and uninterrupted internet connection; they have paid much for the internet, and still the payment is higher than that in other developing countries, although a huge bandwidth remains unutilised.
Automation at the government offices is a waste of money and time if it doesn't serve the citizens. In the last decade,most of the government funded IT projects failed due to inefficiency or corruption. Many websites are made, but become outdated for lack of maintenance and lack of focus on content development. In fact, many funded projects closed down before the end of the project tenure. Works of the Access to Information (a2i) Program are like experiments or pilot projects; the fund is not enough to improve the tools of citizen services. Most of these projects were highlighted in the media with exaggeration.
Only a few years ago, the context of LDC countries was discussed differently; some pundits thought food and healthcare are musts before providing the poor with laptops and internet. Even Bill Gates once supported the logic of providing them with the basic needs before giving them a computer. But the recent popularity of the cheap, handheld devices discredited the arguments. It proves that the rich nations only need governance, but poorer ones should be run by eGovernance which is the newest basic need of the citizens.
The writer is Executive Director of Center for ICT Policy Research. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org