Pakistan Interview: Champions for e-gov

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I gave the following interview to a local business newspaper during my mission to Pakistan. The interview is expected to be published in December.
“E-governance needs Champions from within Ministries”
Raul Zambrano, Senior ICT & Governance Policy Advisor, Democratic Governance Group, UNDP HQ

BR Research: You have previously worked in Pakistan. How was the e-governance situation like back then and how is it now?
Raul Zambrano: It was back in 1993 when UNDP launched an initiative called the Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP) that aimed at bringing access to development content via new technologies. Working with out local office here in Islamabad and using local expertise and human resources, we set up email nodes in four cities including Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi in addition to Islamabad. We essentially provided email access to the Internet and trained lots of people on how to effectively harness the new technologies to get the right content. After three, four years, a market developed and Pakistani entrepreneurs saw this as a business and set up shop. We then decided to pull out of the connectivity business and focus more on content and capacity We did not speak about e-governance back then as we were just starting to create the building blocks for Internet development in the country.

The current E-governance situation in Pakistan can certainly be improved very quickly. According to the latest UNDESA e-government report, Pakistan ranks 150 out of almost 200 countries in the E-government index. That puts the country way down the list in spite of its enormous potential in terms of human capacity, expertise and resources. India, on the other hand, seems to be doing the right thing having launched a national e-governance programme over 10 years ago under the leadership of successive Prime Ministers. For example, there are now over 6,000 kiosks in India through which people are getting basic public services. The development impact of this has been extraordinary.

BRR: What has been your E-governance experience in other developing countries?

RZ: I have been in and out of many countries and I have found that E-governance needs at least two main things: local capacity and political will. India did E-governance, Brazil did it, and South Korea did it, too. A lot depends on how governments want to approach the issue. Our role as UNDP is to advise them on how to do it on a sound basis, while keeping national development agendas in mind. We offer governments options for deploying ICTs in the public sector but it is up to them to select which of these options, a combination of them, a mixed or unique approach is better suited for the local context.

My experience suggests that to have an effective E-governance strategy, a country does not necessarily need to have pervasive connectivity. India is a good example yet again as connectivity is still relatively low but e-governance is delivering for many poor and marginalized communities. Let us be clear here: some times we confuse the “use of ICTs” with the “benefits of ICTs”. If somebody doesn’t want to or cannot use computers, they can still get access to basic services and information in mediated forms, based on use of ICTs. That’s not to say that connectivity is not important. Access to ICTs can help people discuss ideas about poverty, environment, the economy, etc; in a word, it allows people to also be active participants and have a voice in the public sphere. It can also help in development, which is about making lives better for the millions of people still sitting at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid..

BRR: You mentioned Pakistan has many ingredients for E-governance to take off. But it hasn’t. What’s missing?

RZ: All the ingredients seem to be ready here but what seems to be missing is one or more chefs that can cook an overarching strategy that brings all of this under one umbrella and synergise the various efforts. Now, in almost every country, one can find champions in ministries, that is people who are actually doing lots of cool stuff with ICTs and are thus moving e-governance forward. Networking such champions is a good idea and a sound starting point. We also need civil servants and top managers in ministries that are brilliant, have a vision, and can amass some political will. In my experience, when E-governance solutions are deployed in ministries and succeed, they don’t get shut down. Why? Because they work and add public value!

Having studied the cases of India, Brazil and Korea among others, it is clear than in addition to the bottom-up champions network approach, there is also need for support to e-governance by top decision makers. In the above countries, it is clear that support from the Primer Minister or President was decisive to ensure that e-governance was indeed mainstream into the key line ministries.

On the citizens side, it is possible to foresee an scenario where stakeholders can demand e-governance for the improvement of basic public service delivery. If somehow that doesn’t happen, then citizens themselves can use their voting power to express their opinions. But citizens can also ensure that E-governance is one the pillars in the agendas of political campaigns and thus a priority for politicians too.

BRR: What could be the focal institution for E-governance in Pakistan?

RZ: That if something that local decision makers should decided based on the experiences of other countries. In South Korea for example it was the Ministry of Planning that took the lead and was able to bring all other key ministries into play. In India, it was the Ministry of IT that took the lead. At any rate, one thing that can be done relatively easy in Pakistan is to institutionalize the CIO (Chief Information/Innovation Officers) position in ministries and then create a network with them where they can initially start discussing some of the issues they face. You will always find people who are smart, want to improve things and foster efficiency and transparency in the public sector.

BRR: E-governance is about making public service delivery more efficient: high-quality, timely and low-cost. Do you agree that there is a link between E-governance and broader civil services reforms?

RZ: That’s an excellent question and one that is usually missed by e-government practitioners In the end-governance is about changing government using technology. Most developing countries actually run large public administration reform programmes which more frequently that not are not at all connected to e-governance. I think it is up to e-governance practitioners to close this gap and ensure any public investment on ICT is linked to improving the public sector in general and public service delivery in particular. For open, transparent and accountable government, you need technology. Reforms are about changing the way a particular government works. E-governance encompasses that. That’s a hard paradigm shift to bring about, but one that is very important to do.

BRR: You mentioned transparency and accountability in public sector, how effective have open data initiatives been in the countries where they are implemented?

RZ: Open data is important as is open government. I have been repeatedly told by the new generation of innovators and practitioners that e-governance is old fashion and should be replaced by open government. Maybe. In any case, UNDP recently joined the Open Government Partnership that the Obama Administration launched back in 2011. The partnership now has 65 countries that have joined in. Pakistan in not one of them yet. .

Open data is a key component of Open Government. But Open Data is only useful if we can ensure its productive consumption by stakeholders that want to be better informed so that they can engage in more effective fashion with the public sector. Citizens need to be informed about local development for example. But as it is now the supply side of open data is well ahead of the demand-side. Open data needs to ensure data and information is being effectively used by the citizens; it also needs to be demand driven. One could for example try to corwdsource which public sector data sets are the most relevant for stakeholders in a particular local context. Being that as it may, we also need to link open data efforts to right to information processes and legislation.

India actually has a very nice example on the right to information and “open data”. In poor areas, infomediaries have transcribed public data obtained via ICTs and placed the information on paper that is display on walls of the local communities. Data and information are also displayed in local languages on the walls. The data can tell local people that, for example, a public school was supposed to be built in a specific location with a given, approved budget; but now the budget is gone and the school is still not there. Based on that information, bottom-up feedback then kick-starts engagement with local and regional governments -not to metion the impact on transparency and accountability.

In many countries, the call for increasing the supply of open data seem to exceed the actual demand for data. Most governments have lots of data – but they need to prioritise three or four which are the most important for citizen information and decision-making. There is also the issue that different regions have different development priorities, so a centralised open data policy might not work. Development happens at the local level, within the communities. Local-level open data is thus critically important.

BRR: Coming to the debate about technology and its potential to exacerbate inequalities, how can technology be a force of development in societies?

RZ: My job is to create a bridge between people who are passionate about technology and people who have been doing development for many years. So I see this debate regularly. As I said earlier, using technology per se is different from using it for development purposes. You don’t have to be a direct user to benefit from technology. We need to understand the current debate about technology and development. In many developing countries, ministries usually see technology as an expense. They might even think that technology solutions do not make sense for their ministries. On the other hand, when you talk to technologists and innovators, they will tell you that technology is the solution almost everything and that raising technology access – bridging digital divide, that is – must also be made a priority. There are already so many unmet development priorities, and now there seems to be additional pressure to add “digital divide” as another priority.

But you cannot do development with just a technology focus. Private sector would obviously like to have more people using their services – that means chunks of additional revenues. And that is great. But in my view one can still get the benefits of technology with limited personal access to technology. Government can still bring public services and public value to people in areas with low or no connectivity. Technology is also great for scaling up development programmes.

BRR: Are you suggesting that digital divide is a secondary issue in development?

RZ: The digital divide is a direct reflection of current socio-economic divides. The real power of new ICTs is to bring new solutions and application to traditional development divides. If that at the same time addresses the digital divide then that is great. But it is also possible to address the digital divide while ignoring development gaps. There is not automatic link between the two in the latter case.
The issue seems related more towards increasing the number of consumers of technology services. I will give you a counter example: how many poor people have refrigerators? Do we have the statistics? No. Why? Is it not as important if not more important than Internet? It is important because when you are poor and don’t have a refrigerator, you have to end up paying more for food as it is not possible to buy larger quantities. That means you end up paying more per unit and have access to low-quality food products that perish soon.

I’m surprised about lack of adequate data on such a basic question. We are talking about people’s ability to feed themselves under tight household budgets. So, why don’t we discuss fridge-divide? Why don’t we discuss electricity-divide? Where do we start? By the way, India has startedto produce affordable refrigerators with this in mind.

Globally, the number of smartphones users and broadband subscriptions are increasing year after year but from a development point of view, there is still poverty in the world, while inequality is getting worse. Poverty actually declined in recent years in many countries thanks to governments and partners that designed adequate programmes explicitly targeting poverty – and many of them using technology in one way or another.

Indeed, ICTs enable development but are not a goal on themselves. Same goes for social innovation for example. And it is here where things such as e-governance can make a huge difference in enhancing tdevelopment of Pakistan – and in many other countries too.