The exponential rise of technology and the proliferation of Information Communication Technology (ICT) has left a mark on every sector of society and governance is not an exception to it. It is understandable that technology reduces cost, enhances communication and increase transparency, but in its application by the governments is still limited in comparison to the private sector and this is why World Economic Forum (WEF) labelled governments as “the dinosaurs of the digital age: slow, lumbering and outdated.” The analogy is spot-on if we analyze the adoption of digital technologies by the private sector and opportunities they have availed so far, such as harnessing the potential of the digital economy for lowering transaction costs, utilizing digital platforms for gathering customer/user experience and effective resource management, and ability to develop innovative approaches or policies. The utilization of digital technologies by governments can transition the paper-based system to paperless systems, which would in turn save time and money. E-governance can alleviate the operational costs; enhance communication between stakeholders; help to overcome information asymmetries, and strengthen public institutions. On top of that, all these benefits do not necessitate a nation-state having cutting-edge technology but it simply needs internet facility and skills of public servants as well as citizens to make use of the digital platforms for public services. Developing economies like Estonia are leading in this digital transformation of government services and reaping tremendous benefits from it.
In the realm of governance and public administration, digital technology can do wonders and lead us to the path of sustainable development. According to experts, governments can leverage digital technologies for increasing their revenue streams, enhancing service delivery, understanding their citizen’s demands and find new solutions for the prevalent policy challenges. Similarly, there is a parallel debate that e-governance or digital governance can be even more rewarding for a democratic system through enhancing participation of citizens, transparent and efficient service delivery, strengthening rule of law, and keeping citizens aware of the milestones and achievements through online medium.
The sole purpose of the public services is the development and growth of a nation and through digitization of these services, – there are numerous economic studies – the quality and quantity have increased while bearing lower costs for the governments, especially in the area of social protection. However, there is a fixed cost associated with the establishment of such services, such as investing in the technology and skillset for building a digital infrastructure.
In the case of a developing country like Pakistan, the transition to digital or e-governance is most apt because the country already fulfils few prerequisites of this digital transformation of public services, such as 60% of its citizens can use mobile phones and the internet penetration currently stands at approx. 28% which is expected to increase over time. Moreover, the country has already embarked on the journey of digital governance at the beginning of the 21st century and currently transitioning from an analogue government (where we had closed operations, internal focus and analogue procedures) to the E-government, which provides us with greater transparency, user-centric approaches, and ICT-enabled procedures. Pakistan Citizen Portal, Zainab Rescue Application, Online Job Portal, Data4Pakistan etc. are few nascent examples of the country’s commitment to shift from analogue to digital governance.
Recently, PM Imran Khan inaugurated the Digital Pakistan initiative where a digital transformation roadmap acts as the bedrock of this evolution and Tariq Malik, Former NADRA Chairman and currently associated with UNDP called on PM and discussed the roadmap. The transition process includes the following:
- Digitization of NADRA Registration system and developing a digital Identification System
- National Emergency Helpline linked with National Police Bureau
- Digitalization of Police Investigation
- Digital Payment System – i.e. PayPal
- Digital Infrastructure of Pakistan
- Pakistan Business and Job Portal
Understandably, instituting a digital governance system in Pakistan can not only introduce an effortless public service delivery for the citizens but also induce transparency and help the government to overcome nepotism and corruption.
Literature also supports the fact that public services and economic development have a positive relationship and using the potential of digital technologies like mobile phones, the coverage of these services could be enhanced largely, such as reaching the far-flung remote and rural/peripheral areas of the country. Firstly, mobile-based financial services can increase financial activity, and secondly, it can result in a significant reduction in the cost of collecting, processing and dissemination of information for government agencies. There are examples of Nigeria (an underdeveloped country) and India (a developing economy), where digital technologies are used for economic development and cost-saving of government.
In addition, digital technologies can be of much assistance when used for the education and training of public sector employees or citizens of the country and this too on lower costs and greater outreach than the traditional medium. A real-time example of this has been observed by the world, and specifically by Pakistan, during the ongoing pandemic when educational institutes were closed and online platforms were used to carry out the learning and tutoring. The government of Punjab has already launched an e-Learn portal, which is an official repository of digitized textbooks, and each book has been augmented with video lectures, illustrations, animations, simulations and interactive assessments. Another benefit of harnessing digital technology by governments for public services, such as education, is that it will ameliorate the literacy level in the country and this is a requisite of efficient and effective democracy.
The Digital Governance model of Estonia is a prime example for developing nations like Pakistan to adopt e-governance for the betterment of its citizens and national growth. Estonia not only linked up the essential public services but also made 99% of them available online 24/7. This model of e-governance includes initiatives like citizen registration or Digital ID; healthcare includes a digital medical history and e-ambulance program; i-Voting is electronic voting for elections; citizens paying taxes online; an E-Residency program which provides residency beyond borders to the people who are not physically present in the country but can conduct business –thus adding in the national economy.
As Estonia’s President once commented on the digital governance program of the country, “Most of the public services in Estonia is digital. We have a generation who have grown up knowing that you communicate digitally.”
The application of digital technologies in governance systems can open up new avenues for the safety and security of citizens and the nation. An example of this is the recent initiatives taken by the Government of Pakistan to introduce a National Emergency Helpline linked with the National Police Bureau and digital investigation system, similarly, it can beef-up the economy, food, and water security, etc. Punjab Police is leading in the digitization of services through mobile applications (Punjab Police Khidmat App), which includes verification of the citizens and vehicles through large data sets of residents of the province. Similarly, it provides online services for licensing, registrations, and reporting of crimes, etc. Other mobile applications provide services of cellphone tracking, databases access for police officers located anywhere in the province.
A national-level digital transformation campaign initiated by PM Imran Khan to harness digital technologies for public welfare. Ms. Tania Aidrus, a former Google employee who was invited to Head the campaign of Digital Pakistan, while sharing the roadmap of this campaign has identified five pillars that act as a prerequisite for the project. While compartmentalizing the campaign and sharing the building blocks of Digital Pakistan, she said that internet access and connectivity acts as the baseline of this initiative, and then up-gradation of digital infrastructure, E-governance, digital training and skill development, and last one is the patronage of government for the innovation and entrepreneurship.
Another major obstacle in the realization of the Digital Pakistan campaign, after the internet access across the country and skill development, is the lack of funds and low budgetary share for the development of science and technology. In the national budget for FY 2020-21, the government vowed to allocate Rs20billion for science and technology whereas the report of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics stated that Public Sector Development Program has allocated Rs2.15billion for development projects of the Science and Technology Research Division. Moreover, the global innovation index ranking of Pakistan is unsatisfactory and to spearhead the agenda of Digital Pakistan, the government will have to invest heavily in the establishment of science and technology parks, tech-related business incubators, and building a national network among these institutions. With investments in science and technology, Pakistan can grow its ICT sector, boost its IT exports, manufacture cutting-edge technologies, and transform itself from a digital consumer to a digital producer.
To speed up the process of digitalization and ensuring the provision of public services through digital technologies (e-governance), we have to expedite the digitization of paperwork, empower youth with digital skills, support a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, and enhance coordination between public entities and stakeholders. Similarly, there is a need to reorient and align the policymaking instruments to consider the digital infrastructure and transformation process. For risk mitigation, a safety and security mechanism should be devised because digitization necessitates data protection and cybersecurity for critical infrastructures like the energy sector, policing, citizens’ data, etc. Lastly, attracting the tech-giants from across the globe for the technology transfer and foreign direct investments in the science and technology sector of Pakistan should be the focus of the incumbent government.
Tech-Optimist claims that the proliferation of digital technologies can revolutionize the political and governance systems but the dilemma is that at one end it can be supportive of democratic systems while on the other side, it could be detrimental as it can help yield a rigorous autocratic system. For the former, it can induce transparency in the system; could be more responsive such as making elections and polling of citizens more accessible and fair; provide public services across the board without any discrimination; strengthen rule of law; increase accountability. However, in the case of the latter one, digital technologies can be unfavorable for the citizens if an autocratic or exploitive regime harnesses them to compound their authority, such as using them for censorship, for blackballing pluralism, reduction in rule of law, and avoid the democratic voting process.
“Technology can improve or undermine democracy depending on how it is used and who controls it. Right now, it is controlled by too few”. – Kevin Gross