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Digitalization of the government: why and how?

The acrimonious debate continues to rage in the media on the resignation of Tania Aidrus. Some say our Government is ‘talent repellent’. Some say, the conflict of interest was too obvious. Some say she was not that senior to become an SAPM to start with. One thing is sure that Aidrus concentrated the tasks related to digitalization in her hands, marginalizing the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which already had many organizations actively engaged in the carrying forward different aspects of digitization in Pakistan such as NITB, PSEB, Ignite, etc. Then there have been two IT Task Forces established by the Prime Minister’s Office and not yet de-notified. The president is chairing two Task Forces on IT. Then, there is this Sub-Group on E-Governance under the Task Force on Governance and Austerity, headed by Dr. Ishrat Hussain. Centralizing in the name of integration has been a special governance feature of this government. But once a lynchpin falls, you are back to square one.

The basic question is “why should the government be digitalized”. The simple answer is “to have better governance”. This could further be broken down into three equally important goals, i.e., to provide efficient services to the citizens, to enable the decision-makers to make informed decisions fast and finally to enable better accountability of the services provide and the decisions taken.

The second question is “what is digitalization”? There are many misconceptions in this regard. Digitalization is neither the beginning nor the end of an effort to transform an enterprise or a government entity. The first step is “digitization”. “Digitization” is the process of making information artefacts computable digitally because, unless, an artefact is not converted into its digital form, it could not be computed upon. In other words, the very first task that needs to be done in the “digitalization” of the government is digitization of the “relevant” artefacts. Once the relevant artefacts are digitized, their useful data has to be identified, extracted, defined, stored and used. This requires the development of data governance and data quality management principles and processes, something which the Government has neglected. As a result, even, after two years, little progress is made in terms of conversion to E-Governance, despite all these shiny experts, glamourous presentations replete with smileys and formation of Task Forces. The Government gave the deadline of 30th June 2019 for ending the manual files. It was extended to 30th June 2020. This has also passed with very little progress. The Government has not even succeeded from stopping its senior officers from using gmail for official communications. – a field totally neglected academically and also in digitalization projects. It appears, it is not the e-governance which was the main interest of most of these foreign experts. It was data.

COVID-19 gave a once-in-a-century opportunity to switch the federal, provincial and local governments to “e-governance”. The private sector did make huge strides in going online. But in the case of federal government honchos, it was the data, which was their main interest, with little interest in data sovereignty. The capacity of the Government to gather citizens data still is greater despite the giant platforms like Amazon, YouTube and Facebook. An unprecedented amount of data has been generated during COVID-19. This data can be used in local businesses, international businesses and in the service of citizens to improve service delivery and enhance transparency. We still have to see whether the apparatus sitting on top of this huge citizen data is capable enough to use this data with the help of effective data governance rules and management processes for the betterment of Pakistan’s economy and public sector service delivery. This data might already be in the hands of others. And as these resignations are bound to create disruptions and reorganizations, the government would return to its pre-Aidrus cluelessness in terms of E-Governance.

The government needs to appreciate the fact that “Digitalization” is never the end in itself because it results in automated processes that are siloed. The disruption caused by the COVID-19 and the departure of Aidrus has created an opportunity for the Government to think beyond the digital transformation of Pakistan as the fourth industrial revolution demands more. The fourth industrial revolution has five essentials, called Pentrium, for success. These are (1) Governance, (2) Quality, (3) Agility, (4) Vertical Integration, and (5) Horizontal Integration. The process of “digital transformation” has to be taken one step further to “Digi4mation”, which is the process of making the information ecosystem computable as a whole.

We, in Pakistan, have woken up late. This delay enables us to learn from the mistakes of others. Most governments started their “digitization” programmes years ago and have gone through many iterations of improvement. There is a lot to learn from those iterations. We need to make a planned logical start. The “digitization” of the Government of Pakistan has to start simultaneously at the top and at the bottom.

At the top, “digitalization” starts at defining a code of governance and governance policies of each organization emanating from the code of governance. These governance policies have then to be implemented in the form of structures, skills and automated processes. Other policies are then laid down in compliance with the governance policy and international standards and best practices. These policies are then implemented as structures, skills and automated processes. At the bottom “digitalization” starts at formalizing the value-chain of each organization. The next step is optimization of the processes imbedded in the value chain. The third step is the identification of the data handled by the processes, identification of the resources (skills, assets, finances, etc.) required in the processes, and identification of the risks involved. Strict data governance and data quality management now starts. Next, the processes are automated and integrated to create the “information system” of the organization. This is where the bottom-up effort meets the top-down effort. What we have been doing for the past twenty years, yes twenty years, introducing E-office, a tiny part in any e-governance system, at the middle, aimed at replacing the manual files with digitized files; wasting all these years and resources as even this miniscule part is only adopted by four five divisions and that also with many branches of the Ministries exempted in the name of security. Pakistan Army undertook this gigantic task as an emergency and succeeded in a record time to completely move away from the manual.

This government has three years left to fulfil its promises. Two of these major promises, good governance and ease of government work, can be fulfilled through a programme that starts from both ends simultaneously. The objective of this programme should be to help Pakistan not only sustain but also prosper in the fourth industrial revolution. Let us call this program “The Digi4mation of Pakistan”. However, there are precautions and pre-requisites that must be taken and fulfilled to avoid yet another failure. Since enormous amounts of data will be generated and this data will immediately become a target in the hybrid war that we are in, a pre-requisite is the presence of an “Information Security Regulation Authority” that is responsible for assuring the security of the information assets of Pakistan on a war footing. Now, with the COVID crisis seemingly tapering off, the Government can concentrate on the Digi4mation of Pakistan not only to fulfil its election promises but also to prepare the country for the fourth industrial revolution and give its citizens a ray of hope.

[Mr. Azhar Zia-ur-Rehman is a freelance consultant on governance, based in GCC and Pakistan. He is a member of the President’s Committee on Emerging Technologies.

Dr. Safdar Sohail, recently retired as Special Secretary Cabinet, government of Pakistan. He has been Member Governance, Planning Commission, Pakistan’s Economic Minister to EU in Brussels and the founding Executive Director of CPEC Centre of Excellence, Islamabad] Azhar Zia-ur-Rehman and Dr Safdar Sohail, "Digitalization of the government: why and how?," Business Recorder. 2020-08-12.
Keywords: Social sciences , Science and technology , E-governance , Federal government , Pakistan-Economy , Digital transformation , Pakistan , SAPM , NITB , PSEB

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