Digitalisation of public services | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Digitalisation of public services

30 July, 2023

The digital revolution has not only radically changed the world from what it was but also permeated every aspect of human existence. People want more digital solutions not only in their personal lives but also when engaging with Government agencies or private organisations. Despite its numerous benefits, Sri Lanka’s public sector has been slow-moving and sluggish to embrace digitalisation. In contrast, most of the private sector has already deeply engaged digital technology in their functions.

At the outset, it is important to clarify the meanings of two similar-sounding and technically related words “digitalisation” and “digitisation”. Digitisation refers to the process of converting physical information into digital formats, while digitalisation refers to the use of digital technologies to improve functions and operations and create new values for stakeholders.

The challenges of digitalising the public sector range from a lack of knowledge, data security issues, a lack of digital trust, and user resistance to expert talent shortages. The public administration should therefore engage in digital trust building in order to overcome the current barriers to digitalising public services and to build a modern, efficient, and citizen-oriented administration.

The digitalisation of public service has become a transformative force, reshaping governance and citizen interactions in the 21st century. Rapid advancements in technology and increasing internet penetration have forced the government to adopt digital solutions that enhance efficiency, transparency, and accessibility while improving the commonly known inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the Sri Lankan public sector.

Digitalisation in public service refers to the integration of digital technologies and data-driven systems to streamline administrative processes, improve service delivery, and enhance public engagement. It encompasses a wide array of initiatives, including e-governance, digital citizen portals, online service delivery, and data analytics.

Promotes transparency

Digital transformation not only enhances efficiency but also promotes transparency and accountability among government agencies. By digitising data and making it easily accessible to citizens, enabling them to monitor government activities, hold officials accountable, and ensure proper governance.

Digitisation streamlines administrative processes and service delivery mechanisms, reducing bureaucratic inefficiencies and lapses. This leads to faster and more accessible public services for citizens, which can invariably improve overall satisfaction and trust in Government institutions.

Digital transformation can also introduce new types of rationalisation in the public sector, leading to changes in public policies, processes, and functions. This not only provides services to citizens but also increases efficiency in the public sector, improving transparency and accountability, enabling cost savings in administration, and minimising the risk of corruption.

Digitalization offers numerous benefits to the country, its economy, and its citizens. By automating routine tasks and digitising records, the public sector can significantly improve efficiency and productivity. This allows governments to make better use of resources and focus on strategic initiatives that drive socio-economic development. Digitisation makes it possible to set up new services and improve management times for processes and activities.

Digitalisation not only improves efficiency and productivity but also eliminates traditional bureaucratic bottlenecks by reducing paperwork and automating routine processes. This leads to increased efficiency, faster service delivery, and cost savings for both governments and citizens.

Digital services transcend geographical boundaries, enabling citizens to access government services from anywhere at any time. As in many developed countries, this can empower marginalised populations and enhance inclusivity in public service delivery. It is commonly known that at times people are forced to travel long distances to obtain certain essential services, wasting valuable time, money, and other resources.

Allegedly, currently, the decision-making process at higher levels of public institutions is not based on precise or factual data. Particularly, recent media reports revealed that poor decision-making practices are being discussed openly at the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA), the two important parliamentary committees, highlighting numerous flaws that have caused enormous losses to the government coffers.

Government machinery

Digitisation is perhaps the best remedy to eliminate such negative and costly decision-making at higher levels of the Government machinery. Digital transformation can generate vast amounts of data, allowing the heads of these institutions to make more informed decisions based on insights derived from analytics.

Another critical aspect that has emerged in the media recently is the lack of transparency and the rejection of accountability by public servants at all levels. The citizenry has not witnessed a single incident where the offenders were penalised even when evidence proved them wrong in their decision-making on public funds and property. In this context, digital platforms promote transparency by providing citizens with access to real-time information and tracking Government actions. This fosters greater accountability and trust between citizens and public institutions.

However, with all the necessities, benefits, and advantages discussed above, the implementation of digitisation in the Sri Lankan public sector is not without daunting challenges. Public sector organisations are increasingly confronted with internal obstacles. The bitter truth is that, on average, most public sector employees are less conversant in digital technology than their counterparts in the private sector. Also, their habitual working techniques are comparatively obsolete and less productive than those of the private sector.

Another issue is the unavailability of modern and advanced technology infrastructure or digital data systems in public sector organisations. This means the majority of internal processes remain analogue: fax machines, letters, telephones, and e-mails coexist with a few digital offerings, making access to public services a lot slower and more expensive.

Public servants

Therefore, the first and foremost challenge among them is to prepare the public servants for the change, both behaviourally and technologically.

Bureaucratic disinterest and resistance to change within public institutions can hinder the successful adoption of digitisation strategies. Initially, almost the entire workforce needs a complete attitude change towards both technology and work ethics.

At the outset, most of them might feel insecure, resist new changes, and attempt to disrupt any process if and when possible. Another problem is the already overextended work force in the public sector, and digitisation may create more idle public workers, adding to the existing unproductive workforce.

The prevailing infrastructure and connectivity may also pose a challenge for public sector digitisation. In some regions, inadequate digital infrastructure and limited internet connectivity pose significant challenges to seamless implementation.

According to Data Reportal, the online reference library, there are 14.5 million internet users in the country, with 66.7 percent internet penetration, a reasonably high figure compared to the other countries in the region. Yet, the quality of internet speed must be taken into consideration when managing the vast amount of digital information in public service.

Data protection, security, and privacy can be significant challenges when digitalising State services.

Data protection issues are commonly used as an excuse to derail digitalisation by dubious elements that can slow down processes. Even service seekers may develop a sense of insecurity about their information. Therefore, instead of over regulating data protection, the authorities must encourage public sector institutions to make their services digital by design and by default to guarantee transparency.

The digitalisation of public service is an ongoing process with far-reaching implications for governments and citizens. As technology continues to evolve, the potential for further advancements in public service delivery remains vast.

Equitable access

However, it is essential to address the challenges of the digital divide, data privacy, infrastructure limitations, and other important aspects recommended by subject specialists to ensure equitable access to digital services for all citizens.

Governments must proactively collaborate with stakeholders and invest in technological infrastructure to maximise the benefits of digitisation while upholding the principles of transparency, privacy, and inclusivity. By embracing the digital revolution, public services can truly transform into efficient, citizen-centric systems that meet the needs of the modern world.