Providing Effective Digital Services in Pakistan

Hundreds of thousands of people were unable to collect their pensions and suffered as a result when the National Bank of Pakistan’s online computer system broke down right before Eid.

The exact reason for this technical glitch is unknown; it is realistic, however, to think that our government’s digital services are not developed using modern practices. The elderly had to wait in long queues while they were fasting, and it must have been very painful for people not to be able to collect their pensions before Eid.

The online pension fiasco is a testament to how broken our digital services are, and to the dire need to provide better digital services not only within government departments, but also to citizens.

There are many areas in which better digital services can improve governmental services in general, including the health, education, law enforcement, and judicial sectors. Imagine, for example, if doctor availability, prescription records or scheduling appointments could be done online? Imagine, also, if we could search through all past judicial decisions and look at the detailed schedule of court cases online?

Better digital systems would have brought relief and convenience to elders collecting their pensions at the critical time of Eid. Pakistan ranks down at the bottom when it comes to ease of doing business, according to the World Bank’s 2016 Doing Business report. Smart use of digital services could speed up the process of setting up and running a business.

The UN’s e-government survey 2014 ranked us 158 out of 193 countries in its e-government development index, so there is definitely a lot we can improve upon.

Improving digital services can bring us benefits, especially as internet and smartphone penetration will increase. (According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), there were 103 percent more 3G/4G subscribers in May 2016 than there were in July 2015. According to Wikipedia, there are 30 million internet users in Pakistan, and this number is forecast to grow to 100 million active users by 2020.)

These benefits include saving citizens time and money. For example, with information technology we do not need to stand in long queues or go through laborious (and often corrupt) bureaucratic procedures to process a bill or payment – thus reducing time and money spent.

Second, if people get things when they need them most, they realise that their government is responsive, and that will inspire greater trust in it. Citizens would be able to talk to their government more freely. Third, improved digital services result in huge cost savings if implemented correctly.

Fourth, digital services can reduce our carbon footprint, as they eliminate redundant office visits and, not insignificantly, unnecessary paper use. Fifth, thanks to efficiencies and cost reductions, a leaner and simpler form of government would emerge. Last, even though most of our population is illiterate, the success of well-designed digital products (eg financial products like quick money transfer using a mobile phone) shows that people can benefit from technology.

So what to do about it? One example to follow is that of the Obama government’s multi-layered technology initiative. To begin with, the US has appointed a chief technology officer (CTO). This person is responsible for creating jobs, reducing the cost of healthcare, helping keep the nation secure and increasing access to the internet.

The United States Digital Service (USDS) was also created, staffed by technologists who provide overall strategy and technological vision. The USDS created a Digital Service Playbook that outlines 13 modern best practices that government agencies can use. (Following this playbook alone could improve our government agencies manifold.)

The ‘18F’ agency, composed of designers and technologists, was also formed. 18F is a ‘services arm’ which helps any government agency that needs to improve its digital services delivery.

The creation of the USDS and 18F resulted in huge cost savings and the quick provision of digital services to masses of people. Previously, the Obama administration had spent roughly $800 million on launching www.healthcare.gov. The project became a disaster due to various factors like communication problems, contractor issues and the neglect of modern software development tools and practices.

This gave the Obama administration impetus to form an agile and fast-moving USDS. It hired people from the private sector – people left high-paying jobs at Google and Amazon to work for the government – and within the next few months a small team people fixed www.healthcare.gov. Not only did delivering quality digital services result in cost saving, it also showed that it’s possible to deliver digital services worth millions of dollars with small teams that move fast.

We can replicate this technology initiative here. To begin with, at the very least, we need a CTO and an agency like the USDS (comprising a small team of engineers and technologists). Both the CTO and this agency should provide a coherent national ICT vision, and evaluate, prioritise and monitor federal and provincial IT projects (taken up by provincial IT boards).

Second, this agency must use modern engineering practices and tools and setup guidelines (like the USDS Playbook); it must ensure that provincial IT boards and IT departments of state-owned enterprises strictly follow those guidelines.

Use of modern technologies can also ensure maintainability, scalability and reusability across different IT departments. For example, as for reusability, if Punjab’s IT Board has developed something useful, then Balochistan’s IT Board could tailor it to also meet its needs.

Third, this agency should create processes whereby competent employees of provincial IT boards and civil servants are paired together to find potential process improvements and implement fixes using modern technology.

Fourth, the CTO’s job description should also include increasing broadband access, better IT curriculum and more IT awareness. This would enable a wider group of citizens to benefit from improved digital and government services.

Fifth, we need to create innovative attraction and retention programnes for information technologists. For one, they can lure competent private-sector employees by creating programmes like ‘innovation fellows’, whereby people can work on government projects for six months and then leave. For another, we can create flexible work environments to attract even the Pakistani diaspora. It may prove to be very beneficial since many competent Pakistani engineers work in the Silicon Valley.

The practice of ‘delight the customer’ should not be foreign to our government agencies, and using digital services effectively can help achieve it. A coherent vision supported by diligent execution will ensure that our citizens can use government services with ease, trust, and peace of mind, all without a great cost.


This opinion was published in The News on 22nd August, 2016.