Sri Lanka’s failing romance with e-governance

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Last Monday (Jan 29th), The Information & Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) launched an e-governance initiative called the electronic local government. This was in collaboration with the Ministries of Provincial Councils, Local Government and Telecommunication & Digital Infrastructure. The aim of this system is to connect 30 local authorities in Sri Lanka. Or, so they said.

The launch of e-Local Government (Image Credits: DailyFT)
The launch of e-Local Government (Image Credits: DailyFT)

e-LG is the primary step of a plan to connect 341 local government bodies in Sri Lanka, which would allow the general public to access government services online. It also acts as a carrier to foster digitalization within the government. Why would they need to do that, one wonders. The answer would become painfully obvious once one bothers to actually check the system.

Step One: Finding the site

In the beginning, we at ReadMe thought this was actually a good initiative by the government to encourage public ease of access. And so, we (naturally) googled Sri Lanka e-local government… and came up with nothing. Ten minutes of frustration later, one of us had the bright idea to go to their Facebook page and visit the URL mentioned in the description.

Sri Lanka e-local government homepage of e-governance
The homepage, which served no purpose at all

What we found was a basic site with a drop-down menu instructing us to select our local authority in order to proceed. Of course, being from different regions in Sri Lanka, we each tried out our respective areas, only to find them rebuffed. Going from Kandy to Dehiwala to Norwood, we finally understood that only the Colombo Municipal Council was actually working.

This essentially made the homepage unnecessary and useless. We felt that ICTA needs to take a second look at this page in future. Or, at the very least, fix the typo in the footer, because there is no space before a comma.

Step Two: Finding a working Municipal Council

Speaking with Thusha Mukunthan, the ICTA representative leading the e-LG project, we were told that 35 local authorities in Sri Lanka were connected to the system. This was despite the fact that we pointed out the only way to proceed was by selecting the Colombo Municipal Council. She further explained that this was a process to analyze how many hits they were getting from the various regions.

However, Provincial Councils & Local Government Minister Faiszer Mustapha stated in the launch on Monday that he was critical of the CMC for the following reason;

“It is unfortunate that this couldn’t be implemented at the CMC. I urge them to please take these village level local authorities as an example,”

Comparing this statement with the one given by Thusha, it is evident that there is a blatant miscommunication here. And this was far from the only problem we encountered with this ‘new’ system.

Step Three: Going to CMC for Online Registration

Once we proceeded through the CMC to the main website, we tried registering. The instructions we were given told us to download the registration form. Afterwards, we were to print it out and take it to our local authority to submit. Once submitted to our local authorities, we would get our respective usernames and passwords.

Registration for the Sri Lanka e-local Government e-governance project
The registration process, which crosses the fine line between manual and digital

According to Thusha, this process was manually conducted in order to verify registering users. Such visits would only need to be made for the first time. While this is a valid concern, the question of convenience is still an issue. This is particularly an issue since Colombo Municipal Council is the only local authority in Sri Lanka that seemingly supports the use of the system.

Step Four: Let us all ask to be scammed

Added to that, the next thing we noticed was our browser was warning us of an unsafe connection. As the site was an e-governance project built to enable online payment facilities, this was not a disturbing fact at all. Further research showed us that the site’s SSL certificate had expired in December 2014. How it could expire four years back when the launch was a few days ago is a mystery.

Thusha explained that we simply would get that notification since our browsers are not compatible. This led us to believe that either they were outdated, or we were outdated. Two computers and five browsers later, we were inclined to believe the former. This means our government is sadly outdated.

Unsecure website of the Sri Lanka e-governance initiative
By this point, we were sure we weren’t outdated

This is further enforced by the fact that the site’s ‘privacy policy’ link takes us to SriLanka.lk’s privacy policy, which so happens to start with “This statement applies to the SriLanka.lk website only”. This, of course, raises the question of where and what the e-LG’s privacy policy actually is.

Step Five: Counting our wounds

Despite that, we decided to download the registration form and fill it out, which turned out to be easier said than done. The initial process proceeded smoothly, but halfway through we were in a state of great confusion over terms like;

  • Property ID
  • Road

In fact, we still are, and we decided to put that on hold for the moment. Instead, we decided to test out the payment feature that allows you to pay taxes without actually signing in. This method involves solving a captcha and typing in your email address, to which they sent the confirmation. We decided to test this feature around 4 pm. As of yet, we are still waiting. The lightning-fast responses never cease to amaze us.

“The highly scalable solution is further expected to introduce other avenues of public service access to citizens introducing unmatched convenience and efficiency to the largely archaic present mechanisms,” ICTA said in a press release this week. Well, we can certainly agree on one aspect of this. It most certainly is unmatched in convenience and efficiency. (Sometime later, after a verification email and/or a visit to the CMC, we may be able to elaborate on this.)

Step Six: Admiring good looks

Lastly, let’s ignore the technical issues with this e-governance project and come to one simple thing. The design. Kudos is due to the site for including links to download both Sinhala and Tamil fonts in it. Of course, if it was done in a clearer and concise manner it would have been better for all of us, but beggars can’t be choosers.

via GIPHY

In addition, the fact that there was no button to proceed from the drop-down menu on the home page caused more confusion, since we had to wait for the site to automatically proceed without any indication given as to what the user should do.

Step Seven: Scramble for relief

By then we were all wondering if all e-governance projects in Sri Lanka were of this same level of…finesse. While most of us remained skeptical, my colleague Mazin recalled his experience with the digital health project last year. He stated that while it had its flaws, in summary, it made his visit to the hospital shorter and also much smoother.

In addition, we also discovered that other countries have apparently succeeded in similar e-governance projects years ago. Meanwhile, we in Sri Lanka struggle with overhyped launches now.

Estonia’s e-citizenship: Where users don’t trek for a username

For example, Estonia has an e-residency project which was launched in December 2014. This initiative gave non-Estonians access to services like company formation, banking, payment processing, and taxation in Estonia. This is designed not only to make it easier to conduct business in Estonia but also access to EU markets as well.

Similarly to our own (almost) system, they too are required to visit the local Estonian consulate. However, there are two key differences compared to the Sri Lankan system. One is that there is more than one local consulate in the system. The other being the purpose of the visit is to get your smart ID. This isn’t something like a username and password that could easily be sent via email if one were tech-savvy enough.

This smart ID essentially functions like a NIC while additionally providing secure access to government services online. By secure we mean various technologies. Some of these technologies are encryption, blockchain, two security certificates, and more. But nowhere on that list is a single SSL certificate that expired four years ago.

US e-governance: Where security isn’t 4 years ago

The USA has a government portal where users can browse by topic, search every government US website, and Directly Contact Federal Government Agencies. In addition, Internal Revenue Services conducts an extremely suave and secure online tax paying platform, where users can create their own accounts and view their balance and payment histories.

The US has a streamlined payment process compared to the Sri Lankan e-governance systems
The US has a streamlined payment process

The payment process is streamlined, being able to pay via debit/credit cards or direct payment. This is done through secure payment channels through various providers that don’t bombard us with “website unsafe” alerts. Additionally, it also offers to help you make a payment plan, register your business, pay tax on behalf of someone else, and refunding in the case of overpayment.

MyGov Australia: Where it doesn’t look like Meethotamulla

Australia has long since had an e-governance system in the works. Currently, it’s fully functional. More importantly, it looks functional. The Australian government website stands out in the sheer amount of information available to the public. Transparency is evident in the system.

The Australian e-governance portal provides a wide range of information
The Australian government portal provides a wide range of information

It provides any citizen with essential and everyday information on the government and its functions (like any proper government website should). Each user also has their own “MyGov” account. Through this, they can securely access government online services including but not limited to, taxation, child support, health records and job searches.

Step Eight: Look for coffee

So looking at the success stories of other countries, we were plagued with one question: if they could do it, years before us, then why can’t we? We’re not sure if we want this question answered. All in all, our experience with the site left us in a jumbled mess.

The design, the security, the functionality were all to a standard never seen before. Meanwhile, countries like Estonia, Australia, and the US have successfully implemented their own e-governance projects. This happened while Minister Fernando states that, “Digitization is not a joke, it’s not just about a balloon. It is unfortunate that it’s become a joke to some media”.

19 COMMENTS

  1. Be it Harin, or Muhunthan / ICTA ir even Wasantha no one can properly get a e-gov going on. Who would go though the pain of finding a printer and taking this to the council. Already the councils are a time killer and a piece of useless garbage. This Gov clearly has no vision, the strength, or plan for e-Gov.We don’t have a single minister who can understand technology or one piece of code. Such a shame. Harin just launches everything that comes his was. I remember the only guy who could have pulled this off was Gota, he even had his own development team. #ShameOndigitalSriLanka!

  2. Another NPP story??? Everything just political stunt. As mentioned by Kasun this government has no clear vision on these project at all. Just doing all for personal agendas. What happened to ICTA shouldn’t this be their project? I won’t be surprised if the agriculture ministry takes over the e-nic project. Such dumb leaders in this country.

  3. All the people in power including our digital minister are good talkers. We all know what happned to NPP. Tell these big mouths to name one sucesful project done by this Gov. Just thatbtagline good governence is not enough. We need smart governence!!!!

  4. PayPal, Stripe, Loon, NPP, E-nic, e-Driving licence, the new immigration and emigration (good building, uber bad tech in it, not even the basics of queuing systems work), how the ICTA chair was removed after he brought to light about the president’s MTV deal, and now this. I’m seriously starting to worry about this Gov’s capabilities. Current Gov is good at covering up issues / fake projects.

  5. Name one gov institution you can get your work done without being harassed. 99% of the places don’t even have a call management system. Being so the minister expects us to walk in into a local Praseshiya sabha and register ourselves?. #DreamOnMinister

    • Lets throw a challenge at the ICTA and Minister Harin to name one “successful” project that ICTA and the Digital Ministry has done from it’s inception. Also since these are public funds to open up the books – online and public project by project, date by date and show much they’ve spent and for what.

      • Yes! this is a good challenge! Lets see if the ICTA, or the minister can respond to this. Yahapalanaya C’mon! 😉
        Yours
        Royal Duck.

    • This is a neat idea. Why only ICTA, lets get the Gov to open up the account of all GOV institutions. As this is our money being spend to waste, we are the funders.

  6. “Digitization is not a joke, it’s not just about a balloon. It is unfortunate that it’s become a joke to some media” based on this statement I’m anxious to know where out dearest Minister Harin Fernando was when Maharaja was throwing mud at ICTA and it’s chairman. What a hilarious statement by our Minister. Oh by the way, elections are around the corner.

  7. By the looks of it, the article looks like something written to purposely discredit the work of the government by political opponents. The comments on the article is also of similar nature and are supportive towards the “commission’ers” of the previous regime.

    Its a shame that ReadMe has gone to such level of third grade political attacks. I wont be surprised if this comment is not even published as they seem to be working on a different agenda.

    May be some of the money that the MR clan stole is now being redirected to ReadMe.

  8. Nothing “e” in this country works. Only thing that works are the e-com sites!! LOL. Stupid GOV, ICTA and a minster with no IT knowledge, would like to know his educational qualifications and the peoples behind this project / the implementers of the GOV “e” projects!

  9. A few projects by the government / ICTA / Minister Harin are

    Nenasala – Total failure.
    Free Wifi – Total Failure due to political force
    E-Nic – Total Failure due to political force
    Project Loon – Total Failure due to political force
    e-Heritage Project – utter crap such a bad layout and such bad content on it.
    National payment gateway – Total Failure due to political force
    Lanka Government Cloud – what’s happening here? Failure?
    National Data Center – failure
    Birth Marriage and Death – Another crappy project like the one in this article.
    eSamurdhi – Failure
    ePopulation Register – Failure
    National Cyber Security Operations Center – can’t even secure Gov web sites
    Gov.lk – Failure
    e-Swabhimani – The event that awards awards to others but can’t have a functional / responsive beautiful website for themselves. LOL
    Government Information Center – The center that only takes in complains – that’s all. They have all outdated numbers and know nothing – They just read the book.
    ICT in Education sector – Failure, dominated by Min of education. Private Mafia over there.
    SMART Digital Classrooms – Corruption on it’s highest.
    Industry Development Program – Wastage of money, private organisations do a better job.
    Implementation of Video Conferencing facilities to 100 Ministries & Government organizations – to watch porn?
    Spiralation – No accountability for the funds released. No transparency. Corruption. Failure

    • ReadMe, you guys should really do an article on this and also look at possibilities of amounts spend (wasted) on each of these projects.

  10. Thia ia Amazing.
    Ignorance n inability of Thusha and the inexperiance BPR writer makes the difference.
    Not only this project. They meased up with many a projects. Pensions dept
    Registrar of Companies Postal Department
    All messed up right royally

  11. Can u tell me one Project that ICTA did and working properly. These Bafoons dont have any idea what they do. Only eating n drinking at GovT Cost. Bribary case against Kanchana Thudugal. Himira. Dasun. Is still pending. They went on a trip to Singapore on JITs account and was given sexual bribes for HTM project. Abple evidence. No charge.
    They will close this ICTA down and start the National Digitization Secretariat
    Result as the Google Baloon

  12. This is becoming a joke! Why can’t we really hold the subject Minister Harin, Wasantha and the president responsible for these? And also as mentioned above to get the government to open up the accounts books online to the public.

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