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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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