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President’s leadership led to great achievements in ICT: Weeratunga

Aug 19, 2011 2:58:19 PM - www.ft.lk

President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga delivered the keynote address as the Guest of Honour at the FutureGov Forum Sri Lanka 2011 in Colombo recently. Addressing the gathering, he asserted that it was the President’s leadership that led to the great achievements recorded by the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka even under the trying circumstances of wartime.

Recounting what terrorism had taken away from society and paying a tribute to ICTA for its contribution to the better future of the people, the Presidential Secretary said: “The word ‘future’ to many of us had no meaning. In that environment, there cannot be any creative thinking for e-Government or anything else. Yet the ICTA under the leadership of President Rajapaksa accomplished many tasks. Today, we are able to design a future for our e-Government activities”. In the course of his speech, he touched on wide-ranging issues and subjects such as Sri Lanka’s future of hope, becoming a regional knowledge hub, citizen-centric governance, e-Government and e-business, diplomacy, education, ICT’s role in education and future plans, amongst many others.

 

A large number of local and foreign participants including ministerial secretaries, department heads and chief innovation officers participated in the forum. Among both local and foreign distinguished participants were ICTA Chairman Prof. P. W. Epasinghe, UN-ESCAP, ICT and Disaster Risk Division Director Dr. Xuan Zengpei, FutureGov Magazine Editor-at-Large and former New Zealand Government GCIO Laurence Millar, FutureGov Asia Pacific Managing Director Mohit Sagar and ICTA CEO Reshan Dewapura.
Weeratunga’s speech is reproduced below:
Let me congratulate and offer my best wishes to FutureGov Asia Pacific and ICTA for making excellent arrangements to hold this event in Sri Lanka for the second successive year.
A future of hope
Indeed, as an ardent fan of electronic government initiatives and administrative reforms, annual revisiting of these topics gives me great pleasure and I must confess that I too learn a lot. Though I am in the ‘evening’ of my tenure in the Government, the word ‘future’ encourages me to explore horizons as to how we should and could make our future governments perform better for the wellbeing of our people.
As I told you last year, eradication of terrorism from our midst has given us fresh hopes – hopes that were very, very distant four to five years ago. Not just the north and the east of our country, but the south and the west as well, suffered heavily from terrorism for almost 30 years.
The word ‘future,’ to many of us, had no meaning. In that environment, there cannot be any creative thinking for e-Government or anything else. Yet the ICTA, under the leadership of President Rajapaksa, accomplished many tasks. Today, we are able to design a future for our e-Government activities.
Regional knowledge hub
The presence of many eminent figures in the field of ICT and governance adds great value to this forum. As we have already done in the past, sharing our experiences – both positive and negative – will give all of us a great opportunity to plan the way forward strategically.
For Sri Lanka, the forum is a blessing and timely, for the ‘Mahinda Chinthana,’ the policy document of the Government, has articulated that our country should be a regional knowledge hub by 2016, thereby sharing our knowledge in many diverse fields through engaging in a dialogue with our regional stakeholders in the knowledge domain.
Smart and unique country
In the 2010 December edition of the FutureGov magazine, Sri Lanka is featured in its cover story as a ‘Smart country which explores a new model for South Asian Government’. When Robin Hicks interviewed me, I explained to him our challenge; to make many stakeholders happy as the entire country is over enthusiastic about development plans, especially after a prolonged battle against terrorism.
On the one hand, we had to ensure that the welfare facilities of the citizens was not in any way disrupted or diminished, and on the other, we had to continue investing to rebuild the infrastructure in all areas – including the most affected Northern and Eastern Provinces. That was not just to convince potential foreign investors but to sustain the wellbeing of our own citizens as well.
Sri Lanka is a unique country, without doubt. Is there any other country in the world that fought a brutal bloodthirsty terrorist organisation which the world knew as the most ruthless terrorist organisation and yet had a GDP growth rate of over 8%, increased its citizens’ IT literacy in just five years by nearly 25% points, doubled its per capita income in just five years and ensured many more unbelievable human development initiatives?
Yes, we are unique. We are very proud about it. We are able to host international events like this without any fear thanks to the solid leadership of His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka and the commitment of our armed forces.
A special mention of the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, an IT professional himself, who introduced many IT initiatives to the armed forces in the theatres of the battles against terrorism, is indeed necessary. I salute him for his far-reaching programmes to modernise the military. The public servants too played a key role in maintaining the services uninterruptedly, under very difficult circumstances.
Citizen-centric governance
Today, I am not going to read out a list of our past success stories but I think it is important to align your thought processes with certain fundamentals, on how to build a citizen-centric, responsive and open Government.
People sense Government in different ways: economically, socially and politically. Accordingly, the Government has to be more open and receptive so that it can differentiate and recognise different requirements of various strata of people.
President Rajapaksa, who is also the Head of Government, has always reiterated the unavoidable requirement of citizen-centric governance. Every time he speaks to public sector officials – ranging from newly-recruited, operational level, young frontline officers to very senior, strategic level ministry secretaries – he does not forget to sensitise them and impress upon them the dire need to comfort the citizens who come to many Government offices at every level. Government has a well-guarded monopoly and people have no other choice.
e-Government and e-business
On the economic front, the Government has to achieve the great potential of making business online. e-Government applications to serve the business community are also creating more choices for citizens to spend his or her money more rationally to get a quality service. Facilitating ICT and other infrastructure to encourage stakeholders to fall in line with this global trend is therefore imperative.
We are now engaged in a process of developing our national data transfer backbone. We have already installed the Lanka Government Network, interconnecting hundreds of public institutions thus saving time, costs of communication and humongous volumes of paperwork. At a glance, one may not see other benefits. But, undoubtedly, there are many. However, to recover the investment, we have to deploy more applications and increase the usage of applications we have introduced so far.
The savings of e-business can be reinvested thus keeping the economy moving at a healthy pace. In addition, the accurate information flow supported by ICT also enables the Government to take prompt decisions to shape the economy strategically and to avoid possible failures.
Diplomacy and social media
Today, diplomacy has become crucial for Governments like Sri Lanka. Take the recent attempts of groups in and out of various foreign governments to tarnish the image of Sri Lanka. ICT could play a lifesaving role in our attempts to reach out to the world.
The pace at which information and misinformation travels, utilising ICT, is unbelievable. Governments must take note of this fact and gear themselves to meet the challenge of advancement of ICT. Governments have to interact with the rest of the world in both bilateral and multilateral bases.
Since ICT, mainly its internet component, has made the world increasingly smaller, thus allowing an extremely fast exchange of information every second, our diplomatic moves as a part of governance must become stronger.
Today, very senior officials at the level of foreign secretaries use Facebook, Twitter, etc., to connect up with various publics as well as with vociferous groups. On behalf of one’s citizens, a Government has to safeguard a country’s image from different open and hidden international movements, as in our case.
Since the process of governance is a collaborative action, between and among various stakeholders of the Government and citizens, more information exchanged means better decisions. A Government has to carefully listen to the citizens. In this connection, ICT plays a key role in information exchanges to ensure participatory governance.
ICT platforms across the globe have undoubtedly created many such media to exchange views of citizens, thus empowering them. I know that many political parties have started their own websites and even the use of internet-based social media is expanding.
Saving time
The whole idea of expediting Government processes is to save time of citizens. It also saves time for the public servant. The additional time available for citizens can be therefore spent productively – to engage with family members, community and voluntary work and more importantly, to live a contended life – the dream of every human being.
Sri Lanka, among many other initiatives, is also planning to introduce an electronic voting system, thus further facilitating democratic engagement of citizens.
When we think of an e-Government application, we have to think of its ultimate use for the citizens as well as the Government. In a society which is increasingly becoming ICT-savvy, the demand for providing Government’s services in electronic form is also on the increase. However, with limited resources, it is more than a challenging task to prioritise areas of majority concerns as well as developing systems that make internal processes of public agencies smarter.
If there is no demand, we have to think of ways to create a demand by showcasing the benefits, benefits that are not immediately apparent to the citizenry, but when articulated well, will strike a chord with them as important to their life. An ongoing and continuous assessment of different societal requirements is therefore very important. This reminds me of what the founder of Gallup organisation said: “If democracy is about the will of the people, shouldn’t someone find out what that will is?”
More e-Gov applications for mobile phones
We have witnessed that Sri Lanka enjoys increasing ICT literacy, usage of mobile phones, i.e., over 18 million phone connections for a population of 20 million, and computers, continuously improving network readiness index and growing workforce in ICT related industries.
Without any doubt, we have to definitely respond to the demand created by these developments. Opinion surveys and other modes of vigilance should be deployed frequently to respond promptly.
This year, Sri Lanka conducts its national census, which is once every 10 years; but this time round, it is crucial because in 30 years, this is the first time the census is covering the entire country. We expect this time, therefore, to collect more information on ICT literacy of individuals and it will show the big picture of the country’s readiness for ICT applications. In my opinion, we could introduce more e-Gov applications for mobile phones.
e-Government Policy
We are also in the process of reviewing the implementation of our e-Government Policy. After identifying 40 key elements of the policy, all public agencies are now required to showcase their progress during the past two years and report constraints. The National Administrative Reforms Council (NARC), which I chair, is keen on implementing the policy and guide ICTA to help addressing concerns of public agencies of various capacities.
Of course, reengineering Government to deploy ICT applications is one of the topmost items in our public sector reforms agenda. Minister of Public Management Reforms Navin Dissanayake has now started establishment of Management Reforms Cells in each public agency to convert them into citizen centric smarter organisations in which the application of ICT catalyses the service delivery mechanism.
Health
Education and health are key components of the Government’s public investment agenda. Though the education sector has benefited immensely from ICT, we have had only limited e-health applications in the Government.
However, we are now in the process of exploring how best we could help patients and health workers in Government hospitals by introducing e-health applications. I am certain that the guidance of the Minister of Telecommunications and IT will lead to a remarkable progress in this sector in the near future.
Differently-abled persons
We cannot forget marginalised communities, including the differently-abled communities. They too should be given the best of e-Government facilities and I would like to appeal to you to incorporate features that help such social groups.
Disaster prediction and management
The use of ICT for disaster prediction and management to minimise the damage is extremely important. We are glad that UNESCAP is working collaboratively in this area as it is a main agenda item of the Asia Pacific ICT Committee. I am particularly happy to see Dr. Xuan Zengpei in our midst as he is an expert in this area.
Education, bedrock of electronic society
My address would not be complete if I do not mention ICT’s role in education. For us to talk about e-Government, we must ensure that a country’s citizens are adequately equipped in ICT to derive the full benefits of e-Government initiatives.
In this regard, I would like to quote from a report of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation, or SEAMEO as it is known. The report, ‘Status of ICT integration in Education in Southeast Asian Countries 2010,’ highlights six issues to be addressed as a group and as a country: Holistic approach towards the development of the national ICT in education plans and policies; Provision of professional development to staff at all levels in the education system; Emphasis on ICT in national curriculum and assessment; Sharing and transfer of ICT in education best practices and lessons learnt among member countries, and among schools and provinces/states in the country; Support of countries’ ICT in education efforts through partnerships; and Planning for evaluation and research of ICT in education.
It further says that as the world moves further into the 21st century, students in the Southeast Asian countries must be prepared to meet the future needs of the knowledge-based economy. The report emphasises that students have to learn to seek out new information, think critically, and show initiative to meet the challenges of the fast-changing world. FutureGov Forums too should lay emphasis on ICT in education as it is the bedrock of an electronic society.
Chief innovation officers
Our Government has not discouraged any sort of innovation as far as it is not a waste of our limited resources. From the level of village officer to the secretary to a ministry, we have identified a group of creative and innovative officers (Chief Innovation Officers or CIOs) who will not only be in charge of ICT-related information management but a variety of reform-driven innovations to make lives of people more comfortable.
Going towards a ‘seamless Government’ is a difficult task due to various unavoidable factors. However, introducing best practices to improve public agencies gradually through the network of CIOs has shown success by being able to instil confidence in the people on ICT solutions. CIOs also serve as the conduit between their respective organisations and the ICT Agency, thus making their inputs vital in developing e-Gov policies.
Our CIOs are now getting an in-depth training at the Postgraduate Institute of Management, a prestigious university postgraduate institute in Sri Lanka. Heads of organisations have also been convinced about the vital role of CIOs as their helpers and change agents and that they are not another layer of bureaucracy that hinders organisation’s management.
‘Information’ plus ‘innovation’ gives more credibility and power to CIOs to change organisations. However, today’s excessive loads of information – both relevant and irrelevant – have made our work more complex. In that sense, CIOs should prioritise separation of information that is essential and lead towards innovative applications that help reduce costs and waiting time and increase credibility.
Even without a high level of ICT knowledge, a public official can become a CIO, for which the ICTA provides necessary training regularly. Enthusiasm is the key to becoming a successful CIO. He or she must be curious about developments in other countries. Adopting simple but effective measures would open doors towards more complex and advanced solutions, which are usually developed with the assistance of ICTA.
Future plans
Let me in conclusion say a few words about our next set of initiatives very briefly and where we intend to go in the future. We will successfully complete the first phase of the e-Sri Lanka development programme by the end of this year. Almost 50% of its funds have been invested in the Reengineering Government component.
Expansion of the Lanka Government Network (LGN), developing more online payment facilities under Lankagate, issuing visas online, grievance handling through the Government Information Centre (GIC 1919), facilitation of exports and imports using ICT solutions, and increased use of SMS with e-Gov applications are some of the key areas we would concentrate on. Representatives of ICT Agency will give a detailed account of these areas during this two-day forum.
Thank you and wish you all a great future!

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