July 28, 2021 Sujeev Shakya

Making digital transformation work

Last week, a photograph of people queuing up at the Shukraraj Infectious and Tropical Disease Hospital at Teku to get a certificate saying that they have been vaccinated filled newspaper front pages and social media posts. It was not that the people had not been given vaccination certificates, but they had been given ones that were not internationally acceptable as they did not conform to international norms, neither were they in English. In most countries, the vaccination process has been through registration online, getting appointments online and even getting certificates online. However, in Nepal, we like to ensure that the digital process does have manual intervention.

The same goes for the online registration when one fills out the form. First, the site does not work most of the time as one gets the “Your session has expired” message. The barcode on the form is never scanned on arrival. Rather, there is another manual set of records that are again handwritten. A handwritten chit with the name of the hotel is given. That is the basis of getting oneself through arrival. Similarly, for vaccination, people were asked to fill the forms online, but the vaccination process has never asked anyone to bring the code that was generated. This basically shows how far off we are from internalising the digital process.

Why we can’t go digital

There are four reasons for our reluctance to go digital. First and foremost, the manual process allows human intervention, which means money can change hands or one can influence the process. For instance, digital scanning of locked containers at the customs means that there is no way the people can make money, so the best way is to ensure that the machine does not work. Similarly, when procurement processes are underway, it is not unusual for the server to crash as a manual substitute to the process can bring about much needed manual intervention. At the Registrar of Companies, it is rare to see the system work as there is no money to be made by touts and officials if the system works fool proof.

Second, it is our love for documents. Even in banking and financial services, where most of the stuff has gone digital and automated, everyone loves to have that copy of citizenship certificate or the manual form. In a year, I lose count of how many times I submit the same document to the same branch of the same bank. Yes, they also want to play safe as if any dispute goes to court, it wants everything on pieces of paper. So, you may be doing all sorts of transactions digitally; but if something goes wrong and you have to go to court, it is only the manual documents that count.

Third, our digital solutions have to be home-grown as protectionism has been key. Governments do not want imported software, and the local cartels know how to push local solutions. So we have a stock exchange solution that is so primitive compared to the contemporary solutions that one can get from international service providers. Like international legal, accounting or consulting firms, we have serious issues with international solutions.

Finally, we do not believe in outsourcing. Globally, even the most sensitive digital work is being outsourced to competent firms. If there are some good companies that can manage issuing driving licences and vehicle registration solutions, outsource the process to them. If there are companies that can manage digital identity for financial purposes—get them on board.

Our taxation system is less complicated than that of our neighbours, and the system is pretty robust given how many points there are of manual intervention. Yes, leakages continue; but for companies that would like to do business in a clean manner, the system is pretty well oiled, and one can manage a good part of one’s tax management without human intervention. Similarly, the passport issuance system has worked well. It could be better, but given the volume handled, it is pretty efficient. We need to learn from what works.

In Rwanda, the entire government to citizen service is through a digital platform Irembo. This has made services efficient as one can pay for everything from passport, driving licence and PCR test to trade fees through this portal. There is no manual intervention anymore. The government of Rwanda is aware of the digital divide; and many of the services can be availed even if one is using a basic phone and does not have a smartphone. To make this service reach its citizens, the government is now introducing a subsidy scheme for people to be able to buy basic versions of smartphones. Unlike in Nepal, where people move back to cash from digital payment after the lockdown ends, in Rwanda, digital payment has proliferated during the pandemic. It is also about the mindset of adoption.

Digital transformation is the only way ahead as we are literally living in two worlds. In one world, we use the most advanced social media platforms, watch content over platforms, use email and other software platforms like any other citizen in the world. We chat on the most advanced platforms that are being updated and improved in real time. We are very good at doing that! However, when it comes to providing services or availing services, we like heritage variety—go manual, avoid digital. This mindset has to change as it is not the challenge of using technology, but about the mindset to make it work for day-to-day stuff also.

If one can get into the intricacies of creating VPN to access pornography or find free sites to watch a game of football or favourite movie, they should be able to manage the system to apply for driving licences online and get it delivered to one’s doorstep.