December 12, 2022 Sujeev Shakya

Of passports and driving licences

The new folks in Parliament should work at making services easily accessible to win the next elections.

The story that we hear most often in Nepal now is of people travelling to Kathmandu from different parts of the country and outside to get their passports made. People queue up at government offices to get a National ID, correct their date of birth, or simply figure out how to apply for an appointment at the passport office. My niece from Dharan has been trying for months just to find a slot and get her passport made. Touts have approached her with offers to expedite the process for a fee of Rs5,000 to Rs6,000. Many people find it cheaper to pay them rather than lose money taking a leave of absence from work and spending on hotel bills. 

In Nepal, when we say that services are online, it surely means that we have to stay “on line” for hours, if not days. This has benefited hundreds of touts who give hope of expedited services for exorbitant fees, people who run shops to fill out application forms, and hotels that are super happy that people are coming and staying for days while they wait for their passports. 

Interactions between citizens and the government are minimal, and there are very few services that the citizens seek from it. Citizenship certificates, driving licences, National IDs and passports are the basic documents issued by the state. There are birth and death certificates, registration of property, and of course, tax or foreign exchange-related matters. For corporates and organisations, there are compliances to fulfil and certificates to get. So, it is not very complicated. However, political parties colluding with bureaucrats and business people have made getting services a big nightmare. The system and processes have enough loopholes for people to make some quick bucks. They are also used as a mechanism for people with protection or agents of political parties or government staff to work as touts. While there are good Samaritans in the various offices that go out of their way to help people, citizens complain against most of them. 

Where is the problem?

The problem begins in the design and procurement processes of the system. There are business people, generally commission agents connected to political parties, who suggest to the government what software or system to get. Then the procurement system is designed to ensure that these companies qualify to design and deliver. Quality is not a priority, nor good service. The priority is to get low quality stuff supplied at the highest cost. If Nepalis were to be judged from the mugshots on their driving licences or passports, Nepal would seem like a country filled with ugly convicts. This stems from the low quality cameras which would have been supplied at a high cost. 

The system is also designed with nationalism in mind, so it has to be a home-grown solution and not some tried and tested international solution. Even if international solutions are used, they are always tweaked to make them mato suhaundo (in other words, converted to create loopholes). This happens despite grants for these projects coming from international multilaterals like the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Interestingly, when one reads the ADB reports, it seems the projects have been implemented successfully. 

Many countries have moved to deliver government services digitally and provide an enabling environment. In Rwanda, the Irembo platform has been used as a central platform to pay taxes and obtain paperwork ranging from passports and visas to driving licences. Some kiosks can help with the services for those who find it difficult to use computers, and they charge a nominal fee. 

For Nepal, it will be good to explore how the local ward offices can be used efficiently to deliver services to those who have challenges to get online or need help. The active involvement of ward-level local governments allowed Nepal to conduct one of the best Covid-19 vaccination drives in the world, and we have to see how we can replicate this success.

Top priority

Leaders of political parties and parliamentarians have spent enough time in the past decades fighting internal political battles and talking about big things. In the last five years, the Oli government tweaked the map of Nepal, and promised trains and waterways. The Deuba government does not even remember what they promised to deliver. If these governments had spent time understanding citizen grievances and addressing them, they would have fared better in the election. 

For the new faces in Parliament, especially from the new parties, it will be good to start thinking about how to make our government accountable to deliver better services to the citizens. They can form shadow committees. If parties or leaders can work on this, and make simple tasks like getting a passport or driving licence more accessible, they have a better chance of doing well in the next elections. So, it is time for the new Parliament to consider its priorities. 

If the new folks in Parliament really think they care about these issues, then it will be good to form a group to study what went wrong in past government projects relating to citizen service. We are always there to help and volunteer.

Read the full article on The Kathmandu Post:

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