How Covid-19 lockdown triggered a positive change in Nepal’s e-governance system and digital economy
In line with the global trend of digitalization, Nepal has made a remarkable progress in the field of information and communications technology (ICT) in the past few years. However, some reports show that the state is lagging behind in engaging, designing or delivering innovative development solutions in the evolving landscape.
Things seem to be changing during the Covid times.
During the months of nationwide lockdown, e-governance has been widely in use in coordination with various arms of government at national and local levels, development partners and private sector. E-governance and digital economy have not just served the general public during the crisis, but also ensured efficiency, transparency and reliability of services at affordable costs.
At a time when paper-based records and data keeping system are still prevalent in Nepal, few reforms have been brought with the use of innovations. But lack of accessibility, poor literacy rate and poverty, and lack of willingness of both the governments and citizens to use e-governance stand as challenges.
Many experts believe that if there was no pandemic, many municipal and village councils would not opt for remote services despite years of hard work to implement electronic service delivery models. Ekendra Lamsal, who works as an e-governance consultant for provincial and municipal governments, shared: “From simple examples of online passes, citizen's queries to the government entities, technology based delegation and approvals using some sort of remote technology, they all pass some message which shows that remote service delivery is possible. Citizens want e-governance.”
He added that some otherwise reluctant municipalities are also investing in IT and e-governance infrastructure even during the pandemic, which in long run will definitely change how these municipalities function.
“E-governance modalities have now been expanded to citizen engagement and awareness, from social media campaigns to remote meetings, conferences and even to monitor community and development activities,” said Lamsal, who has already worked as an e-governance expert for the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration.
Nepal has explored several possibilities in e-governance. Application of e-governance models in transforming tax collection, use of drones to provide basic healthcare to people living in remote mountainous regions, use of e-education, innovation of earthquake warning systems, e-building permit systems and iData, application of e-governance tools in local governments, use of an automated case handling system for legal affairs, the list goes on. If bureaucratic efficiency is focused on technology-driven reforms and the public sector is reformed in line with other Asian countries transitioning from the industrial to the information age, Nepal can reap a lot of benefits.
The government has established Integrated Information Technology Center which operates in collaboration with the local governments to facilitate the easy access of government services to the public through information technology.
Ramesh Adhikari, National Program Manager of Provincial and Local Governance Support Program (PLGSP) under Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration, shared that policy level foundation has already been laid for e-governance.
The government has deployed IT Officers in all 753 local units, which means that local governments are ICT-friendly and have adopted open government concept. Though the human resource is limited, they are aware of the technical know-how which has eased the service delivery. The PLGSP has been in regular touch with all the local units in a single click, be it toll free numbers, emails or through websites. It conducted many virtual meetings and workshops, issued directives and shared working modalities during the pandemic.
“During the lockdown, ICT became a significant tool for service delivery. Particularly, it is used for tracking and data management of returnee migrants, managing quarantines and health facilities and in distribution of relief materials to the needy,” said Adhikari. “We are also working in a common modality in the area of need assessment framework regarding impacts of COVID-19 and solutions.”
The parliament remained closed for long time due to the lockdown. It could have been opened virtually, suggested Adhikari, adding “Nepal's bureaucratic channels don’t believe in ICT much, which is very unfortunate.”
According to PLGSP, around 400 local units, out of total 753, are actively participating in the government's digital mechanism. Compared to others, Province 2 has less data entry in their system.
Waling Municipality in Gandaki Province is one of the municipalities that has been using e-governance effectively. The municipality uses online method for providing services like birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, and relationship recommendation letters among others. According to Dilip Pratap Khand, Mayor of Waling Municipality, almost all the services have gone online during the pandemic.
“We are connected with all our 14 wards of municipality in terms of e-governance. Many of them are using both app and email to provide services to the public. At a time when people were not able to get out of houses due to the lockdown, the online service worked as a boon. It's very easy and effective,” Khand said.
The municipality hasn’t recorded any data on how many people took the service through online system. Stating that the use of online services has been increased by around 15 percent due to the pandemic, Khand said that there is a lack of awareness among the general public.
“We are trying to raise awareness and guide them through the process with the help of our IT officers, through website, local media dissemination among others. It will take some time to fully adopt the online system,” he added. Besides, the municipality has been using digital signature as well, which has been practiced more in the last nine months.
Dhangadi Sub-Metropolitan City has a similar story to tell. Sushila Mishra Bhatta, Deputy Mayor, informed that many of their services like transactions and revenue collection have been digitized during the pandemic to make them more accessible, inclusive, efficient and transparent.
She informed that the officers have been working tirelessly to provide regular services online and to update all their activities and updates in website. “Our all 19 wards are connected digitally. We are promoting citizen-state engagement even during pandemic,” she said.
They have been providing all the necessary information to the public through a separate data portal covering information on COVID-19, isolation and quarantine centers, medical stores, relief distribution details, funds received from different quarters, among others. In addition, they have also added a segment where people can send their health details and do the self-test of virus. “We also use Crisis Management Information System web portal and IMS app,” she said.
Private sector steps up
For the IME Pay, a payment gateway and an advanced digital wallet, the lockdown period was a golden opportunity to boost its service. Its customers used the service not just for paying regular utility bills and making online purchases, but also for remittance and COVID-19 insurance.
IME Pay introduced remittance services with the intention to bring remittance into the digital streamline. The app now allows users to receive remitted money instantly and securely into their wallets, both domestically as well as internationally.
Saurav Ojha, Business Development Manager of IME Pay, informed, “Our customer growth has increased by almost 300 percent in the last few months. The pandemic flourished our business as we provided a wide range of services to the customers using digital payments. Among others, food delivery sites like Foodmandu and Bhoj Deals were most popular.”
Similarly, other service providers like Khalti and eSewa facilitated the online payment solutions for a range of services. Their business increased during the lockdown enabling people to ease their lives through online service.
Amit Agrawal, CEO of Khalti, shared that they tried their best to ease the lives of people during the global crisis by providing service.
One sector that received tremendous response from the customers was food-based e-commerce sites. At a time when people were locked up inside houses, these platforms operated through websites, mobile apps or even phones and served the pandemic-hit locals including food enthusiasts.
Green Growth continued its local and organic vegetables and fruits delivery service throughout the lockdown period. The private firm took a break for a single day to plan on the production and delivery modalities and operated right from the next day. While all the department stores and grocery shops were closed, Green Growth not just continued the service, but received more demands from the consumers.
Saurav Dhakal, curator and founding member of Green Growth, shared that their business increased by 20-25 percent in the initial days of pandemic. According to him, e-commerce businesses should consider user experience and quality consistency as well. “Our digital infrastructures are poor, while the payment system is city-centric. We are only half-way in the digital world.”
National Payment Gateway system is being set up to operate to help integrate electronic transactions. It is bringing all kinds of government and private transactions, international payments, private digital wallets and card transactions under one payment gateway.
Nepal launched Digital Nepal Framework in 2018 under the theme 'Unlocking Nepal's Potential' with an aim to use digital technology in at least eight major sectors through 80 digital initiatives. The ambitious blueprint is designed to support Nepal to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The identified eight sectors are agriculture, health, education, energy, tourism, financial services, connectivity and urban infrastructures.
According to Anil Kumar Dutta, Joint Secretary at Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology, Digital Nepal Framework is a game-changer project for Nepal as it will highly contribute in social-economic transformation of Nepal. “It is estimated to save government's 800 billion budget in the course of five years,” Dutta expressed optimism.
He informed that the government has already launched innovative programs and policies to facilitate those initiatives, while it has also allocated budget in the current fiscal year for other programs. “We already have a mobile application dedicated to all the local bodies, among which around 200 local units have used them. Now, we are developing a citizen mobile app that will provide all the information related to government services at a single click. At the same time, we plan to include internet as a basic service in the future,” Dutta shared.
Krishna Hari Baskota, Chief Information Commissioner of National Information Commission, is personally satisfied with the ongoing development in e-governance. He outlined a few remarkable changes. “Prime Minister's Office has adopted automation system, Public Procurement Monitoring Office has been working for e-bidding and OGC, Finance Ministry's budget and economic survey is in form of Open Government Data (OGD), NEPSE is in online form, provision of digital signature, with necessary tax reduction, record of retired government officials and pension within banking system, voters list under Election Commission in line with OGD standard, Real time gross settlement system launched by Nepal Rastra Bank, among others,” he mentioned.
Baskota, who has served the government for decades, believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has provided opportunities in different avenues like formal education, banking transactions, government services and token system through electronic means, property pass, industry registration, insurance work, share market based on automation among others.
The former government officer points out the obstacles like lack of internet accessibility, no smart cell phones, lack of information about online services, and inadequate investment from the government side for raising awareness about the importance of digital systems as the hurdles. He believes that all transactions of economic sectors should be done online while all shops should do the sales through QR codes. “The government should move ahead in the OGD model,” Baskota suggested.
One stop shop
Nepal needs a proper mechanism to expand e-commerce activities and public service delivery. There is a need to utilize resources to design, test, adapt and scale up technology for new development solutions.
E-governance experts believe that the government has to establish a one stop public delivery service online under the leadership of Prime Minister. They suggest that Nepal should integrate all public services where people can get official documents like citizenship and passport, birth, marriage and divorce certificate, national identity card, land certificate through one stop shop.
Sunil KC, Vice Chairman of Nepal-India Chamber of Commerce and Industries, who regularly writes on digital economy, is of the view: “One stop public delivery will help Nepal to become a leader in e-Governance services and to help in its mission of achieving zero tolerance corruption.”
He remarked that the factors like poor ICT infrastructures, lack of financial resources, low skilled human resource, policy gap and technology import should be considered, and most of all, there should be government's commitment and proper monitoring mechanisms.
Manohar Bhattarai, a senior ICT policy expert and strategist, points out lack of coherent e-governance strategy between the government bodies or ministries and lack of integrated approach.
“Digital transactional activities should be increased, while security threats should be minimized. In regard to pandemic, the government missed an opportunity to work more on e-governance. It could have benefitted more from the information technology perspective be it in testing or tracing, Bhattarai, who is also the former Vice Chairperson at high level commission for IT, remarked.
The digital governance that includes the new technologies like mobile devices, internet and social media and cloud computing can provide huge opportunities to Nepal for economic development, particularly in the post pandemic world. It can make the government services more transparent, inclusive, accountable and citizen-centric. For a small economy like Nepal, having a complete e-governance structure might not be possible right now but adopting a formal structure and developing a plan to integrate e-governance is definitely going to be helpful.