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May 27, 2020

The challenges and opportunities of e-Govt reform

By James Owen

For years, when Kyaw Htet set out for work before dawn, he feared oncoming cars and trucks. It was too dark to see clearly in Mawlamyine, where the street lights go out at 5:30 AM, almost an hour before sunrise in January. Kyaw Htet had recently learned of a new way to highlight issues to the local authorities. He took out his phone, downloaded an application and reported the problem. Within a week, the Engineering Department fixed the problem on all four main streets in the city. Welcome to Myanmar in the 21st century.
The first inroads into e-Govt have been made by forward thinking local officials. They have introduced ICT systems to improve processes and interactions with the public, with much of the innovation occurring in cities. The Taunggyi municipality talks with 12% of the city’s population through its Facebook page and has launched a Facebook Messenger ChatBot to streamline issue reporting. MCDC has AI-assisted traffic management and YCDC has introduced an online construction permit process. In Bago citizens can text in feedback on government services and the Kayah GAD is testing ways to digitalize paper-based record keeping.
Alongside these pioneering local experiments, the Union government is rolling out the ‘Myanmar e-Governance Master Plan’. The plan sensibly contains a strategy that calls for testing within cities as part of learning from initiatives within Myanmar and abroad. It identifies a pipeline of priority national ICT procurements and has set up governance structures. State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi acts as “patron” of its Steering Committee and recently argued that e-Government has a “crucial role in implementing sustainable development and poverty alleviation”.
In tandem, States and Regions have begun conducting large scale e-government tenders to buy up hardware and software that ranges from data centers to fingerprint scanners and digital revenue management systems.
These initiatives are encouraging and there is a lot of excitement in these early phases of reform. Yet all must deal with the unfortunate reality that around the world many government ICT projects fail. According to a US survey of ICT projects, government projects had a dismal 18% success rate (compared to 59% in the retail sector).
Sometimes these failures incur phenomenal costs to taxpayers. The UK government’s National Health Care Records Service was initially budgeted at GBP 4.6 billion but because the cost and scope was underestimated the budget rose to GBP 24 billion. That cost overrun is ten times what the Myanmar Union government plans to spend on education and health in 2019-20!

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 Taunggyi City Development Committee’s Facebook ChatBot allows residents to report issues in a few clicks in their Facebook Messenger app, without having to speak to an official.

So should the government just give up on e-Govt reform? Well no, e-Govt can be transformational, improving services and supporting wider public sector reform. But success will hinge on (a) a widespread understanding of the typical reasons for failure (b) strategies to try and mitigate these and (c) greater realism about what can be achieved so early in Myanmar’s adoption of e-Govt. The government’s own Master Plan notes that “it is important to identify the causes of change management failure” and cites many of the typical reasons. Three common reasons for failure are complexity, commitment, and capture.
As the complexity of a project grows the risk that it fails will grow. A bigger scope, more stakeholders or more locations mean many more potential problems. These problems, and all their interconnections, are hard to anticipate and become harder to address as complexity grows.
Commitment and leadership from senior officials is essential and must be consistent over time. Implementation is critical and it requires constant oversight, direction and support. Some countries have created Chief Information Officers to steer reforms. Beyond the creation of a new position what is clear is that frequent changes in senior leaders or project managers can cripple projects.
Finally, government ICT projects risk being captured by well-connected business leaders in the ICT sector. Due to low ICT and technical capacity governments often turn to ICT businesses to help them plan projects and assess the quality of proposals, ignoring their potential vested interests. Inexperienced in ICT procurement officials favour larger ICT firms who they believe they can trust. This leads to a less competitive market with smaller more innovative providers pushed out. The US is now correcting for this mistake by modifying its procurement rules to ensure smaller firms have a fair chance.
These lessons from ICT projects around the world also resonate with our own experience of supporting e-Govt reforms in townships across Myanmar. Since 2015 The Asia Foundation has been working with township authorities to develop an ‘Integrated Township Management System’ (ITMS).
ITMS is a modular, complimentary system that includes digital tools to strengthen township administration at two levels. It supports individual township departments to carry out their core, routine work of planning, service delivery, administration, revenue collection and data collection. Additionally, it supports departments to break through their siloes and collaborate with one another and the communities they serve to solve the local problems that impact people’s everyday lives.
ITMS has evolved over time in response to user needs and many lessons learned from success and failure. To help government in its ambitious reform agenda, we’ve sought to document the lessons from ITMS’s evolution in ‘Developing Myanmar’s Local Data Ecosystem'[JO1]. A key insight is that continued space for local experimentation with e-Govt can help accelerate overall learning about what works in this context. When lessons are shared, they can act as the light to guide government as it sets off down the road of e-Govt reform.

James Owen is Urban Program Manager at The Asia Foundation, Myanmar. Urban program’s projects are supporting e-Govt reforms in 14 townships and cover 15 government departments.

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