As the IT consultant to the prime minister, could you tell us about the Government of Nepal’s vision for digital transformation, including but not limited to the Digital Nepal Framework, given the context of rural Nepal where not everyone has smartphones and access to the internet?
From the get go, the prime minister has embraced the slogan of ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepalis’. The question of a prosperous Nepal is linked with physical infrastructure. For happy Nepalis, we need to think about utilising the resources we have and easing access to public service. The prime minister has made it clear that tech-friendly public service will help citizens. In order to advance this agenda, the prime minister appointed an information technology advisor and digitised his Cabinet.
Believing that working in fragments won’t amount to much, we have come up with the Digital Nepal Framework. After deep discussions with all stakeholders, we have defined eight areas and 80 different initiatives. We have also readied a high-level document on how to transform public service using info-tech within a few years. We were affected by Covid-19 while implementing the framework but if we look at the time before the pandemic struck, the government has been approaching info-tech from three angles.
First, the government has formulated a policy to promote local IT companies, industries and human resource so as to ease the lifestyles of the people. Under this, we have a policy to discourage foreign software if there’s an alternative in the local market.
Another aspect is to make all of the government’s services tech-friendly. But there’s a gap between what we and the government call ‘tech-friendly’. Previously, the norm was to lead government offices to automation and make work inside the offices tech-friendly, but this was not helping service seekers, however easy it may have been for government employees. So now, we are designing a ‘Nagarik’ app so that all the government services are centralised. We expect that the app will solve nearly 50 percent of problems in government service.
The third aspect concerns promoting Nepali info-tech companies globally. India is famous for its outsourcing, the Philippines for its BPO work, and if any big company wants to open a branch in Asia, Singapore is their first choice. So we too are trying to take our info-tech sector to the global stage.
But in order to really make the country tech-friendly, infrastructure is essential. First comes physical infrastructure, which is being implemented by the Nepal Telecommunications Authority. Telecom service providers deposit two percent of their annual income to the Authority’s Rural Telecom Development Fund. The Authority then utilizes the fund to expand physical infrastructure across the country. The Authority has also requested Nepal Telecom and Ncell, two of the country’s leading mobile service providers, to provide 4G services to places where establishing physical infrastructure would be difficult. As of now, over 76 percent of the country’s population has access to the internet. The government is working to expand this number further and making info-tech services accessible to all.
The pandemic has only increased the importance of IT. How has the government used this opportunity?
The answer to this question lies in this year’s budget and the government’s policy and programmes. Both documents state the government’s aim to turn certain areas tech-friendly within a certain time frame. The government is working towards changing the modalities of businesses affected by the pandemic by turning them into info-tech friendly enterprises. Moreover, the government is also working to reduce the cost of IT services.
Even though the movement of people has been limited by Covid-19, the market has been ensuring that people receive basic services through the use of info-tech, and the government has been easing the process.
But how effective has the government’s use of information technology been? Has it increased efficiency and transparency? What are the challenges?
The government has three bodies through which it embraces info-tech: the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, the Information Technology department under the ministry, and the National Information Technology Centre. Of these three bodies, the info-tech department and national info-tech centre implement the decisions of the ministry.
The Financial General Comptroller’s Office has also been training accountants to implement a unitary system across all of its offices across the country. But for other offices, the system has yet to be used. Because of the lack of a unitary system, the government’s investment might have doubled but the standard of the services has not increased accordingly. To improve this, we have asked all of the country’s local units to use a single mobile app, the ‘Nagarik’ app, which is being designed.
The private sector is a key partner in the development of information technology. How is the government planning to harness the concerns of the private sector?
In every country, the government assumes the role of a guardian. Governmental policies that are making functioning difficult should be discussed, but there’s a communication gap between the government and the private sector. What is the private sector trying to do and how is the government hampering it? How we can protect these companies? This should be discussed.
We need to identify the sectors whose solution can be found in Nepal, and protect local companies that offer these solutions. The government disbursed a total of Rs 2.6 billion in last year’s budget to subsidise startups. But that disbursement hit obstacles and now, the implementation is being done through the National Planning Commission.
E-commerce and digital payments have been booming since COVID-19. But there are increasing security concerns. How is government planning to ensure that digital transactions are safe and secure while also creating a favourable environment for the private and public sector?
Talking about monitoring, e-commerce businesses that operate solely via social media are more numerous than those that are registered with the trade department. We need to discourage these social media-centric operations and bring them into the mainstream. Now that the trade department itself is running an e-commerce site, the government believes that it will come forward to monitor the e-commerce ecosystem.
What are the government’s strategies on making digital technologies accessible to all, including persons with disabilities and those from remote areas with no access to reliable internet?
The government believes that facilities for persons with disabilities should be provided to all, not just those in the info-tech sector. Info-tech can be a tool to ease the lifestyles of the visually impaired and those with disabilities. The government aims to design its info-tech services focusing on the needs of those with disabilities. Many government web sites have been made disabled friendly and the government will also work to encourage the private sector to adopt similar methods.