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Eyeing Third World leadership Bangladesh embraces e-Governance in earnest

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Bangladesh, as a developing Third World nation, has understood the crucial importance of e-Governance and the strong prospects that it holds in steering the country on the path of progress if successfully implemented. Cooperation from government officials and staff would be crucial in realising the goals of modernising Bangladesh through e-Governance.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest, most densely populated, least developed countries in the world. Apart from its lowly economic status, major impediments to growth have included frequent cyclones and floods, as well as the inefficiency of its state-owned enterprises and the slow implementation of much-needed economic reforms. However, despite its numerous difficulties Bangladesh is determined to make strides particularly in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector. The country is putting in extensive effort towards building the ICT infrastructure and the regulatory reforms in the sector.

The ICT industry in Bangladesh has come a long way in last several decades. An exponential growth is being experienced by the industry in recent years, and its presence being strongly felt both in the public and private sector in the country. Some of the major driving force of the industry include increasing availability of computers (PC import in the country has been growing by more than 35% during last five years; current number of PCs stands at 1.5 million), widespread Internet availability (nearly 1 million Internet users) and the recent explosion of telecommunication network across the country (number of mobile connection projected to reach 10 million from the current 3 million in next three years; more than 20 PSTN license issued to private sector Telecommunication companies in recent months and average growth of number of connections is also projected more than 200% for next years). But, perhaps the most important factor in the continuing development of the sector is the presence of a large number of good quality software application development houses (more than 350 companies with 15,000+ programmers & technical staffs).

Notably, the ICT industry in Bangladesh is thriving in a positive business environment. The legal and policy framework for the industry is already in place. A very high level Task Force for ICT sector has been constituted under the leadership of the Prime Minister for monitoring its development and formulating of action plans. Different Ministries and agencies of the Government have already initiated e-Governance projects. The existing government policy of allocating minimum 2% of the Annual Development Budget for ICT procurement is a big encouragement for the industry. During recent times, the private sector organisational buyers are also increasingly emphasising on using ICT for tapping competitiveness in business, both at domestic and international market level. Increasing ICT use at both the public and private sector has initiated good demand situation for software and ICT services industry in the country. However, there are a number of problems confronting the ICT industry. These include very low telephone density, high charge of internet service providers, access of insignificant number of people to internet, the present low speed and efficiency of the communication system in the country, low pace of computerisation in various offices and sectors, and absence of cyber laws significantly.

Bangladesh ICT Policy

The ICT Policy in Bangladesh aims at building an ICT-driven nation comprising of knowledge based society by the year 2006. In view of this, a country wide ICT-infrastructure will be developed to ensure access to information by every citizen to facilitate empowerment of people and enhance democratic values and norms for sustainable economic development by using the infrastructure for human resources development, e-Governance, e-Commerce, banking, public utility services and all sorts of online ICT-enabled services. The Ministry of Science, and Information & Communication Technology have formulated the policy.

Conceptualisation of e-Governance

With the onset of information revolution, many developing countries have looked at Information Technology (IT) as a possible new tool to solve age-old problems of poverty, bad governance, and sluggish economic growth. While the developed countries have been able to benefit greatly from the wide use of IT, many developing countries are still grasping to make sense of how IT fits into their scheme of things or solving their problems. The trend is true in the case of e-Governance also. In Bangladesh, for the past some years there has been much talk going about e-Governance. Even some government offices have taken innovative steps towards certain e-Government projects. However, e-Governance, being a new concept for government officials, is being met with resistance and fear apart from having other infrastructure problems. Until now, the Government officials were used to the traditional bureaucratic works.

But the good news is that the government is taking e-Governance very seriously. The national ICT Task Force headed by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia herself has put great emphasis on identifying challenges in the implementation of nationwide e-Governance and on initiating pilot projects in various sectors of the government through a project called the Support to ICT Task Force (SICT), which is being implemented under the Ministry of Planning. Also, the Government of Bangladesh is getting substantial
foreign cooperation in terms of financial assistance and technical collaboration for realisation of e-Governance at a national scale.

Is Bangladesh ready for e-Governance?

e-Governance is no longer a matter of choice – it is a prime necessity of the day. ‘Whether e-Governance or Not’ is not the right question to ask any more. The appropriate question is ‘how soon and how smoothly can the transition to e-Governance take place’. However, Bangladesh is not yet ready for advanced e-Governance services, but it is fully ready for some basic building blocks. Low levels of teledensity, PC penetration and Internet access will be major bottlenecks to allowing citizens across Bangladesh to benefit from e-Governance. But with improved infrastructure facilities, these services can be taken to more and more remote parts of Bangladesh gradually. To assess Bangladesh’s readiness for

e-Governance, several dimensions need to be considered. These include ICT Infrastructure readiness, technological readiness, managerial readiness, legal readiness, human resource readiness, financial readiness and political readiness.

ICT Infrastructure Readiness: ICT infrastructure in the country is gradually expanding, but not at the rate expected or desired. A national backbone for internal connectivity has not been created yet. Plan for high-speed link to Global Information Superhighway is also stifled with slow progress. For e-Governance to be useful to the public, there has to be enough number of low-cost Internet access centers at public places throughout the country.

Technological Readiness: Local capacity is gradually building within the country. Local software companies are gathering experience and expertise to deliver largescale e-Government applications and then providing long-term maintenance and support.

1.  Total Population: 138,226,485. Source: Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics
2.  ITU Estimate, 2003
3.  Number of Telephone: Fixed – 1,007,450, Cell – 5,413,800, Total – 6,421,250 (as on 9 May 2005). Source: Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission
4.  The number of website registered with dot bd authority as on 30 April 2005. In Bangladesh, dot bd is not popular. Businesses and government agencies tend to use dot com and dot org domains.

Managerial Readiness: Building internal capacity within government offices to manage and own IT-related projects and coordinate the transition to e-Governance is still a serious challenge. Some government offices have successfully been able to form a process of management of IT systems within the government, but most are still grappling with the problem. There needs to be more coordination point among different IT-related projects and a central planning unit for e-Governance throughout the country. This central planning unit can be crucial in avoiding duplication of similar projects and ensuring a interoperable platform.

Legal Readiness: If e-Governance is to be incorporated fully within activities of the government, electronic documents need to be made acceptable officially and legally. Electronic correspondence also should be regarded as official. For purposes of digital certification and authentication, a Certificate Authority needs to be designated.

Human Resource Readiness: Most government offices with IT systems suffer from lack of maintenance due to shortage of skilled manpower. The IT systems generally get developed within the framework of external projects. As soon as the project finishes, the government is unable to retain much of the technical staff. For sustainability, planning and maintenance of IT systems, a mid-level officer with IT training needs to be officially designated as CIO (Chief Information Officer) who should have official duties to own and manage IT-related activities of that office in an official capacity. The job description of that particular CIO needs to be revised officially. It is also important to make that CIO not easily transferable so that he can gain ownership and experience in that particular organisation. The government should also take steps to hire a programmer and a system analyst for government offices that use IT systems. There should also be continual training programs for government officials and staff. To provide incentives for training, the government may give preference to IT knowledge for promotion.

Financial Readiness: Finding sources of funds for transition to e-Governance are the least of all the problems. The Government of Bangladesh is serious about it despite negative pressure from stakeholders. There are international agencies which are looking for opportunities to provide funding for e-Governance. But due to lack of internal capacity within government offices, in many cases, these funds are under-utilised and sometimes misused.

Political Readiness: Political will is perhaps the most important criteria for e-Government readiness. Without leadership, initiative and sometimes direct GO (Government Order) from the top,

e-Governance is impossible to implement. There are good indications that the government is currently very serious about implementing e-Governance in various sectors to increase efficiency, increase transparency and reduce corruption. The SICT Programme is representative of the government’s strong commitment to e-Governance.

Prospects of e-Governance in Bangladesh

Inadequate understanding about the issue of e-Governance is the key barrier to pursue the policy makers as well as to formulate national strategy. However, the potential remains largely untapped to date due to poor human, organisational and technological infrastructure and because of the inappropriate approaches taken by donors, vendors and the government. Currently, the emphasis of the private sector and donor initiatives has been basically on e-business and on non-governmental e-society that has left a large and growing opportunity gap around the other areas of e-Governance. These areas form the priorities for e-Governance initiatives at national level.

For e-Governance to succeed in developing countries ‘e-readiness’ must be built. This means strengthening infrastructure inadequacies must reduce the barriers to e-Governance, and the drivers must also be strengthened. The priority, therefore, is to build e-readiness in six key areas: awareness and commitment at a high level; enactment of new laws and regulation for enabling e-Governance; development of national strategy; setting up of key e-Governance institutions to plan and facilitate e-Governance projects; strengthening operational capacities to implement pilot projects in the area of human capacity, technology and data system and setting up of e-Governance pilot projects that focused on ‘net-worked government.’

e-Government Initiatives in Bangladesh

Some of the government agencies have already launched their websites. The official website of the Government of Bangladesh, www.bangladeshgov.org, currently contains links to President’s Office, Prime Minister’s Office, 8 ministries and 59 agencies. Some of these contain important documents like Budget, Census Data, Customs and Income Tax regulations etc. Almost all Ministries are currently using email facilities.

Bangladesh government has prepared a project “Electronic Governance in Bangladesh: Development of government Administration Information System” for establishing e-Governance system in 38 ministries and Divisions. Major activities under this project are:
• Each Ministry will be provided with necessary hardware, software, manpower, necessary broadband connectivity and LAN/WAN will be established among the ministries/divisions.
• Support to ICT Task Force (SICT) project
• 890 million Taka Project entitled “Support to ICT Task

Force” (www.sict gov.org) primarily for introducing e-Governance is being implemented by the Planning Commission under the Ministry of Planning. Initially 6 Divisional HQ, PM Office and some key ministries e.g. Health, Home Affairs, Land, Information, Labour, Expatriate Welfare, Foreign Affairs and Planning have been chosen to implement some basic electronic services (i.e. email, File Tracking, Document Sharing, Internet access) to visualise the part of a whole picture of e-Government.

Some of the major e-Government projects in Bangladesh are being outlined.  Ministry of Finance has customised software for budget planning, sensitivity analysis, impact analysis, financial projections and various reports. Much of the activities of National board of Revenue (NBR) has been computerised. NBR is computerising the revenue budget procedure. Both Dhaka and Chittagong Stock Exchange are highly computerised and networked, allowing citizens to trade with much more ease than before. Such as enhanced system of stock trading has contributed greatly to reduce corruption, to save time of businessmen, and to improve market responses.  The Ministry of Science and ICT is creating websites containing information about various ministries.

The Ministry

of Communication provides online searchable database of contractors, tenders. They have also created a Project Monitoring System for tracking progress of projects. They have databases of 9,011 bridge structures and 20,000 km roads. The Bangladesh Planning Commission is creating software for interfacing between development and revenue budget.

e-Governance Projects under the SICT Programme includes building ICT infrastructure throughout the country, better intra-governmental communication network through video-conferencing, email, digital library, electronic database etc., reducing digital divide by taking ICTs outside urban areas, empowering citizens through online utility services and through relevant information, enhancing democratic values by making the government more accountable and service-oriented to citizens and businesses, and encouraging sustained economic development through more efficient governance.

Some of the notable e-Government Projects in the pipeline include National Trade Portal by Ministry of Commerce/EPB, which will act as a trade gateway to Bangladesh for foreign buyers and sellers, and Online Tender by IMED.

Conclusion

From the above projects, it is clear that Bangladesh is positioning itself to be seriously moving towards e-Governance in a comprehensive way. This is a change, a transition that cannot be stopped since it is part of a global movement. Cooperation from government officials and staff will contribute to a smoother transition. Given the current high level of political commitment and largely adequate sources of funding, Bangladesh is likely to emerge as a leader in e-Governance soon among the third world countries.

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