While in Colombo for the FutureGov Sri Lanka Forum, I had the opportunity to interview the Minister of Public Management Reforms, the Honourable Navin Dissanayake MP.
“Sri Lanka has emerged from nearly 30 years of conflict, and ICT can take us into the 21st century – delivering social equity and participation in all regions of the country, in particular for Rural Youth in the North and East,” he said at the start of his address to the forum. “In the 1990s India and China opened up their borders, and many countries aligned their economies to take advantage of the opportunities. ICT is the central building block to make a dynamic leap forward; we need to invest in education to ensure that we have the future workforce to develop our economy and seize these opportunities.”
“We have passed legislation that will allow private institutions to increase the number of university places available to educate our youth in ICT, and gain qualifications from basic skills to support the BPO and programming sectors, through to professional degrees. Sri Lankan membership of CIMA, the international institute for management accountants, is the second highest, after the UK; we can aim to repeat that in the ICT sector.”
Politics has always been part of Mr Dissanayake’s life - he is the eldest son of the great political leader late Hon Gamini Dissanayake who was assassinated in 1993 during the presidential election campaign, and his grandfather was also an MP.
He has a clear view of the importance of ICT in government: “ICT can be used to take government to the people, deliver a more efficient public service, and create transparency in important government functions like procurement. Our public service is a legacy from the British Colonial era, and we need to upgrade it to the 21st century; ICT is a crucial enabler to re-engineer government for user friendly service, less corruption, more transparency and citizen satisfaction.”
“There should be a Government Reform Cell in each government agency, and I will visit agencies with the Secretary of my Ministry to help you set things up” he told the attendees at the Forum. “As CIOs, you are the Chief Innovation Officers, and you should work with ICTA (the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka) to raise the level of public service performance and dynamism. You can expect us to provide a Blueprint but the ideas for change need to come from within each agency. The role of the CIO is to lead and direct ICT strategy, implement world class systems, maintain information systems security, and share systems and investments.”
The Minister understands the extent of change that is needed. “Our people are used to orders being given and staff being told what to do, but I do not think there will be resistance to new ideas. It is very important to gather feedback from our staff and the unions, and use the many modern tools that are available to gather ideas.”
He is pleased with the progress that has already been made in ICT certification, and says that this needs to be extended to all public servants – such as class 3 and 4 public servants in rural areas. This will be an important foundation for the culture change needed to adapt to the new opportunities and meet the aspirations for growth and social equity: “Only 10% of our youth currently attend university, and this needs to improve - rural youth need more opportunities, and ICT is the key.”
Government reforms need to consider how mobile technology can be used to connect government with citizens – the country has nearly 90% uptake of mobile phones, compared to 10% with internet connections. “We have seen what can happen when you open up the industry to five or six mobile companies – we need monopolies to give up some of their traditional rights in the interests of national progress.” The private sector is an important part of the government reform programme – ICT companies can work with government to deliver better results for citizens, helping agencies become more efficient and transparent. The Minster is an active user of technology, using both Blackberry and iPhone, so that he can use the best features of each.
The government officials I met during my time in Colombo have a commitment and energy that can deliver his bold vision for government operations.
“ICT is a game changer – we need to use it to bridge the gap to the future.”
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