The simple joys of digitization | Daily News

The simple joys of digitization

The digitization of the State apparatus is now official policy with the President’s Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera making a directive that all State transactions with the public be digitized as soon as possible. For example, the use of digital signatures on documents would be accepted by Departments, Corporations and other State business undertakings.

However, are the people of this country sanguine about these digitization prospects? Some may be but some may not, and if there is a certain cynicism, it is not without an adequate measure of justification.

The Sri Lankan system has been paper-based and excessively so. The recent quarantine measures are a good example. Though the Armed Forces did a splendid job of observing the necessary protocols scrupulously, those who returned from abroad or who were going abroad and were subject to various checks, were carrying paper vaccination, PCR Test and other certifications at every turn.

They had to secure various forms and have them rubber stamped and this was the norm and is the norm in any transaction in which the Government is involved. The use of paper is almost taken to be the necessary regimen – it is as if there is no acceptable procedure without the use of paper forms and applications.

Some officials – and this reference is with the exception of those in the Army and the other Forces – feel empowered sitting before a pile of papers wielding rubber stamps as if they were weapons with which they could rule over their petty fiefdoms. That is how the public service has been structured in this country – made to intimidate.

Perhaps it is a colonial hangover from the era in which the locals had to genuflect before appointed officials who had no mercy. History is witness to the era of the ‘anga badda’ or a poll tax or head tax which was levied on every individual basically on account of the mere fact that he or she was alive. If you lived and walked on Earth you paid this head tax to the government, and how justifiable was that?

But life and even death was thus ‘sanctified’. There was a marala badda or a death tax which was levied on every deceased person’s family upon the certification of death. When the entire edifice of colonial rule was so unfeeling, there is no doubt that humble people were made to cower before petty panjandrums, especially of the local variety that had been appointed by the rulers to do their bidding in return for favours granted.

Whether as a result of such an oppressive history or not, the administrative system in this country has for long being seen as operating against the interests of the individual with paper and rubber stamp wielding petty despots manning the desks and driving terror into hapless citizens who come before them to attend to necessary but tedious tasks.

In such a context, digitization of the State administrative apparatus is a giant leap if it can be accomplished to perfection. Mindsets have to change and that is mostly on the part of the officialdom and not ordinary people from those among the public ‘supplicants’ who would do anything to escape the torture of avoiding tedious paperwork, and the snarling officials who wield the forms and the authorization slips.

In neighbouring Maldives for instance the same quarantine procedures referred to at the beginning of this comment were accomplished, according to visitors there, with a simple bar code that served as a ‘digital passport’ whenever information was required at separate points in the checking process. All the officials had to do was to scan the bar code, and the passengers were able to go through.

The problem here in this country has been the natural resistance to devices such as bar codes, QR codes and other digital identifications. Petty panjandrums have felt that their power is taken away with technology, and they are not yet ready to give up on their little ego trips, lording it over the hapless public that come to them because they have no other choice.

We may sometimes be lacking in technology, but often that is an excuse. Provided the Government can supply the bare essentials such as bar/QR code generators and the necessary scanning machines, etc., the biggest challenge in digitizing public service counters would be to get the officers to use these systems efficiently without complaint about the power they have given away because of the gadgetry.

But the flip side of it is that once the systems are in place and their efficiency is seen by all, officials and members of the public, there is every chance that people would take these devices to be second nature. The humblest person is able to use an ATM these days or a Cash Deposit Machine (CDM) and this shows that if the technology is made available mindsets would change even with a little initial resistance from officialdom in particular.

It is better late than never and it is hoped the laudable new digitization drive would be a success despite some anticipated early difficulties.

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