Podcast 🎧 & blog: Limited internet access can’t stop e-service development
The title of this blog & podcast may sound like a paradox, but there is much, much more to it. In this episode of the Digital Government Podcast, we return to the Asian islands – southeast in the continent – to address public service development in Timor-Leste.
Piret Saartee, a Senior Expert on Smart Governance, was part of the team that drew up our study on the path to creating effective service centres in the country. With her, we dig into why limited network reach shouldn’t hold back e-governance projects, and how Timor-Leste aims to give its citizens one-stop shops to access services.
Tailoring service delivery to regional specificities
As in previous cases with insular regions, Timor-Leste too is characterised by geographic specificities that call for a diverse take on achieving effective service delivery. The government is aware of that, and the e-Governance Academy, in cooperation with local experts and backed by the United Nations Development Programme, investigated into how to overcome such obstacles.
“Timor-Leste is an amazing country, the nature is breathtaking. Institutionally speaking, it has a few points of contact with Estonia – it’s a young nation, of about 1.3 million people. This means that the government can’t afford to have a very large public sector. So they have to think how to act in a cost-efficient way when we talk about governance in general,” Saartee begins with.
“There are lots of rural and remote areas, as well as problematic connections between the capital and the rest of the country during the rainy season. But people still need access to government services, of course. So the government decided to decentralize service provision, bringing service centres closer to where people are. How to do that efficiently was at the heart of our study,” Saartee says.
The journey towards a one-stop-shop approach
Looking at previous experience in six different countries – from Bangladesh to Estonia, through Kazakhstan and other nations in Southeast Asia – one thing was clear from the get-go. “Getting to a one-stop shop is not a one-time project, but a process of evolution. You must start by providing information about services, what people can get through them, and all in one place.” For example, in the case of a commercial license: do I need to speak to different agencies to get it? Yes; then all of them could at least be located in the same building.
Then, further down the road in service development, we can start focusing on creating a single door to benefit from the government’s back office work. “Meaning that I, as a client, wouldn’t be concerned with how many ministries or authorities operate behind the scene to ultimately provide a service. I would like to talk to one of them only, while these interact with each other, verify and exchange information, and return to citizens with a process outcome,” Saartee explains. “Developing public services takes time. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.” But that’s the way to get to an integrated portal with the semi-automated service provision – the last level of this process, so to say.
A digital government where the internet can’t be a basic right
But if citizens can’t always and easily reach government offices, how could the government get closer to them? Infrastructure development, over there, is not just a matter of last-mile delivery – “We are talking about all the previous miles too,” Saartee specifies. Not to mention that connectivity, in places like this, definitely also comes at a cost.
Good examples come from established practices in other countries. “Take Kazakhstan: there are mobile service buses, meaning that once a week or a month, a bus heads to remote villages to pick up necessary documents. And the next time, you get your documents back,” Saartee highlights. Perhaps not an optimal solution, but definitely a creative way to mix modes of collecting relevant information and deliver an outcome.
“Even if getting to a government office might be difficult, or the last-mile service delivery happens more creatively, it doesn’t mean that the back office operations can’t be digital. The information systems in use should be digital because agencies make decisions based on data. And you can’t have good data quality with paper-based archives. This is what digital government projects, also, are about – building the necessary digital databases, systems and connections, to then find the best way to get to citizens,” Saartee concludes.