LIRNEasia’s Chair Professor Rohan Samarajiva participated as one of the speakers for the session on ‘Role of bureaucracy for a better Sri Lanka’ during the 35th Annual Conference of the Organization of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka (OPA), held on the 17th of August at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel, Colombo. He addressed the question of whether digitization can make Sri Lanka’s bureaucracy more effective.
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘bureaucracy’ as a system of government in which most of the important decisions are taken by state officials rather than by elected representatives. A second definition by the same spells out that it is essentially an excessively complicated administrative procedure. Prof. Rohan put the term into context by drawing attention to two phenomena from the recent past that the Sri Lankan bureaucracy should have dealt with: the fuel crisis – a direct product of the debt crisis brought about by government negligence – and the vaccination drive of early 2021. He dived into the expected bureaucratic responses to these two crises and the actual responses to them, which he then contrasted with the response to the fuel crisis through digitalization.
Many, including economists and even some bureaucrats (to their credit), identified and attempted to intervene when Sri Lanka’s debt was reaching unsustainable levels long before the crisis enveloped the country. As a result of the government’s refusal to acknowledge the crisis and restructure the debt, the country was brought to its knees. Perhaps the most prominent symbols of the crisis were the queues. Queues for gas, for kerosene, for food, for fuel and even for passports. Most that ventured out into the streets witnessed fuel queues lining the roads for kilometers and people spending hours and days in them, an inescapable sign of the cesspit that the economy has tumbled into. In light of this, what was expected of the bureaucrats were measures to mitigate the fuel queues. One could reasonably expect them to present contingency plans for potential levels of fuel availability, which could have then led to a rationing system considering the supply side constraints. However, there exists no evidence of this being done. Which is to say, the bureaucrats failed to respond as expected.
Cue the entry of the ICTA and a set of software engineers working on a voluntary basis at the request of the Minister of Power and Energy. In late June or the beginning of July, these tech workers began working on a solution to the problem of rationing fuel supply in an efficient manner. The traditional system of building state-sector software that involves rigid and complex tender procedures could never have yielded a working software in a few weeks. These complications were foregone as a team of close to 100 professionals including software engineers worked to develop the system quickly. The resulting system was not perfect, but it has worked. Within two weeks a complex system was built. This consisted of two subsystems (one for the fuel station operators and another for the vehicle owners) which had to be connected to databases in multiple government agencies and companies.
A main feature of the system is flexibility. Based on iterative design, the system is not a finished product. It can constantly be improved upon as problems are identified and additional requirements are proposed. A host of features are still underway, such as considerations for higher quantities of fuel for full-time taxi drivers, other fuel quota revisions and even the detection of leakages – based on data from IOC depots which reveal the quantity of fuel dispatched, which could then be compared to the quantity of fuel that is actually issued from a fuel station. The response of ICTA extended to the length of training fuel pump operators to use the system across the country and a dedicated direct line open to customer care, which can be accessed by dialing 1919. This is a case of successful government response that came about not because, but despite, the bureaucracy. This was possible with the aid of digitalization.
Juxtapose the fuel rationing solution with that of the deployment of COVID-19 vaccinations. As the COVID-19 pandemic came about in early 2020, it was known that the vaccines would be scarce. The Health Ministry bureaucracy responded to this crisis effectively, and by February of 2021 we had vaccine deployment plans that had been prepared using broad consultation. However, the vaccine deployment plan of the government was kept secret and is nowhere to be found on the public domain. The Speaker and others had repeatedly called for its publication but had no success. This lack of transparency becomes not quite strange when put into context. Vaccines had to be administered based on priority groups such as front-line healthcare workers, people living with chronic diseases, and those over 65. While the vaccine deployment plan was a requirement for Sri Lanka to receive free vaccines, the structure developed by Health Ministry bureaucrats was altered due to political directives during the actual deployment process, thus violating the original terms. This is a case of successful bureaucratic response botched by the actions of politicians.
In conclusion, presented above are two scenarios: one, where bureaucracy works but is sabotaged by politicians; the other, where bureaucracy fails but other parties rise to the challenge. There are many ways bureaucracy can be made more efficient through digitalization – by means of faster procurement, iteratively designed systems that are more malleable to adjustments, and by leaving less room for the possibility of external manipulations. These are considerations for organizations and agencies as they work on rapidly developing, efficient systems that the public expects and deserves to benefit from through the bureaucracy.