19 November, 2017

Sri Lanka’s ICT Policy Gone ‘Off Road’

By Kamalika Gunawardena

Catalyzed by the energy generated by working together against an impending ‘Y2K issue’, the Sri Lankan IT industry came to its first stage of maturity at the turn of the millennium in a unique act of collaboration to forge an ICT Roadmap for the new decade. The resulting document was seen by many a donor as a strong indicator of the true potential of the industry hitherto not visible. The Roadmap document provided the impetus for the Sri Lankan government to be able to bring a well thought out plan for negotiating with the World Bank (among other donors) to accelerate the ICT industry through the subsequent e-Sri Lanka initiative.

To be sure it was during a UNP-led government that the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka was first setup to drive the e-Sri Lanka initiative to bring the dividends of ICT to every village and citizen in the country. The initial roadmap was further developed with input from best practice from around the world resulting in the e-Sri Lanka programme which was to be implemented by the ICT Agency in 2004. Built upon five thrust areas – the so-called ‘pillars’ of Re-engineering government, e-Society, Information Infrastructure, ICT investment and private sector development and ICT human resource capacity building, and held together by a sixth all-encompassing ICT Policy and Leadership component, the e-Sri Lanka project was arguably one of the more successful of the medium scale donor funded projects executed by Sri Lanka. One of the many reasons for success was the clear articulation of its aims and objectives to each of the stakeholder groups including the population at large. This success is all the more creditable considering that it was implemented during a turbulent period in the history of the country and survived several political upheavals even during the tenure of a single governing party.

The rigorous final evaluation report of the e-Sri Lanka programme found that the implementing agency performed more satisfactorily than the donor itself in making the overall outcome of the project moderately satisfactory. While recommending the discontinuing of some of the sub-programmes of the project, the report recommends that several of the sub-programmes should be continued owing to the positive outcomes they had already demonstrated, and their potential for taking Sri Lanka to the next level in terms of truly leveraging the benefits of ICT in accelerating its progress to middle income country status.

Ironically, today, under another UNP-led coalition, the e-Sri Lanka framework has been completely abandoned and ICT policy gone ‘off road’ without any coherent direction of progress. All the more ironic is the fact that some of the leaders of the original e-Sri Lanka initiative are MPs of the ruling party, albeit sidelined into ministries that don’t intersect with the ministry under which the ICT Agency resides.

Fortunately, the strong private sector industry bodies that came to be setup and get strengthened since the turn of the millennium, have now matured and become resilient to national politics. Their export targets for example and manpower engagement goals continue to be ambitious as they seek to make ICT Sri Lanka’s top export by 2022. However, anyone who has tried to work in any industry seriously, would know that even such a formidable lobby cannot be harnessed effectively for the development of the country, without the supportive framework of policy that needs to be set in place by the government. For all intents and purposes, it appears that the ICT Agency has abdicated its role as the government’s arm in setting the policy framework for the ICT industry.

Today, the ICT Agency is in shambles: with as much as some 64 independent and arbitrary projects in its ‘portfolio’, hundreds of employees recruited without any apparent rationale, the once ‘lean and mean’ agile agency appears to have gone down the path of other government departments which act mostly as employment agencies for their supporters. More seriously, the ICT Agency appears to have abrogated its responsibility of engaging with its main stakeholders leave alone the public at large.

Without any coherent ICT framework in place, the ICT Agency’s only saving graces are the few programmes that are still run by some of the original champions who dared to stay on after the regime change, and who continue to fight hard to obtain relatively meagre funds to keep those initiatives alive. The bulk of the funds however, appear to be allocated to projects that have no apparent overall goal that they contribute to.

So, why is the industry so silent? The ICT industry in Sri Lanka has got used to largely fending for itself, and not relying on the state. When the state did cooperate, the partnership flourished. Now that the state is in limbo with respect to ICT policy and direction, the industry has been forced to go into its usual ‘mind your own business’ mode. For all its merits, the ICT industry has one major flaw: it doesn’t articulate its opinion when the state machinery isn’t doing what it is supposed to. It isn’t used to playing this whistle-blowing role, so essential to a public who cannot be expected to understand by itself owing to the complex nature of the industry.

In the meantime, those making de-facto ICT policy in Sri Lanka within walls of private spaces (and force them on agencies such as the ICTA) continue in their march to nowhere land, unhindered.

The Author is an ICT industry professional who has worked with several governments through diverse challenges, worked towards regime change in 2014, but who is appalled by the current state of affairs with respect to this industry. Kamalika Gunawardena is a pseudonym

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Latest comments

  • 4
    0

    Not only the author but many had worked for a regime change even before 2014 but involved in the ICT are left behind and only the selected few are supposed to pilot the ICT industry (inclusive of those who are at the helm of ICTA). The tip of the iceberg is illustrated by the author in the paragraph starting with “Today, the ICT Agency is in shambles: with as much as some 64 independent and arbitrary projects ….”. According to those who are examining the financial state of affairs the real issue appears to be that monies given to the ICTA for a given purpose is instantly spent on some other purpopse. The 64 projects appear to be a cover for this exercise.

    ICTA had some good people. It worked as a real team. Its arrangements were excellent. But now!!!. Leave alone the 64 projects, what about the implementation of the free Wifi program? The google loon too appears to be in the doldrums. ICTA has seriously let down the Government and the Industry. The people within ICTA is too strong for the Minister to intervene. The highest in the Government (Both the President and the Prime Minister) should look into what on earth is going on.

  • 6
    1

    Keep up your good work Mr. Gunawardena!

    This pathetic story of development in REVERSE gear in Sri Lanka sounds familiar – unqualified and incompetent politicians who do not know what policy making, strategic planning, due diligence is, bringing in their cronies and marginalizing competent professionals.

    This is the reason there is a massive brain drain from the country, while Ranil Wickramasinghe and his cronies spew hot air about development, as it if will happen just because they keep talking about Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean!

    SL needs a strategic plan to move out of the lower Middle Income Country Trap it is in today. It needs to invest in education, research to grow IT sector, pharmaceutical manufacturing, marine resources and services, and build on its COMPARATIVE ADVANTAGE.

    Sri Lanka also needs a culture of MERITOCRACY and valuing DIVERSITY, whereby the most qualified people are hired for key posts, rather than cronies.

    The absence of the concept of MERITOCRACY and PROFESSIONALISM is the reason than the most qualified professionals migrate overseas and there is a brain drain. Women and minorities are the biggest victims of the absence of a CULTURE OF MERITOCRACY, because they are easily marginalized by bold boys networks of cronies, as is the case with Ranil’s Royal College old boys club!

  • 9
    0

    A thought provoking article which has captured accurately the current sad state of affairs at ICTA.

    It is quite an irony that the very government which set up the ICTA in 2004 as an apolitical organisation, in their second coming, doing the exact opposite.

    Starting from the selection (or rather the ‘parachuting’) of the MD/CEO of ICTA which never followed a transparent process to including so many ‘consultants’ (or rather political henchman) in the ICTA payroll to ill-conceived projects such as Google Loon, ICTA is a classic example of how politicians and those who appointed to run organisations purely due to political affiliation can run an organization to the ground.

    We still hold out hope that sanity will prevail and the organization that we all respected in the past will again become a beacon of hope to the ICT industry.

    “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep”

  • 1
    4

    Like most other things in the country, ICT has also hit the fan,

    I don’t see any clear ICT policy that is cost effective to Sri Lanka
    It shifts to sides based on the market forces and the faces behind them!

    Once it is Microsoft, another time it is Google.. etc.

    We have not integrated our language with any operating system, whether it is Linux or windows. This is shameful! We have big universities that teach Computer science, Yet no one has adopted a Sinhalese locale to any OS (correct me if I am wrong please)!
    This is a big hindrance to bring government services/ people closer to computes.

    Creating industrial software is a very expensive process. Strategically, we must look for open source operating systems and open source software solutions where we do not have to pay for license fees. It is sad to see even the educated, mislead people and do not introduce these technologies to the country.

    The architecture is paramount and unless you do not implement systems with best practice solutions, Remedying them is extremely costly.
    Even government IT systems in UK struggle to survive because they were taken for ride by the unscrupulous IT vendors after spending billions of pounds.

    Looking at the implementations of some of the government portals, One cannot stop wonder how pathetic they are!
    Similarly if a country rely on Google balloons to provide Internet access to people, You are daft!

    The Private sector, SLT, has a good labor force and technology know how to take us to the information age, After all there are lot of systems we can look and copy! What is required is intelligent policy makers who love the country then the software companies!

    Appoint someone who know the industry as the minister and the secretory! The Digital has no clue what ICT is!

    • 2
      2

      srinath gunaratnam

      “Appoint someone who know the industry as the minister and the secretory!”

      Whom do you have in mind?

      Wimal Sangili Karruppan Weerawansa?

      Google/CEO – Sundar Pichai

      Bill Gates, Microsoft Founder?

      Do you want the job?

      • 2
        1

        NV, hope you are keeping well.
        I had been searching for you.. Questioned Be several times about you all these days… pleased to see you back… all these subhumans (Sach, Srinath, Maxi Sumanasekara etc) have been supporting the thuggish bunches as usual.

        • 1
          0

          Sam Fernando

          Thanks for your concern.

          I was grounded for a couple of weeks by my Elders for having stupid non discussion with somass, srinath gunaratnam, jimy, sach, ….

          Sorry I must go now.

    • 0
      0

      “The Digital has no clue what ICT is!”. Oh! No! Digital is not that clueless. Those knowledgeable tell me that his hands are tied behind his back.

      “Appoint someone who know the industry as the minister and the secretory!”. I pitty them. What can they do because today’s ICTA is so powerful that it can lead an entire Government on the garden path. Billions of Rupees or Dollars! It will be given for the asking. Google Loon! Free Wi-fi! Pooh! What a farce it has become discrediting an entire government.

      The original article describes what ails the system. ICTA needs direction. But that has to come from the very top because ICTA bosses are nominees of the very top.

  • 5
    1

    You need not go any further than the ICTA website (www.icta.lk) to find out the depths to which the organization has sunk. While ICTA has recruited people in their hundreds, among them many so called ‘consultants’, have a look at the ‘Consultancy’ procurement ICTA has conducted recently. I invite you to look at both ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ procurement details. Here are my top 5 picks:

    1. Conducting an operational study for ICTA (https://www.icta.lk/procurement-notices/consultancy-proc-open/conducting-of-an-operational-study-for-icta-ictagoslconoccqs201701-3/)

    – seems like there is no capable ‘consultant’ or ‘consultants’ within ICTA who can develop the ‘operational’ budget for 2017. By the way, we are already in February 2017!

    2. Procuring a consultancy firm to identify and shortlist most viable eServices and mobile applications for government organizations (https://www.icta.lk/procurement-notices/consultancy-proc-open/procuring-a-chttps://www.icta.lk/procurement-notices/consultancy-proc-open/procuring-a-consultancy-firm-to-identify-and-shortlist-most-viable-eservices-and-mobile-applications-for-government-organizations-ictagoslconcqs201703/)

    – Seriously, no one within ICTA is capable of finding out what potential eServices are required, prioritise them and develop a scope of work?

    3. Productization of Offerings by ICTA (https://www.icta.lk/procurement-notices/consultancy-proc-close/procurement-of-a-consultancy-firm-for-productization-of-offerings-by-icta-ictagoslconqbs2016171/)

    – To quote from the terms of reference: “…ICTA is in view that making the offerings as ‘Products’ would be beneficial in numerous ways and a great achievement.” This productization is not in a software development sense but all you have to do is to create product brouchers, write concept papers or do animated videos! And that is a ‘great achievement’…such high standards!

    4. Obtaining Services from an Individual Consultant to generate the eRL Loss Revenue Report and to Implement Critical Enhancements (https://www.icta.lk/procurement-notices/consultancy-proc-close/individual-constant-to-generate-the-erl-loss-revenue-report-and-to-implement-critical-enhancements-ictagoslconic2016174/)

    – Really, you cannot find someone or even a team within the hundreds of staff and ‘consultants’ at ICTA to do this?

    5. Last but not least… Preparation of a Corporate Plan for ICTA (https://www.icta.lk/procurement-notices/consultancy-proc-close/preparation-of-a-corporate-plan-for-icta-ictagoslconoccqs201604/) and Preparation of a Business Plan for ICTA (https://www.icta.lk/procurement-notices/consultancy-proc-close/development-and-preparation-of-a-business-plan-for-information-and-communication-technology-agency-of-sri-lanka-ictagoslconocqcbs201605/)

    – Please read the scope of services for both these consultancy assignments and tell me the difference or at least tell me why both the assignments could not have been combined? So much for tax payer’s money.

    We still live in hope….

  • 0
    1

    Query on this article from fews who were closed to ICTA and got to know that it’s moving well with a great vision and pointing out the followings on the complains,
    ICTA is having big budget allocation of 15B per annum and projects (look at the list of projects at ICTA web) compared to previous 600M. So compare 80 staff for 600M projects and 140 staff for 10-15B projects
    Asked to compare previous projects which most are failed.
    As ministry and cabinet level procurement processes are delayed and can’t show the quick outputs.
    Compare the previous leadership as blunt, obedient only to a political thug was in ICTA and current CEO has a vision and working on it with a professional board and the chairman.
    Asked to check the free wi-fi progress from http://publicwifi.lk.
    Said that Loon will come as soon as the regulatory restrictions cleared out.
    All bits and pieces of consultancies mentioned above for the sake of fairness and the transparency.
    Fellow who’s is complaining above was an ex-ICTA, still having x relationship to ICTA …….[deleted] and chased out on poor performance.
    Asked to visit and talk to relevent ppl at ICTA to get the truth rather than beating around the bush.

  • 1
    1

    Query on this article from fews who were closed to ICTA and got to know that it’s moving well with a great vision and pointing out the followings on the complains,
    ICTA is having big budget allocation of 15B per annum and projects (look at the list of projects at ICTA web) compared to previous 600M. So compare 80 staff for 600M projects and 140 staff for 10-15B projects
    Asked to compare previous projects which most are failed.
    As ministry and cabinet level procurement processes are delayed and can’t show the quick outputs.
    Compare the previous leadership as blunt, obedient only to a political thug was in ICTA and current CEO has a vision and working on it with a professional board and the chairman.
    Asked to check the free wi-fi progress from http://publicwifi.lk.
    Said that Loon will come as soon as the regulatory restrictions cleared out.
    All bits and pieces of consultancies mentioned above for the sake of fairness and the transparency.
    Fellow who’s is complaining above was an ex-ICTA, still having x relationship to ICTA …….[deleted] and chased out on poor performance.
    Asked to visit and talk to relevent ppl at ICTA to get the truth rather than beating around the bush.

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