Chitranganie Mubarak, Chairwoman, Information and Communication Technology Agency, Sri Lanka

By Medha Basu

Women in GovTech Special Report 2017.

How do you use technology to improve citizens' lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

I am the Chairperson of ICTA, the apex body mandated with the responsibility of strategizing and implementing ICT led development projects in the Country. The Agency has initiated several key infrastructure projects with a view to making the Government more effective, transparent and citizen friendly. Health and Education sectors which have benefitted hugely through the ongoing digital transformation are two sectors that ICTA has also focused on the past few years.

Please share an example of an interesting programme or outcome that you have worked on as part of a public sector campaign?

A key aspect of ICT development in countries like ours is ensuring that, as we use digital opportunities to drive economic growth and development, we do not leave anyone behind. A statement which may be stale but still very true is ‘digital poverty is worse than economic poverty’.

ICTA has launched a unique programme to build awareness and capacity on digital solutions at the grassroots, drawing rural communities into social media networks. This programme is called ‘ Smart Social Circles’.

A Smart Social Circle typically comprises 10-12 community leaders – the Grama Niladhari (the head of the smallest unit of government administration machinery in the Country), the Agricultural Extension Officer, the Health Worker, a women activist, a youth leader, an SME and so on. We set up these circles within the village and build the capacity of the Circle in using digital solutions and social media.

They then become our circle of smart knowledge agents who take the message to the others in their village through small informal meetings. The interest among the rural communities has been very heartening, and today we have over 8000 knowledge agents. The fruits of their efforts are plenty – small village beauty parlors have facebook pages, SMEs producing typical village handicrafts now have access to a wider market, a community which may have been hitherto hidden now has a voice.

We have coupled this programme with another which seeks to build capacity of women entrepreneurs by leveraging on digital technology – literally building ‘Smart Women’ or ‘Suhuruliya’.

This is an initiative which we are taking across the Country together with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. A series of train the trainer programme have ensured that the ‘Women Development Officers’ have the desired skills to give they in hands on training to rural women on leveraging digital technology to better their small businesses – from running a tea kiosk to a small scale apparel manufacturing operation.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2017?

2017 has been very challenging – while we had several exciting and game changing initiatives in the making most got bogged down in a mire of red tape – in a nutshell things have taken far longer than we envisaged.

Yet there has been reason for excitement in other areas with direct impact on citizens. An initial pilot in the health sector which I was personally involved in a few years ago is being rolled out across the Country. Implementation of a Hospital Health Information Management System in Government Hospitals is today enabling better diagnosis, better patient care and better control of health resources including drugs.

With significant reduction in patient waiting time and significant savings to Government through use of digital X-rays and other digital resources. - a win-win for all!

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2018?

In the context of Sri Lanka there are two things that could be game changers. A digital identity for every citizen built from a citizen’s biometrics and unique identifiers; which can be authenticated by software systems, which will undoubtedly open up wide ranging opportunities for citizens, businesses and the Government. The cost saving to the Government through accurate identification of citizens will be cannot be underestimated. A digital identity to every citizen will be a reality – hopefully in the not too distant future.

The other I believe is a payment platform - an essential piece of infrastructure for an inclusive digital economy –- be it for day to day tasks like settling utility bills or for transferring funds for purchase of goods and services, sending goods refunds, for billing, invoicing – the whole gamut of e commerce functions.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2017, what would it be?

Digital solutions are often not understood or misunderstood by the very people for who are meant to benefit from it. So take time and trouble to get the message across simply and clearly even before the solution is launched.

What was the greatest challenge that you overcame in 2017?

Building stakeholder acceptance. When it comes to strategizing, and implementing digital solutions we find ourselves always working on other people’s turf - getting them to lay out the welcome mat is not always easy!

What book did you read in 2017 that most interested or inspired you? Who inspired you in 2017, and why?

One thing that has inspired me is the digital revolution that India has been able to get on the road in spite of being a huge country of over 1.3 billionn people, with some 22 different languages and relatively low levels of literacy.

By enacting necessary policy reforms and letting nothing stand in its way Digital India is steaming ahead and with mass adoption of digital and biometric systems which will enable the Country to leapfrog plastic payment systems and have the most advanced financial systems in the world. I am impressed!