Exclusive Interview: Sri Lanka’s Digital Government Chief

How Muhunthan Canagey plans to make government more agile.

“You work towards delivery - otherwise you don’t exist,” says Muhunthan Canagey. The Sri Lankan Government’s Digital Chief is describing his previous life as an entrepreneur. He started young, setting up his first tech company at 16, and then went on to found and run others. And now he plans to re-boot the Sri Lankan Government. In February 2015, the country’s Prime Minister appointed him Chief Executive of the ICT Agency. In the private sector, companies must work at a fast-pace and are always answerable to their customers, or risk losing out. “That’s the type of thing that I am bringing into government and architecting,” he says. In an interview with GovInsider, Muhunthan discusses his plans to make government more agile; build citizens’ trust in digital services; and attract tech talent to the public sector. Agile Government The country’s citizens are demanding more and the government must work at a faster pace to respond to their needs. “With an agile type of government, we can start pushing for better KPIs and saying some services have to be completed in a much shorter time,” Canagey says. Better tech will allow processes and workflows in government departments to be able to change quickly and whenever needed. “It is making sure that all developments are based on steps where business rules and processes can be re-written,” he says. For instance, data sharing between systems must become simpler through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Some manual processes can be quickly made more efficient by replacing with tech. In the long-run, however, much deeper change is required to make government more agile, Canagey believes. Agencies will need to “come up with entire new processes”, he says. National Digital Identity Sri Lanka will also need to ensure that everyone can trust the integrity of digital transactions. “You don't want to be in a situation where someone commits a transaction and then says they did not commit it,” he says. Sri Lanka is building a national digital identity system to ensure that transactions can be digitally verified. “20 million people in this country will have digital identity within next 3 years,” Canagey says. Every citizen will get a smart card which they can use for payments and digital identification. The programme will cost over US$100 million, Canagey estimates. Sri Lankans would be able to receive social welfare payments directly to digital wallets, for example. They would also use it to share and sign documents digitally. Personal documents like birth certificates and licences will be stored digitally, and citizens would be able to share them with other organisations. The digital identity platform would integrate with services by both government and private sector. We are building it such that authentication can be provided as a service”, he says. Authentication could range from biometrics such fingerprints and iris scans to the plain old username and passwords. The project will put Sri Lanka “among the top three countries” in the world for digital identity. The other two are Estonia and Sweden, Canagey believes. Sri Lanka has been particularly inspired by the e-Estonia programme: “That’s the type of drive that you need to have and we are inspired by their results”, he says. Ensuring data accuracy Sri Lanka plans to build world-class cyber security systems and is using the latest technology in the area - Blockchain. Starting next year, it will be piloted for social welfare and other transactions related to the digital identity. “Thereafter, we will just be open for all systems to implement them and the frameworks will be in place”, he says. The Blockchain will ensure that government data is accurate, and hacks do not go unnoticed. “We don’t want people to lose confidence in digitisation,” Canagey says. “And that is to ensure that there is data integrity and people trust the data.” Sri Lanka will also build the “next generation of CERT” - a unit responsible for tracking and alerting the government to cyber attacks. The country is building a national security operations centre to centrally detect attacks and devise responses to them. It wants to “work closely with international security firms and agencies in order to make sure cyber security is at its best”, Canagey says. Recruiting tech talent Attracting tech talent to the public sector is the biggest challenge, says Canagey. Sri Lanka’s tech sector is “extremely competitive”, he adds, with private sector salaries rising in a rapidly growing industry. The country projected US$1 billion ICT revenues in 2015, targeting US$5 billion and 1000 new start-ups by 2022. ICTA is currently plugging the skills gap by procuring private sector consultants. But the government will need to “make sure that we pay in line with the private sector”, he says. It will also need to ensure that officials remain engaged by offering interesting and creative work. “These projects are something that no private sector does”, he says. google loon Connectivity is another area that the government must address. “We are bringing Google Loon in for further connectivity across the country,” he says. Sri Lanka is currently testing whether these high-altitude balloons can be used to bring internet across its hills and countryside. There is also the issue of connectivity in government offices. “We will have an entire cloud platform ready for the whole of government,” Canagey says, and 7,500 government buildings are to get internet of “minimum 100 Mbps speeds”. “That would bring in connectivity to all our government institutions within one government network where cross-government data sharing exists,” he says. Canagey brings with him an entrepreneurial edge to the Sri Lankan Government. He must use this to build public services that are nimble, efficient and trustworthy. Google Loon by Global Panorama, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0