Exclusive: Thailand gets serious about digital

GI speaks to Methini Thepmani, the Prime Minister's top tech official.

Throughout Thailand’s many tumultuous changes, there has been a constant in government: Methini Thepmani. “I am the like the eyes and ears of the Prime Minister’s office”, says the top tech official, guiding leaders on what citizens want from digital services. Thepmani is currently shaping a smart cities programme designed to woo back business. She is also overseeing changes to the way departments use technology; with mass centralisation intended to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Thepmani spoke exclusively with GovInsider about upcoming plans. For startups, officials and academics alike, there is plenty of change coming. Startup city Phuket is known for warm beaches, cold beers and wide smiles, but soon it could be Thailand’s hottest tech destination. The government has launched a smart city programme to turn the island into a “digital industry hub”, Thepmani says. It is piloting new schemes to attract startups, and has committed $12 million to execute this. In particular, it is fast-tracking visas and business licenses, Thepmani says. As a member of the elite National Reform Steering Assembly, she has the power to propose new laws, and is pushing a new Licensing Facilitating Act to speed things up. The tourism industry is also a key focus, she adds. It drives much of the island’s economy, but not enough services are available online. The government wants hotels, restaurants and spas to offer more web-based services, and will fund businesses to build them. Thailand has just committed $570 million in funding for digital startups across the country, and Phuket developers can access these funds. Safety is a third ingredient for the city, Thepmani says. Phuket will install sensors and video cameras to collect data, analysed by a new operations centre. Cameras will read license plate numbers and track cars that break traffic rules. The operations centre will also help anticipate natural disasters, monitoring environmental data from sensors on land and at sea. Rearranging government In a period of massive internal change, Thailand is - unsurprisingly - upending the way public bodies uses technology. Thepmani’s priority is to make government processes faster, reducing bureaucracy and restructuring work across agencies. Thailand is pulling officials together across government to deliver digital services, she says. The country does not have enough civil servants with digital skills, so officials must work more efficiently. Centralising staff will mean that they will not have to reinvent the wheel with every new service, she believes. This means that certain agencies will now only serve citizens face-to-face. “Some of the government agencies will be restructuring to do the job only for physical services”, Thepmani says. Thailand will also outsource many tech jobs, she adds. “We plan to expand services to citizens [by] collaborating with partners”, noting that they will "distribute some services to the private sector". For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already contracted 80% of the work for issuing passports to the private sector. International collaborations International cooperation is an important part of Thailand's digital transformation, she says. In particular, the country wants its businesses to expand to others in the ASEAN region. This requires government services to be of the same standards: “If we would like to send goods or products to other communities, we need the export and import systems to talk among us”. Further afield, the country has turned to another Asian country for help. Busan city in South Korea will share its smart city lessons with Phuket and firms will invest in the city. The countries will together set up an innovation park for startups. Digital literacy Connectivity is a final area of reform. Thailand is bringing internet to 70,000 villages nationwide, but web access alone may not be enough to transform the country, Thepmani believes. Citizens must know how to use the services and understand what they require from them, she says. The government must do more to certify citizens with technology skills, she argues. This will ensure that the level of skills can be tracked, and citizens get the right pay in Thailand and abroad. “This issue is very important for us to be able to talk with the other [ASEAN] communities because we need the same standard definitions,” says Thepmani. Ultimately, Thailand has wide-ranging plans for subsidising startups, cutting red-tape, outsourcing jobs and connecting up villages. Thailand’s next phase of disruption seems set to be digital - at last - and not political.