IT: A foundation for lasting peace – Sec. Weeratunga

Wednesday, 19 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, tells Robin Hicks in the December 2010 issue of futureGOV Asia Pacific magazine that a bright future awaits a ‘smart island’ whose leaders believe in the transformative, peace-bringing powers of technology. Following is the full text of the article titled ‘Re-Engineering Sri Lanka’:

Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, tells Robin Hicks in the December 2010 issue of futureGOV Asia Pacific magazine that a bright future awaits a ‘smart island’ whose leaders believe in the transformative, peace-bringing powers of technology. Following is the full text of the article titled ‘Re-Engineering Sri Lanka’:

Peace is, perhaps, not the most obvious outcome of an e-government masterplan. But in Sri Lanka’s case, it is one of three pillars of a strategy to modernise a country that was in the throes of Asia’s longest running civil war less than a year and a half ago.

The e-Sri Lanka programme was launched in January 2005 to find ways to use IT to lay the foundations for lasting peace, spur economic growth, and ensure equal access to the benefits of development particularly the 77 per cent of a population of 20 million that lives in rural areas.

Despite the distractions of a war that raged for almost three decades, e-Sri Lanka has made progress in narrowing the digital divide and re-engineering government. It has also given credibility to the ‘Smart island, Smart people’ vision of building a knowledge-based economy, coined in 2002, a time when there was negligible activity in an IT services sector that is now the country’s fifth highest export earner.

Sri Lanka’s progress did not go unnoticed at the FutureGov Awards in October. The island nation’s haul of three awards all for e-Sri Lanka projects was matched only by that of South Korea, a country 110 places above it in the 2010 UN E-Government Rankings.

Lanka Gate, an integration platform that acts as a gateway for all e-services and electronic government information, was lauded by the judges as a progressive step towards building a connected government. The other two awards were for digital inclusion projects: Nenasala, a rural telecentre network that makes 1100 government services available online in more than 600 centres strategically placed in religious institutions, women’s groups and rural schools and the Sri Lanka GovSMS Portal, which gives Sri Lankans access to crop prices, weather information and railway timetables when they text the popular 1919 Government information Centre (GIC) number.

Support from the top

As well as funding from the World Bank, e-Sri Lanka has benefited from being run by an agency, the Information & Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA), which operates under the purview of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is keen to use ICT as a force for reform.

Last year’s Presidential taskforce to improve English and IT literary has, mostly through Nenasala (which was the President’s idea), helped increase e-literacy to 30 per cent this year – up from just four per cent in 2004. The taskforce also gave a shot in the arm to Sri Lanka’s promising Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, which has been growing at around 20 per cent year on year. Colombo is ranked seventh among the world’s best emerging outsourcing cities.

One of the latest modernisation ideas to emerge from the highest echelons of power is the concept of the government ‘Chief Innovation Officer,’ which is also part of the e-Sri Lanka programme. This is the brainchild of Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, who spoke to FutureGov Asia Pacific at the President’s Office in Colombo in October. Weeratunga is the Republic’s most senior civil servant, and was Director, Re-engineering Government, at ICTA before he rose to his current role after a general election in 2005.

Government re-engineering is a “critical” function of Weeratunga’s role, the success of which depends on a particular brand of leadership, he says. Hence Chief Innovation Officers, not Chief Information Officers. “We may build structures and assign qualified teams to these structures, but that in itself is a challenge for leadership. Knowledge and skills of various specialist areas, including technology, is not enough. One also has to possess a positive attitude towards bringing about change. That is why we started breeding a new set of leaders who would act as change agents.” “A team of 200 ‘e-champions’ is now being trained at a top management school. These officers will hold a senior ‘second level of command’ rank with enough clout to push through re-engineering ideas ‘to make their organisations more citizen-centric and cost-effective,’” says Weeratunga. “Information management skills are, of course, important. But it is innovativeness and team effort that really matters in transforming traditional service delivering systems. We want to see ICT tools in the hands of creative people who will add value to every process, and so contribute to economic development directly and indirectly.”

‘Courteous’ governance

With the Tamil Tigers defeated, the Government has more freedom to focus on a new path for e-Sri Lanka and new ways to “change the face of Government” – a big challenge, he concedes. In the latest World Bank ‘Ease of Doing Business’ survey, Sri Lanka ranked 102nd out of 183 countries – the same rank as last year – and 166th for how easy it is to pay taxes.

One area where Sri Lanka’s public sector falls short is ‘courtesy,’ notes Weeratunga. “In the private sector, if the service is not good in one shop, you go to another. Which is why shops go out of their way to treat you well. The bureaucracy has tended not to be courteous, because it hadn’t had to be.”

Weeratunga wants this to change, and sees technology as a conduit. But he is under no illusions as to how difficult the transition will be. “Bureaucrats are very resistant to change. They don’t even want to switch the chair they sit in,” he says. “Change can be demeaning and challenges one’s sense of self and status. Therefore, it takes time for civil servants to see the value in ICT.”

With the Electronic Security Act in place, there is a legal framework to support the full use of ICT in Government. There is also the political will – from the President himself – to see to it that all of Sri Lanka’s 1.2 million civil servants are ICT literate.


Convincing citizens, even those in the poorer rural areas, will be easier, says Weeratunga. “Literacy is high, at 93 per cent. But even people who are completely illiterate are using mobile phones and ATMs. They will grab anything that helps their day to day lives. Rather than travel 200km to get information on how to apply for a passport, they can call or text 1919, which is available in three languages [Sinhalese, Tamil and English]. The GIC gets 3,800 calls a day. People are beginning to believe in technology.”

Weeratunga has set a target of 75 per cent e-literacy by 2016, which chimes with President Rajapaksa’s pledge to have doubled per capita income by the same year. This aim is also to raise the digital inclusion of government e-services from 10 to 65 per cent, reduce the average waiting time for a government service (currently six hours) and improve citizen satisfaction with these services, which is now around 40 per cent.

Bu there is a long way to go. Sri Lanka has slipped in the United Nations E-Government Rankings, from 101st in 2008 to 111th in 2010 (further than India, which fell from 113th to 119th) and is below the global average for infrastructure, e-participation and online services, and above average only for human capital.  Internet penetration is still only seven per cent. 74 per cent of Sri Lanka’s poorer rural population have never used the internet. And 23 per cent of these people do not even know it exists, according to LIRNasia research.

The expansion of the rural telecentres network to 1000 Nenasalas by 2012 is part of the plan to realise the ‘Smart Island, Smart People’ vision. So is the launch of 10 e-life centres to develop entrepreneurship and e-involvement among young people, and a school PC lab network.

Sri Lanka’s first rural BPO, Mahavilachchiya, an ‘e-village in the jungle’ which blends modern living with local cultural mores, is a sign of things to come- the government wants to slow the rate of urbanisation, which is expected to have grown from 20 per cent in 2000 to 60 per cent by 2030.

“If a person can earn his or her living at the village level and can access other services for an improved quality of life, he or she will not easily be attracted to congested townships and end up in squalid slums with low sanitary conditions,” says Weeratunga.

The President’s Secretary also hinted that Sri Lanka could follow a similar path to India, Indonesia, and the Philippines by locally manufacturing a low-cost computer. However, digital inclusion, he says, is a challenge best tackled in concert. “We should be working closely with the likes of India and China to solve problems that are similar in nature.”

The future of e-Sri Lanka

For all Sri Lanka’s undoubted promise there is the chance, however unlikely, that terrorism could rear its head and put the country’s progress into reverse.

Would this mean that ICT plans are scuppered? The end of war came about thanks partly to ICT, argues Weeratunga, which is partly why e-Sri Lanka has little chance of being derailed- no matter what the future holds.  “The Defence Secretary is a Java programmer. That background helped him to revolutionise the way our armed forces worked, and win the war not just with guns but with information.”

The political leadership has become so “enamoured” with technology “there is no way we will ever turn back,” says the Permanent Secretary, who is never far from his iPad and Blackberry, which he uses to manage his diary and issue instructions to his staff. “ICT is being used to help build roads, connect communities and lift people out of poverty. We have made a flowerbed which has very fertile soil. Now it is time to reap what we have sown.”

Sri Lanka GovSMS Portal –

“SMS to 1919”

The ICTA launched the Sri Lanka GovSMS Portal in July 2009, and which was officially launched by the President on 2nd December 2009.

Now offering three services (crop prices, weather information and railway timetables) from three different government agencies, the solution has been built so that it can easily be scaled to handle any SMS based service offered by any public sector organisation. They can do this for free because the mobile operators have agreed not to charge the government either for connectivity to the SMS gateway or the outgoing SMS. Citizens are charged the standard rate for a text message.

Since the solution is hosted in the government data centre, Lanka Government Network, to which all government organisations are connected, every agency will be able to use the service. The Department of Motor Traffic, Department of Emigration and Immigration, Examination Department and Registrar General’s Department are currently in discussions to adopt the service.

The service was developed to digitally include the 90+ per cent of Sri Lanka’s population that does not have access to the internet- more than 65 per cent of Sri Lankans own a mobile phone.