Understanding the Path towards E-Governance in Cambodia
Jul 13, 2021
Written by: Virak Kanhapich, a 3rd year student majoring in Global Affairs at The American University of Phnom Penh
Edited by: Sao Phal Niseiy, Editor-in-Chief at The Cambodianess and Deputy Editor-in-Chief at Thmey Thmey News
(Photo Credit: Ministry of Post and Telecommunications website)
Many governments across the globe have been committed to building e-governance, and Cambodia is one of them. After Cambodia obtained an official membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1999, it has made tremendous efforts to use information technology and embarked on enormous administrative reform to ensure that it could make the goals reality. Although the government has made tremendous efforts, little is known to the public on how effective and efficient it can be in delivering public services since the term is still relatively new.
Before moving on to the substance, I would like to draw attention to the definition of e-governance and its background in Cambodia. As defined by Business Jargons, e-governance refers to the integration of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into all governmental processes to simplify and enhance the efficiency of public services in response to the needs of the people.
In the Cambodian context, the government also acknowledges the advantages of e-government, and the adoption of this concept began in early 2000 with the introduction of the National ICT Development Authority (NiDA) and the Government Administration Information System (GAIS) project, which includes the unveiling of applications such as the Electronic Approval System (EAS), real estate registration system, resident and vehicle registration. However, the programs seemed to fall short in meeting their full potential due to the lack of transparency and accountability.
According to an analysis by Dr. Leewood Phu, who is a tech adviser for the Cambodian government and NiDA Board Member, the administrative system was an obstacle because there are many complicated administrative processes in all sectors, be they the government offices, departments, and ministry level. Other factors such as missing documents or unreasonably withheld or delayed documents contributed to inefficient adoption of the concept. However, with the government keeping e-governance a top priority, the future looks more promising.
Currently, more and more public services in Cambodia are getting in line with the digital transformation. Some ministries have been able to make use of digital technology to serve people. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, in particular, has been able to effectively provide educational information and support its education policy implementation while receiving feedback from the public using social media platforms. On the other hand, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has offered the ‘eVisa’ service, online information for visitors, consular services and information on doing business, making it more convenient for visitors and investors.
The Commerce Ministry also provides access to trade-related aspects online, including services, general information, trade, and investment information. Most importantly, as human interaction has been restrained during the COVID-19 pandemic, e-governance becomes even more critical in preventing the virus spread. As can be seen, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has unveiled the “Stop Covid” QR Code system, which records the locations of people who have been affected or potentially exposed to the virus. The application assists the authorities in carrying out contact tracing, enabling quarantine and treatment to be done effectively and instantly.
Unquestionably, the adoption of e-governance is essential, but the complex nature of digital conversion can intimidate the aim to embrace technological integration into the governing system. But achieving it will bring much more notable benefits.
And with the introduction of e-governance, there can be more improvement in administrative efficiency and effectiveness because the system becomes more functional, sustainable and responsive, according to Mr Oum Chan Mono, a Senior Researcher at Cambodia Development Center.
It is worth taking Bangladesh as an example. Bangladeshi ministries have adopted the foundational work of the government flagship program known as a2i, which focuses on simplifying public services given to the people. With the scheme, the Digital Service Accelerator was introduced to assist the country’s version of the integrated ‘stack’ of digital identification, services and payment platform. That allows the South Asian country to save more than $8 billion over the last 10 years through an incredible reduction of the time, cost and number of visits required to access public services. It is noteworthy that electronic services could save up to 70 percent of transaction costs in traditional government settings, according to the Institution for Electronic Government.
Another success story that we should take into account is Estonia who achieved the successful implementation of e-government. In 2000, the same year when Cambodia began to manifest interest in e-governance, very few Estonians understood the benefits of the concept, and only a small number of one-third Estonians were using the internet or had digital literacy. But the country could manage to put in place the e-governance system to date. A study by Mr. Sun Kim, a lecturer for the faculty of Social Sciences and International Relations, indicates that owing to the Estonian government’s objective of digitalization, the country relied on well-educated academics in computer technology and assured strong cooperation between the private and public sectors. Two decades later, digital public services have become considerably present, with 99 percent of the services available online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This greatly benefits the people. While other countries have suffered from failures in delivering public services to people during the pandemic, Estonia has managed to avoid public setbacks with its well-organized and easily accessible online governing system.
With the above mentioned examples, without considering the accessibility and digital skills, the use of digital technology in governing systems offers immense benefits. In contrast, those without proper digital skills or access to such technology can also be left out or marginalized. Cambodia, whose significant number of people lack proper digital skills, is not exempt from that challenge. Both at the national and local level, the use and the delivery of public services is a struggle as it requires sufficient knowledge of digital literacy, infrastructure and competent manpower for the services to converge.
And as more than 70 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas, access to online services becomes a leading challenge. Therefore, the public institutions need to simplify the policy agendas and implementation strategies to effectively and efficiently communicate with all levels, according to a public policy analyst, Mr. Chheang Vannarith. He added it is crucial to understand that e-governance is not simply an installation of computers nor a collection of information; thus, there are several barriers to a high level of e-government in Cambodia.
So, where are we now? In this age of digital transformation, private sectors and the youth have played a crucial role as they are the main driving force of changes and most adaptive to digital usage. But in Cambodia, the overall digital adoption among established private firms is still limited.
Moreover, the country still has insufficient human resources in digital technology, and there are also lacking areas in terms of accessibility to electricity or the usage of digital devices. Therefore, the implementation of the digital transformation in the governing system will definitely be bumpy and arduous.
And the public sector has just begun embarking on the push of digital transformation. But the ongoing pandemic has also boosted the process. As can be seen, the government has taken a further step to accelerate the digitalization of governance to maintain public safety through a switch from traditional paper systems to new digital ones.
And if scrutinized closely, the country also has really made some progress in both e-government development and e-participation. In terms of e-government development, Cambodia graduated from the middle E-Government Development Index (EGDI) group to the high EGDI group in 2020, according to the United Nations E-Government Knowledgebase for 2020. In the E- Participation Index (EPI), given that its score is still below global and regional averages, Cambodia could move up 42 positions. One of the prominent examples to prove this improvement is the widespread use of Facebook by numerous government institutions and agencies in delivering information to the people.
Moreover, I also notice that the rise of digital literacy among young people is on its way. And through additional support, it can quickly gain more momentum and become promising for the digital switch in the country in years to come.
So what should be done more to accelerate the process?
So far, it is quite encouraging that the government recognizes the importance of this transformation. Minister of Economy and Finance HE Aun Pornmoniroth has already acknowledged that the successful construction of digital governance in Cambodia will allow the government to be more robust, pliable and accountable.
But I still believe that more tangible actions need to make this goal a reality. First and foremost, it requires the government to build up a greater political commitment, take a leading role in promoting active involvement and engagement among different stakeholders and undertake concrete actions in facilitating e-government innovation and planning.
Furthermore, to mitigate the challenges and meet the needs of the people when it comes to the present digital gap, existing policies should be evaluated and adjusted, and it entails a change to the education system to foster digital skills for youngsters. Not only young people, the government should also pay more attention to supporting senior citizens to help them acquire and improve digital knowledge through different programs or initiatives at local levels. If Cambodia could ensure a sustainable push for raising digital literacy among people and policy reforms, the path towards e-governance can be smooth.
Because the outcome generated from embracing digital governance will be greatly beneficial and rewarding for Cambodians in the long run, it is still worth the drive even though the roads are rocky for now.
*This blog is produced with the financial support from the European Union and The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency through Transparency International Cambodia and ActionAid Cambodia. Its contents do not reflect the views of any donors.