Is there a serious need for a national digital policy? This question should not be difficult to answer.

One just has to look at the importance accorded to digitisation in countries across the world, from the most digitised and advanced ones, such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Sweden, to developing economies with a sharp digital agenda, such as Kenya, Columbia and Rwanda.

All these countries have created long term digital plans for expanding the scope and reach of their digitisation efforts, and have started reaping social and economic benefits.

National policies are the responsibility of the government. In developing countries, given the constraints of a developing economy, governments shy away from ambitious policies which do not bear fruit immediately, but require a long-term commitment.

Digitisation is such an arena where it is easy to spend billions, but the benefits to the society do not immediately become visible.

On top of that, when such interventions are poorly designed, not only do they fail to create the desired impact, they can also become counter-productive. Misdirected efforts and misplaced priorities can be seen in the form of very visible spending which does not establish a new baseline against status quo, and instead creates barriers to innovation and human enterprise.

The country’s digital journey should start with a transformative change in governance based on agility and vision

A comparative study of the national digital programmes and strategies in other countries offers significant insights into what works at a policy level.

Eventually, Pakistan, like every other country, will need to chart a course toward creating its digital strategy, but it doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Several components identified from a comparative study of other countries can be incorporated, together with domestic considerations.

Creating an enabling environment for IT development in the private sector

Growth of digital enterprises and uptake of digital services in a country are dependent on an environment that combines a strong nation-wide communication infrastructure with abundant opportunities for production and use of IT services.

Most countries laid the foundation of a strong digital economy on the back of extensive investments in fibre and wireless connectivity with the goal of maximising the availability of high speed Internet connectivity to most of their populations, down to the last mile.

Such investments became the basis of uptake of digital services on a scale that made it economically feasible for private IT businesses to invest.

Another key environmental factor is the presence of strong cybersecurity legislation to protect the interests of digital stakeholders.

Creating the right institutional framework for public sector digitisation

The task of undertaking public sector automation is often left to individual government departments, or at the whims of independent IT boards or ministries. This does not reflect a true appreciation of the nature and scope of automation.

As long as IT is treated as a functional area, it doesn’t receive importance and buy-in needed from user departments, and it continues to suffer from an ad hoc and disjointed approach.

IT by nature cuts across areas, and needs to be employed as a cross-cutting mechanism for connected and effective governance. Realising this, the UK Cabinet Office has created the Digital Economy Unit (DEU), under the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

The DEU works across government departments and ministries, such as Treasury and Education in pursuit of carrying out the government’s digital agenda.

Taking a long-term, strategic view

IT investments are by nature difficult to justify on the basis of immediate outcomes, alone. A common feature of the most successful national digital programmes is that those countries have taken a long-term view of the importance of digitisation in enabling a digital economy and better governance.

The Kenyan government set a great example for charting the digital course for a developing country by laying out its digital strategy within its Vision 2030, and then carrying out five-year economic plans, while continually updating its ICT policy, in the pursuit of this vision.

Fostering innovation using latest technology

A key driver in the pursuit of digitisation at the national scale is the embrace of latest technologies that can enable unprecedented possibilities for the economy. For instance, the use of cloud computing, big data and Internet of Things (IOT) in the public sector has enabled a striking transformation in governance.

Defining the role of the government in shaping the digital economy

An underlying, but also understated, theme that seems to pervade Pakistan’s IT policy discussions is the nature and extent of the government’s role in shaping the digital economy.

The government needs to take a balanced approach which focuses on areas that need its attention, mostly in terms of creating an enabling environment, while facilitating the required linkages across the economy. The strength of the world’s leading digital economies and success stories would not have been possible without their governments’ selective, but focused, involvement.

Facilitating adoption of IT in traditional businesses

It is tempting for governments to try to emulate the success of developed economies’ investment in emerging technologies, but it is important that they do not overlook the need to focus their digital priorities on traditional businesses.

Such an approach has greater chances of success, as the governments can look for early outcomes by focusing on automation of traditional industries, instead of attempting to jumpstart ambitious new areas.

Addressing the digital divide

The most successful digital economies are the ones that have been able to achieve the widest uptake of IT among their populations. This requires investment in infrastructure and connectivity, but also training populations in the use of computing resources.

Agility in embracing, and adapting to, change

Given the long-term commitment that is entailed in a well-formulated national digital strategy, it is also vital that governments commit to agility in adapting to changing requirements and new emerging trends.

It is high time that policymakers in Pakistan paid serious attention to defining an IT driven development focus, based on the experience of other countries that have shown the way.

Preparation of a national digital plan needs to be accorded the highest priority for the country to progress economically and technologically.

The first step would be to create a higher body that works across ministries and is empowered to connect with representatives for all stakeholders. The country’s digital journey should start with a transformative change in governance based on agility and vision.

The writer is a Senior Partner at Radtac Asia muhammadumar.zafar@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 29th,2018

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