Increasing competency through smart government

Using digital data technologies to become a “smart government” is crucial if Thailand wants to restore national competency and keep up with the world.

“It’s not enough for state agencies to have their digital data systems and applications,” said Itsakul Unahakate, a lecturer from the Faculty of Economic Thammasat University. 

“They must give up the silo mentality and operations to improve public services and transparency by making their digital databases interconnected and transparent,” he stressed.

The ultimate goal is to enable Thai citizens to access all public services with one ID card, he said during his talk on “State Data Systems towards a Smart Government” as part of the 2020 TDRI Annual Conference during Oct 5-7.

Entitled “Hacking the Operating System of the Thai State: Learning from the Handling of the Covid-19 Crisis to Prepare for New Challenges,” the conference focuses on bureaucratic reform to improve national competency.

Itsakul Unahakate, a lecturer from the Faculty of Economic Thammasat University

According to Mr Itsakul, the government’s Covid-19 cash handout programs underscores the country’s fragmented database systems that are inefficient and user-unfriendly. Subsequently, a large number of people in need do not receive state assistance during the pandemic.

Due to the fragmented database systems, people needed to fill different forms for every service they seek because there are no central digital databases and those under different state programs are not connected, he said.

As reported by the World Bank, he said, the government has so far spent 13% of the GDP to cope with the pandemic. “Unfortunately, much of this amount misses the target groups.”

He expressed concerns that the government is still pressing ahead with more handout policies when its database systems are still ridden with flaws and leaving out many people in need behind.

To become a smart government, the state database systems need to be overhauled, he said.

First, the systems must be designed to serve people’s needs, not the state agencies’ conveniences. To do so, the government must first understand the people’s “pain points” before designing the system to tackle the problems effectively, he said.  

Second, the data compilation systems must not be redundant, asking for only necessary standard information from the citizens. They must avoid imposing administrative burdens on the citizens, costing them time and money to access public services. The system must aim for the once-only principle with privacy protection to ensure public trust, he added.

Third, the databases must be consolidated into integrated data systems and communications networks accessible to state agencies involved. “The aim is to include all necessary information in one ID card so they can use it to access public services with ease,” he said.

The consolidated data systems will also enable the government to use readily available information for better planning and decision-making, he explained.

Fourth, the systems must be open for public input so they can be constantly updated to meet people’s needs. This open system also fosters transparency and democratic processes, he added.

Towards being a digital government, the digital database and communications networks must be citizen-centric, data-driven, and performance-focused, he stressed.

Itsakul Unahakate, a lecturer from the Faculty of Economic Thammasat University

Many countries already have digital governments. Chile, for example. Its social data system has already covered 72% of the population. Estonia, meanwhile, is now using the once-only principle for administrative procedures. The OECD members’ once-only principle has also significantly reduced their administrative costs.

Thailand could do it too, he said. “But it must start with state agencies opening their minds and foregoing organisational interests to make the smart government possible.”