His Majesty said, “we have to figure out ways to use technology to solve problems-to improve governance, democracy, education, agriculture, create jobs, enhance well-being, in healthcare, make our cities safer and cleaner, and in various other ways that will benefit our people.” However, even after spending billions of public exchequers in creating and promoting numerous information technologies, the agencies responsible are still suffering from numerous issues in providing their services plagued by a lack of accountability and blame games. Unless we fix these major issues, Bhutan’s dream of becoming a digital society is far from reality.  

The Digital Drukyul was set up as the flagship program of the government comprising to establish-Electronic Patient Information System, National Digital Identity, E-Business National Single Window, Bhutan Integrated Taxation System, Integrated Citizen Services, Digital Schools Enhancement of ICT Capability and Capacity.

An Executive Order issued on 1 December 2021 acknowledges that there is a “lack of transparency and redundant efforts between and among agencies.” A report on the Government to Citizen also stated the “lukewarm success of the e-services” due to numerous reasons. It was stated that “many of the e-Services were designed in silos specifically by individual government departments and ministries of the government and citizens still had to physically visit offices to fulfil all requirements of the service. The systems were built using different technologies and could not communicate with each other. Without the possibility of sharing information, making it inconvenient, rendering the manual processes more efficient for many.”

Another report revealed that “many citizens, particularly in rural Bhutan, were either unaware of the online services or lacked sufficient digital proficiency to leverage these online services.”  Article 7 and 9 of the Constitution requires that “all persons entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status.” The state is required to “take appropriate measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination.” Such digital divide and inequality will severely affect their right to social, economic, financial, and other rights when the system is not designed digitally inclusive and suffers from efficiency and reliability.

For example, this week news reported that schools had to delay the declaration of results due to a failure on the part of the Ministry’s digital platform. Similarly, many shopkeepers still require customers to divulge their phone numbers for using digital payment because they have no confidence in digital payment. BBS reported that many rural people who are not digitally literate cannot even use banking apps to recharge their data.  

The Civil Service Reform Act established the Government Technology (GovTech) Agency and authority to frame rules and regulations. This agency must now come up with rules on accountability as well as the rules to ensure there is inclusive digital policy and strategy to address the challenges including educating them on the use of digital platforms.

A UN Roundtable on Digital Inclusion states that “digital inclusion must go beyond basic access” connectivity and affordability as “unequal opportunities to access online platforms and services can deepen inequalities.” A technical glitch cannot be accepted as an excuse for every failure. If the technical glitch or failure is preventable, accountability must be fixed on those responsible. The service users must be compensated for technical harassment including waste of their time and resources. As His Majesty said, “failure is not an option.” 

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.