Bringing Government Closer to the People

posted in Note by Producer

Bringing Government Closer to the People


Thimbirigasyaya Divisional Secretariat, Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

The idea of ‘bringing government closer to the people’ can have many connotations. In contemporary Sri Lanka what jumps to mind first is the debate on decentralisation and the 13th Amendment. Thirty years ago, inter alia, the government was woefully inadequate in providing people with basic services at a critical time of need. Ten years ago, obtaining any kind of service from a Government department meant long queues and longer waits – all this adding to dissatisfaction and disengagement by the public with government related matters and services. This feature, however, takes a different perspective – how ICTs are transforming the way people are more aware of public services and are able to obtain them with ease. With unique and unprecedented access into three highly sought-after government services in Sri Lanka, this feature explores the progressive steps being made to provide easier, quicker, and more systematic access to the country’s citizens, with the help of technology.

Many of the instances highlighted here are part of the ‘e-Government’ and ‘e-Citizen’ programmes of the Information Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) of the Government of Sri Lanka. Established in 2003, ICTA has made steady progress over the years and some initiatives have even been lauded and rewarded globally. This feature takes a ‘behind-the-scenes’ looks at the trilingual government hotline 1919, the Birth, Marriage and Deaths Registry, and the new Revenue License system. All of these now allowe ordinary citizens instant access to information and services that would have otherwise taken much longer to obtain, sometimes at the cost of a day’s earnings.


GIC 1919 Call Centre, Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Late for the train and want to know when the next one leaves Fort Station? Want to know how to apply for a new National Identity Card? Can’t fill a business registration form given at the Provincial Council office? You don’t need to come down to the capital and queue for hours to meet an overstretched bureaucrat – just find out with the press of a few buttons on your mobile or landline. The Government Information Centre (GIC) hotline, launched in April 2006 is where you will be connected to if you call 1919 on your phone and have any of these queries. Housed in the Sri Lanka Telecom Head Office in Fort, the Government Information Centre’s hotline service is operated out of a section of SLT’s own customer service centre. Fielding queries and offering information and advice in Sinhala, Tamil and English, the 1919 call centre is a veritable one-stop-shop for all information and anything you need to know about a government service. From train times to titling of land, making a complaint regarding a government service or land issue, if you are a tourist wanting to know where to stay in Kataragama or obtaining a driving license in Sri Lanka – a call centre agent here can provide the latest information and step-by-step guidance to people calling from anywhere in the country, and even abroad.


GIC 1919 Call Centre, Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

Call centre agents at the GIC field approximately 6,000 calls a day, between 8.00am to 10.00pm daily, with the peak times being 8.00am – 12 noon and 4.00pm – 8.00pm. There are currently 24 agent positions and 30 agents working at GIC. All agents are below 30 years of age made up of 13 male and 17 female agents. Last year (2012), the GIC received more than one million calls – 1,512,721 to be exact. In 2013, in the first three months alone, the number of calls were higher than all calls received in the whole of 2007. The service is clearly catching on.

Although it is a trilingual service and agents are on hand to respond to any call in English, Sinhala or Tamil, information on the government’s Open Data portal show that an overwhelming majority of calls – 95% – are received from Sinhala-speakers, while only around 3% of queries are from Tamil-speakers. Looking at the district and province-wise origin of calls also provides some interesting insights because geographically, too, the spread is skewed. Nearly 80% of all calls originate from just four provinces – Western, Southern, North Western and Central. Around 53% of calls originate from the Western Province – the highest – while the Northern Province records the lowest with 2.3% of all calls. People in some of Sri Lanka’s most disconnected districts – Eastern, Northern, and Uva seem to be using 1919 to connect to government services the least. Of all calls received in 2011, only 8.2% were from these regions. Strong efforts to popularize and familiarize the service among people in these areas will be critical to making this a truly nationwide revolution in bringing government closer to the people.


GIC 1919 Call Centre, Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

After dialling 1919, callers select their preferred language to continue the call in and then select the kind of service they require – – get information, make a complaint or E-service. Based on that, the call is routed to an available agent. If an agent is busy the call is queued – presently incoming calls have a 95-98% servicing rate. For a first time caller, their name and location and other basic details are noted in addition to information about how they heard about GIC. This information is entered into a database allowing agents to address returning callers by name..

There are designated officials in every government organisation in the country that GIC agents can call and obtain clarifications or lodge a complaint on behalf of a caller. The government official has 78 working hours to get back to GIC with information regarding the callers complaint/query and then the GIC agent calls back the customer and relates the information – sometimes even directing the customer to the relevant government official with a reference number and contact details. However, this does not happen as smoothly as it should as some government officials take longer than 78 hours and customers call back and blame GIC for the delay.


GIC 1919 Call Centre, Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

There are individual mirrors in front of each agent and this is so that they can see themselves while talking to a customer. As the service they provide is over the phone, customers need to “hear the smile” in their voice, and agents need to be aware of what they look like while speaking to a customer. Quality assurance is high priority at GIC where a separate quality implementation unit records all incoming calls. Two calls a day per agent are monitored – one real time and one recorded by the unit in addition to supervisors listening in and observing throughout the day. An agent is scored out of 100 based on predesigned criteria on each call that is monitored and referred to the call centre development unit for more training based on the training needs recommended by their supervisors.

Call centre agents express alot of satisfaction working at GIC as they say that with each call brings with it new challenges and they like being able to help people immediately. Many calls are from people who do not have any knowledge about government services and agents feel like they are providing an extremely useful service to the public. It would be interesting to see how the service evolves to the future needs of Sri Lanka’s people. For instance, could this fact-based call centre prove to be the critical point for delivering credible trilingual advice and information to the public on ethnic or religious tensions like what was seen recently at Grandpass? Or communal riots seen recently at Rathupaswala? Or even public health issues like the ongoing imported milk products crisis? The technology is certainly in place. But only time will tell.


Thimbirigasyaya Divisional Secretariat, Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

If you were born between 1933 and 2013 in a private or public hospital in Colombo, chances are your name is recorded in one of these tired old registers. The records of births, marriages and deaths since 1933 at the Thimbirigasyaya Divisional Secretariat, contained in these registers have now been computerised – 3.3 million records in all! The objective of digitising these documents is to allow people needing copies of birth, death or marriage certificates can obtain them with ease. Before this system was introduced a person needing a copy of any of these certificates would have to spend a long hours in queues to obtain them as the certificate would first have to be found in registers such as these and then photocopied.

Since 2005, the Civil Registration section at the Thimbirigasyaya Divisional Secretariat in Colombo has been digitising the records and been able to provide a speedy service to people who need copies of certificates falling under their DS Division. This DS office is one of few in Sri Lanka who are able to offer this service. More than 100 births are recorded here daily – this DS office sees the highest number of birth registrations in Sri Lanka as majority of the hospitals, especially maternity hospitals come under them. Birth registrations are not restricted to people in Colombo – there are many who travel from out of Colombo and give birth at private or maternity hospitals in Colombo.


Thimbirigasyaya Divisional Secretariat, Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

At present, the civil registration section is able to give a birth, death or marriage certificate copy to a person in less than five minutes – a huge difference from previous times where people sometimes spent up to a day waiting to obtain a copy! Once the details of the certificate needed are given at the counter, the details are searched in the digital archives, found in a matter of seconds and printed. Sometimes it takes longer than five minutes due to technical issues that the DS office is grappling with but with up to date machinery, certificates can actually be issued in less than five minutes. Peak times for obtaining copies are mainly during the O/L and A/L registrations times as well as prior to school admissions. People living out of Colombo but were born in Colombo who need certificates still do have to come to this office to obtain a copy as the DS offices across the country are not yet connected, but people are still able to get the copy very fast.

Since January 1, 2013 the stamp payment system for certificate copies was discontinued and now payment is made through cash. One copy of any certificate costs Rs 100/-. The digitising process is outsourced to a private company as the DS office does not have the type of scanner needed. At present there is a severe backlog and records from 2010 have not yet been digitised. Furthermore, plans are also underway to shift these registered to a secure facility where moist and pests would not destroy the records.


Thimbirigasyaya Divisional Secretariat, Colombo, July 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

A member of staff at the BMD Registry enters the details of a new birth from the form issued by the hospital in to the online database.

Under the new E-Civil scheme, birth and death certificates will only be maintained in an electronic system record in the future. This means no physical records in the form of registers will be maintained. At present a pilot scheme is in place where both systems are being carried out but in the months to come the physical record system will be done away with. A detailed form (the pink form in the photo) is fed into the system and this form also comes in a new format therefore the old birth certificate (also in the photo) will soon be a thing of the past.

But since 2008, funds from the central government have been slow and the computerisation exercise has stalled. If more investment is not made to equip the staff and upgrade the facilities, early gains made will wither away. It seems ironic that essential services provided to the public are starved of funds to improve further, while funds for cosmetic changes around the city and lavish spending on high-profile events seem amply available.


Western Province Department of Motor Traffic, Colombo, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

You’ve seen a drive-through McDonald’s or a drive-through ATM – but a drive-through government service? Renewing your motor vehicle revenue license is now as easy as picking up a burger – just drive up to the ‘On The Wheel’ counter at the Motor Traffic Department office in Maligawatte and you can renew your revenue license in less than a minute.

60% of Sri Lanka’s vehicles are registered in the Western Province. Through the newly improved system at the Western Province Department of Motor Traffic, 38 Divisional Secretariats are linked which means that anyone with a WP license plate can renew their revenue license anywhere in the Western Province. An issue people had previously with renewing revenue licenses in addition to having to fill 4 forms and stand in a queue for around one hour was that if a previous ownership was registered in a different DS Division, the license had to be renewed there. With this new system, there is no waiting in long queues and a person in Kalutara can even renew the license at a DS office in Negombo.


Western Province Department of Motor Traffic, Colombo, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

At present in the Western Province, a vehicle revenue license can be renewed in four ways – at the drive through in Maligawatte, at a counter at the Department of Motor Traffic in Maligawatte or any DS office in the Province or online. If you choose to renew it online through website, once approved by the Department of Motor Traffic you are able pay using a credit card and print out your temporary license from the comfort of your home or workplace. The Department then posts the original revenue license within a week to you. While this service is very convenient for credit card holders, the Department has not yet fully received the cooperation of the Police in recognizing this one – week valid temporary license.

With this technology, a revenue license can be issued in less than a minute. However, the system is hostage to implementation problems like the lack of staff. On the day we visited the counters were not operating at full capacity as a recent transfer of staff had left the Department short staffed in addition to the staff behind the counter still learning the ropes. “There shouldn’t be more than one or two people in each queue, I don’t like it, people shouldn’t have to wait”, said the Commissioner while watching this room from the CCTV screen in his room.


Western Province Department of Motor Traffic, Colombo, August 2013. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha

People in the drive through queue were most appreciative of this service as it meant that they no longer had to take time off work to renew a license. According to the Commissioner, the Department is hoping to introduce in the months to come another convenient service where people will be able to pay for the license via their mobile phones – a system similar to the current online renewal system where people can pay using their mobile phones instead of a credit card. Financial regulations imposed on the government body further delay implementation. Currently this technology is being introduced to the Southern, Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Ideally, all Provinces would be linked together through the system.

Talking about what he would like to do see in the future, the Commissioner said that he hopes they can use technology to bring all services much closer to people – where citizens can easily obtain services of the Department through their mobile phones while having lunch or on the go. The idea is that people should see obtaining services of Government departments as a part of their everyday lifestyle that happens with ease.

See portfolio