Bhutanese officials are building a digital government system – here’s how


  • Opinion by Ian Richards, Amy Shelver (Geneva, Switzerland)
  • Inter Press Service

Annoying government procedures are not only inconvenient for users, they are also annoying for the officials who administer them. Sitting behind a counter and stamping forms isn’t exactly a dream job. This is where technology can help. In 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bhutanese government launched the G2B digital government portal. It is a groundbreaking piece of software that has earned the country recognition as the fastest place in the world to start a new business. Entrepreneurs simply fill out a form on their mobile phone and receive all registration documents for free in less than a minute. In 2022, 5,500 Bhutanese, almost 1% of the population, used the service to register a business – 52% of them were women. It is also a turning point for Bhutan’s public administration and for the digital government world at large. The world’s fastest business registration service was not designed by consultants in India or California, but by the officials who previously handled the time-consuming, paper-only process of moving citizens from one row to another of government offices. How did this happen?

Keep it simple

It’s all thanks to the low-code simplicity of the UNCTAD digital government platform that, after some basic training, Bhutan’s officials were able to adapt themselves to create online services. The coverage of these services is now vast and includes permits to operate bus services, authorizations to fly drones and leases for industrial estates.

The government plans to transfer all permits, authorizations and procedures related to the country’s economy to the platform over the next two years. In time, it could extend to all government departments.

“The goal of our technology is to reduce friction,” said Frank Grozel, head of UNCTAD’s digital government platforms program. “Everyone wins by having effective, uncomplicated technology at their fingertips. But this is especially important for civil servants as it allows them to focus on why they are doing their job and not necessarily how they are doing it.”

Better service

Each service is built from the bottom up. Government teams, including procedural officials, developers, and trainers, came together to simplify existing steps and create shortcuts that help expedite service delivery. Employees are guided to understand the process from the user’s point of view, which creates empathy and an understanding of where the bottlenecks and frustrations can be.

“Entire teams went to see how the system could be changed and why elements of the original process could feel so painful to the end user,” said Bita Mortazavi, UNCTAD’s project manager for the Bhutan Initiative. The impact on the workforce has been profound. “We can now focus on service development and select simple services, with high impact, to change entire systems,” says Sonam Lhamo, project leader at Bhutan’s Ministry of Economy. Tshering Dorji, a developer, said it has changed his view of software development. “My imagination has improved enormously. I learned how to simplify without coding,” he said.

Another developer, Pema Gyalpo, was pleasantly surprised.

“We can even further simplify the simple things,” he said. “The experience of building this simpler system wasn’t about work, it was about how we’re going to work. I will have the privilege of sending ideas that will serve other countries.

Innovate first, regulate later

Most Bhutanese businesses are small. About 95% of them are cottage enterprises. This reality prompted the country’s government to look for ways to help the micro-enterprises of the mountain country succeed in the quickest and easiest way. “Our approach is to innovate first and regulate later, to lower barriers to entry for new businesses, embrace innovation and allow creativity to flourish,” said Bhutan’s economy minister Tengye Lyonpo. This ethos has produced results for the country whose unconventional approach is working for itself and its citizens in new ways. While Bhutan pioneered the flat-pack approach to digital government, making services modular and easier to create, other countries will follow thanks to funding from the Netherlands. This year Colombia, Estonia, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Togo and Tunisia will join the club. Countries already benefiting from the platform include Argentina, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iraq, Lesotho and Mali.

Amy Sheller is an expert in the field of digitization and the creative economy and Ian Richards is an economist at UNCTAD, specializing in digital business environments.

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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