The Digital Pakistan initiative launched by the PTI government in December 2019 is surely a step in the right direction. 

Digitisation supports better delivery of public services, can reduce corruption, gives the population more insight into government policies and functions, and can in turn, lead to more active political participation in nation building. 

But now after arriving at the well-intentioned idea, it is often the implementation which is hard.

Let’s start with a reality check. Ernst and Young estimates that 70% to 80% of public-sector core-system modernisations either fail outright or are disappointments, 20% to 30% fall in the “good” range and only five per cent are great.

How do we make sure that the modernisation falls into that successful category? We have already gotten the first step right. Pakistan is one of the very few countries to establish a standalone digital body with a mandate to coordinate, enable, and partially execute the transformation. Other examples include Denmark and the UK.

The Digital Pakistan initiative must start off on the right foot by ensuring that they establish world class digital infrastructure.  This includes establishing a gigabit fibre network with strong data security, smart networking, while also incorporating digital internal exchanges.

To establish such a network, you need to first understand the need of experts in the field. A digital system needs to invest in people that will be innovative while they understand the need of the hour. A successful initiative tends to always “over invest in the right people and their capabilities from day one”. Penny pinching here will have catastrophic effects later and too much is at stake in terms of Pakistan’s future on this front.

The second thing a digital Pakistan needs to be weary of is not to waste time reinventing the wheel. It is true that we are indeed looking to revolutionise the economy of the country but we do not need to start things from scratch. Road maps are already laid out by some countries and Pakistan can reap the benefits of what is already common knowledge. An example on the top of my head is Germany’s Industry 4.0. Read it, modify it to meet your local needs and apply it. This will ensure that businesses will have uniform framework and a support for interoperability.

No public policy initiative across the world is successful, unless there is buy-in from the consumers, i.e. the public. The old adage, “you build it and they will come” is not necessarily true for digital space. The Digital Pakistan initiative can focus on three areas as top priority as they seem to be the most manual processes in the country and the public may reap the most benefits if these are digitalised. One has to be a real time transportation information guide for trains at least, two the process  of tax returns and three a digital database of some form or aid for job searches. The public can be offered incentives for using online services, such as India offering ten per cent off train tickets if they are bought online.

To excel in the digital world there is a well-known four step approach which starts by

1) Laying the foundation or a strong digital infrastructure

2) Executing policy with agility by launching high priority pilot projects

3) Accelerate adoption among users by offering incentives for people to go online and stay online

4) Digitally excel by looking into and offering end to end services

However all of this is only possible if the master plan is not rigid. Sadly, so far what I have observed is that Pakistan is focused solely on launching apps and portals. People behind the digital movements fail to realise that, even though effective in building a digital infrastructure to some extent, it does little to help a country with a low literacy rate coupled with the unavailability of the internet. It is therefore important to remember that a country’s digital transformation is not just a matter of putting forms online or launching new applications.

Pakistan should try hard either to join the D9 group or at least follow in their footsteps to become a digitally advanced nation. Transforming into a digital nation means defining a new ecosystem that can enable new stakeholders such as startups, SMEs, entrepreneurs, universities, research institutions and civil society at large.

It is the need of the hour to have leaders that are digitally savvy, who enjoy the government’s support on merit while they in turn create a digital workforce that can spark this very achievable change.  We need to identify very well-known no-regret digital enablers that run on core digital infrastructure, such as those for cyber security, digital identity, and payments that can scale up across multiple sectors. The next step is to identify and select a small number of industries that will reap the greatest economic and societal benefits from digitisation.

As someone who has led many transformations in the digital space, I can tell you, the trick is to start small and deliver a product that people can see and experience, which will then inspire them. If I am ever so lucky to lead the digital transformation of a nation, I will start by talking to city planners and take a town or a housing society as an incubator (private sector to avoid bureaucracy) and convert it into a model digital town.  This town will exclusively feature online bill payments, online shopping and artificially intelligent customer support systems. The intra-town transport system will also be digitally managed. The manifestation of such a town will enable citizens to see how much easier their life could be, whereby they will force the government to transform.

The Digital Pakistan initiative should not be afraid of failures and should not wait on regulating new laws because not only is that process long, it is also one that needs to evolve with time, especially since digital space itself is very flexible and innovative.  And remember what Micheal Jordan said,

“I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”