Opinion Article

The Excessively Optimistic eTazkira Project

Written by Said Zazai

One of the fundamental misconception about Information System or process automation is the expectation of direct reforms or improvements in the process. While e-government is not a new subject in academia or research, its implementation and use cases however, do not reflect the same time period. Moreover, while a number of countries have developed e-government strategies, research indicates that few have been successful in delivering its true values or mandated outcomes. Therefore, when one speaks of planning a successful e-government project or program, it is equally as important to understand and examine the ways in which other large government IT projects have failed to meet their goals.

Ironically, the list of government initiated IT projects that have not been successful in meeting their goals, is quite large, most notably topped by the National Health Service (NHS) computers system project in the United Kingdom. For this project, over $16 billion were invested in 2002, however it was completely abandoned in 2013. This projects was described as ‘the biggest IT failure ever seen’. It was considered a complete failure as it was scrapped completely in the end and the outputs were never achieved.

Similarly in the United States, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly referenced as Obamacare had a $2 billion website project (healthcare.gov) which was set out to target the entire 300 million population of the US. This aim of the project was to introduce a centralized database of health insurance for its citizens. During the first day of its launch in October 2013, and with well over 4.7 million visits to the website, it was sadly only capable of enrolling six (6) people within the first 24 hours. This project falls under the ‘budget overrun’ category; however, by project management definitions, the Obamacare is characterized as a failure.

Another example from the United States includes a $11.2 million project that was contracted out to American Management Systems Inc. (AMS), with the purpose of delivering 36 applications for its tax system automation. The project had delays and technical failures causing Mississippi State Tax Commission to file $1 billion law suit against the company. In the end, AMS agreed to pay $185 million over the course of 13 years.

While these Information Systems Management examples provided above had their own specific reasons for failure, and they might not be specifically indicative of the delays experienced with the Afghanistan Electronic National ID (eTazkira) project, they provide reflect generally on some of the key concerns that major IT projects can potentially carry, especially in a fast-changing technological and institutional environments where the project is implemented. This pace of change raises important questions around the ‘Vision-Reality’ gap. For example, how ambitious or optimistic are we when planning the strategy of the project? Also, can we do it within the allocated time, cost and scope constraints defined for the project?

The eTazkira project has been delayed for years, with reasons for the delay often distracted towards political and legal aspects of the project. However, in a country where basic infrastructure and the three elements of change management (namely people, process and technology) are not ready to allow a successful implementation of such large project, the vision of this e-government project runs the risk of being excessively optimistic.
These potential risk factors can be better understood in accordance with the four factors identified in research on e-governance, as potentially contributing to the vision-reality or vision-implementation gap. Below these factors are examined in relation to the eTazkira project delay in Afghanistan:

Weak Ownership: Research indicates that developing nations are often not the primary entity solely in charge of developing its national strategies. Aid agencies, outside consultants or irrelevant organization(s) often take the ownership of strategy development or even the implementation of a project. This is indicative of the existing confusion in Afghanistan for example, between the Ministry of Communications and IT and Ministry of Interior. This confusion has created a lot of doubt on the ownership of the operations of a given project. Related to this, the financial side of the project becomes just as complex as multiple aid agencies often participate in it.

Scarce Leadership: The compact business-card size electronic ID card has a number of benefits over an A4 paper based national ID, and the public appears to have realized by placing a demand for it. This demand has helped the project implementers in pitching the idea to the leadership. The leadership unfortunately hasn’t been able to understand and support the social, economic and business benefits beyond the national security benefit.

Focus and Priorities: This is a key success factor in the eTazkira project success. The underlying elements of an e-government application are the technology infrastructure, legal infrastructure and human capacity. These elements unfortunately have been overlooked at the concept or idea stage of the project. The plan to develop these capacities during the implementation of the eTazkira application hasn’t worked out well and it shouldn’t have.

Institutional capacity or Business Process Management (BPM): BPM is a discipline where organizational processes are orchestrated or re-engineered before a fast changing technology is adopted. The ‘re-engineer first, then automate’ philosophy is fundamental in e-government projects. The complex and slow paper based processes have affected the procurement of assets and developing the human capacity of its staff in the eTazkira project.

It remains to be seen if the excessive optimism behind eTazkira will be followed by an equally excessive pessimism or if the ‘technology only’ focused Information System strategy will actually be able to overcome all its challenges and deliver the service as originally anticipated. It is an optimistic endeavor that will need immense energy, time and continued evaluation of its achievements and failures. In a country where internet penetration is around 5% of its population, and bank account holders are not more than that number either, providing chip based national identity cards to 95% of its population who might not be able to use it, does raise questions on the project vision and its associated risk factors. It might be a very optimistic plan than usually designed for least developed countries to leapfrog using technology.

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Said Zazai

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