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Demystifying Community Information Centres

Introduction

Our policy-makers are in a state of confusion about the community information centres (CICs). This has led them to take capricious and often comical decisions even in the Parliament.

The point of contention revolves mainly around the ambiguity of the ownership and management of these centres. According to recent media reports and studies on CICs in Bhutan, many of the centres are underutilized. They suffer from lack of coordination, lack of equipment, lack of trained operators and other glitches and disarrays in the services. Local community leaders are unclear about the authority under which the centres are functioning. There is no clear sense of direction for the CICs and they have thus remained stuck with an ‘identity crisis’.  Neither the community, nor the intermediary corporate body, nor the government officials seem to have a clear answer for this. Everyone seems to be looking to the other for getting things going.

Background

The 21st century is widely accepted as the ‘Knowledge Century.’ The past few decades have seen governments, non-governmental organizations, and business entrepreneurs investing significant amounts of financial and human resources in telecentres, public libraries and other community-based centres.

In Bhutan, a Multipurpose Community Telecentre (MCT) was established in Jakar town by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 1999. The need to “establish multiple telecentres in every Geog” finds mention in the Bhutan Information and Communications Technology Policy and Strategies 2004 (BIPS). In July 2009, the Government mandated the MoIC to “establish a community information centre in every Gewog”. The government then initiated the Public Service Delivery (PSD) and G2C initiative to strengthen delivery of public services through the use of ICT. It also launched the first eGovernment ICT Master Plan in 2012. By May 2013, the Department of Information Technology and Telecom (DITT) under the MoIC established 182 centres. The financial assistance came from the Chiphen Rigphel Project (Government of India), SAARC Development Fund (SDF) and GNHC. The remaining 20 centres were shelved to be established in the 11 FYP due to “funding shortage and absence of electricity in those areas.”

The government revised the e-Gov ICT Master Plan in 2015. By October 2015, 195 community information centres were established. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Swiss Development Corporation (SDC) assisted in these project funding. Today we have 200 community centres in the country.

As for the operation and management of the CICs, the responsibility was first given to the Bhutan Post. Next, its management was transferred to another wrong organization (Bhutan Development Bank Ltd); wrong because both these organizations have different roles and mandates. And as if that weren’t enough, in the last session of the Parliament, when the Opposition moved a motion to change the management of CICs from the BDBL to the Gewog Administration, the government voted unanimously against the motion and retained the management of the CICs with the BDBL only.

The problem

Placing an organization under a wrong organization is always a recipe for failure. Although the government claims to have launched “151” G2C online services through the G2C web-portal and established 200 community information centres so far, it seems that there is not much to show on the ground in terms of the public service delivery.

Against this background, I will make a modest attempt to discuss some key issues underpinning successful implementation of the CICs based on relevant literature and experiences of other countries.

The evolution of the centres

The first attempts to improve access to information involved Community Libraries. Then came the Community Information Centres, which were considered more dynamic than the community libraries. This role required trained information staff for acquiring, processing, storing and disseminating the information needed by the community that they served.

Due to the growing influence of ICT on the creation and communication of information, Telecentres and Community IT Centres appeared next. This was in the 1980s. And by the late 90s, Multipurpose Community Telecentres became the new buzz-words. Today this is the most common type of centre operating in many developing and developed countries. Another type of telecentre has come up recently. It is called Community Multimedia Centre. These centres use community broadcasting alongside other facilities to reach out to the local community. In more recent years, Community Learning Centres have taken a prominent role. These centres reflect the recognition of the importance of Media and Information Literacy (MIL) and lifelong learning in the 21st century.

Community centres in Bhutan

Besides the 200 Gewog CICs established since 2009, Bhutan has 885 Non-Formal Education (NFE) centres and 22 Community Learning Centres (as of 2013, according to the iSherig Master Plan 2014 – 2018). We also have 251 ECCD (Early Childhood Care and Development) centre, 12 READ (Rural Education and Development) centres and a number of other community based centres in the country.

The National Council of Bhutan has also been actively involved in discussing about these issues. The G2C Services Research Report shared by the National Council in November 2017 on its Facebook page revealed that out of the 1201 G2C users interviewed, 28% of the respondents were not aware of the G2C services and only 49% of the respondents availed the services.

Experience with telecentre initiatives in other developing countries have shown that effective implementation of telecentres and their services require a focused public sector effort guided and supported by the highest policy levels.

Let us look at the existing policy environment concerning the implementation of CICs in Bhutan.

Policy environment

CICs are shaped or constrained by the overall National Information Policy of the country, by the policies of the organizations that support them, and by the policies of the local communities within which they operate. Here, the current position is positive for Bhutan. The government has recently come up with the eGov Master Plan and the ICT Roadmap for our country to complement the Five Year Plans (FYPs) for “An ICT-Enabled, Knowledge Society as a Foundation for Gross National Happiness.” However, we are faced with many problems of conflicting policies which create implementation difficulties.

As we see it today, our CICs are implemented under the political milieu of (1) lack of consensus between the government and the opposition; (2) lack of a comprehensive policy and proper implementation strategy; (3) lack of clarity in the roles and mandates between central coordinating agencies and local government; (4) lack of coordination and collaboration between the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs); (5) lack of human capacity (knowledge workers/information professionals) and so on.

Lessons from other countries

A study carried out to assess the Common Service Centres (CSCs) in India in 2009 suggested that “corporate players and private companies are unlikely to have outcomes favoring disadvantaged sections of the population.”

Another study jointly conducted by the National Informatics Centre of India and Stanford University concluded that local governance services and other entitlements should not be subcontracted to private players.

A study commissioned by UNESCO to assess the development of various types of community centres in South-East Asia recommended that “…In the long-term, it is desirable for the centre to be managed as part of the local community or local government system.”

These are just few examples. The issue of the Community Information Centres merits in-depth study from a holistic perspective because it is a matter that concerns the entire country and the one that underpins the creation of an equal and a just “knowledge-based” society based on Gross National Happiness.

Conclusion

It is hoped that with the government adopting the “Whole-of-Government approach” and the new e-Gov Governance Structure in place, the government will take the necessary corrective measures by including all the relevant stakeholders and engaging them in framing an inclusive and comprehensive policy for the successful implementation of CICs. This would include engaging the local government, private companies, health, education, agriculture, tourism, small business, community groups, youth groups, women’s groups, ISP/Telecom providers, broadcast media, libraries, NGOs etc.

It’s never too late to get our nation building right.

 

The views and opinions expressed are of the author’s own.

 

Contributed by Lingchen

Sherubtse College, Royal University of Bhutan

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