TBY talks to Eduardo Jaén, General Administrator of the National Authority of Governmental Innovation, on upgrading the tech at government agencies, providing free internet access points, and broadband penetration.

What major investments have you made over the last five years?

There has been some $500 million in e-government and ICT infrastructure spending done by the government. At the start of this administration, we developed an all-encompassing digital strategy that focused on two areas; firstly, to improve the level of service to citizens and, secondly, to increase the level of transparency. Those two things tied together were the criteria for selecting and improving the projects to be developed. As a result of this, we launched a program called Panama Sin Papel. It is a paperless initiative and its purpose is to empower citizens to conduct transactions with the government electronically. The program has a number of components. The total cost of the program is around $50 million and it has five pillars. The first component is the identification of the citizens, companies, and foreigners that want to do electronic transactions with the government, because they need to be given a password. We even implemented some innovative systems to facilitate this process. The second pillar is a portal tool, which we call Panama-Tramita. It identifies all the different transactions that you can do with the government. We are using process engineering to ensure that what is there is an efficient process, eliminating those steps deemed unnecessary. That is something that has helped us improve government efficiency and cut the time it takes to process every request. The third component is the interoperability and transaction system, which essentially handles all the forms when you apply for requests. It connects 19 government databases in order to avoid asking citizens to provide information that already exists in the databases of the government. This is an idea that we took from a similar legislation in Spain. The fourth pillar is to implement an electronic payment platform. The final element is the implementation of the electronic signature. Our paperless initiative has been replicated in many other countries in the region, and it has received awards from the Inter-American Development Bank. We have brought the Public Administration forward to the 21st century.

Will the voting system be also implemented in the short term?

We are very careful when we talk about the Electoral Tribunal, because it is an autonomous and independent entity. It has an excellent team of ICT professionals. We envision that electronic voting systems are the way of the future. We think that it is something that eventually will happen everywhere. We also believe that we have a very strong and solid platform to identify who is dealing with the government. For example, we have designed a kiosk that reads the national identification card and confirms that you are the cardholder by reading your retina or your fingerprints. We can ensure that the person doing the voting is the person authorized to vote. We are buying the latest technology out there. That is why the World Economic Forum ranked us number seven globally for the adoption of high-tech devices.

“According to the IDB, we rank third in bandwidth penetration in Latin America."

How relevant is this recognition for your agency?

Essentially, it says that what the government is doing is going in the right direction. The experts that participate in this evaluation believe that this is something that should be emulated by all governments. On the other hand, it is something that helps improve the competitiveness of our government and of the country in general. We are very proud of all the recognition that our agency has received.

In which projects has President Martinelli focused his efforts over his term in office?

The President has been very active in all of our undertakings. For example, we needed to have a government-only IP communications system; something that would interconnect all government agencies. We invested less than $10 million; however, the network saves us about $10 million a year in operating costs and charges from telephone operators. President Martinelli was a big supporter of the project and helped make it a reality. A similar thing happened when we proposed to move the government toward cloud computing. There are many small agencies that cannot afford what the new world demands of a modern information-processing center, things like telecommunications consultants and information security managers. Also, in today's world you need to provide service 24/7. You must make sure that the center maintains the right level of service to its users and the citizens. Smaller agencies cannot afford this. Hence, we decided to go to a cloud computer solution. We have three small clouds that are servicing 56 different government agencies. We are also saving significant amounts of money on operations, new investments, and licensing fees. We were one of the first countries in Latin America to adopt a strategy to go the cloud way.

What is the importance of the creation of 1,105 free access points for the social and economic development of the country?

President Martinelli ran on a campaign to reduce the digital divide. When we discussed this, we saw that the best way to do that was to provide internet access to all that wanted to be connected, particularly those with less resources. There was a law that essentially created a new right for citizens, consisting of internet at affordable prices, but nothing had been done about it. We looked at that as an opportunity for us to make the presidential promise possible. Now we have grown to over 1,100 access points and developed a national Wi-Fi network free of charge. We believe that the significant number of users registered is just a reflection of the acceptance of the program. It also goes hand in hand with the program implemented by the Ministry of Education to give computers to school children. The children go to their schools with their computers, and when they get home they have homework to do. They get connected to the internet through one of our access points. These computers are not only used by the people to whom they were given to but by their immediate family members as well. We have seen instances of computers being used by five different people. That is why we have so many citizens registered in our subscriber base. These programs together have allowed Panama to accelerate the use of digital devices by society in general, bringing it forward to the 21st century. Economically, it has also impacted the way many users are benefited by the network. We are recognized by many technology indexes as the number three or four in computer penetration, internet penetration, and in bandwidth use in Latin America. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) says that we are number three in bandwidth penetration. If we have to pinpoint one thing that has contributed to improving the quality of life for Panamanians, it is the National Internet Network that President Martinelli launched to fulfill a campaign promise to expand the opportunities that citizens have to learn and use the means of this era in their daily lives.

How many Panamanians are connected to the National Internet Network?

There are 1.3 million in total. We are excited about the significant growth that we have experienced, and we believe it is just a reflection of handing out 183,000 computers in the school system. In 2014, we will provide 116,000 additional computers, meaning that everyone from 7th to 12th grade will have a computer. In addition, primary schools are being given a computer at a ratio of 6:1. That means that for every six students there will be one computer. Also, all 40,000 teachers are being given computers. What we have done has really overhauled the education system. All this has increased exponentially the demand for internet and bandwidth. And, by the way, the internet program is being used for school homework, research, and surfing the internet. It is used to learn and to discover new things.

How would you evaluate the level of technology in terms of broadband penetration?

According to the IDB, we rank third in bandwidth penetration in Latin America. According to CEPAL, we have the cheapest internet costs in all of Latin America. The Latin Technology Index says that we are second in penetration. The World Economic Forum also points out that we are also second in cellular phone penetration. The combination of all these things points to the fact that the country is moving forward and reducing the digital divide. We are taking advantage of technologies to make Panamanians competitive vis–à–vis their peers around the world. That is very important for us. When you have an economy that is growing at a rate of 10% a year, the first thing that happens is that everybody gets employed. Once everyone is employed, you need to start working on productivity and efficiency. You need to ensure that your manpower is productive. What we aim to do with all the things that we have done is to improve Panama's competitiveness. This is reflected at the World Economic Forum, where we have advanced 19 positions. We occupy the second position in Latin America, and we are very proud of that.

© The Business Year - March 2014