Bureaucratic mess lays bare govt inefficiency

Bureaucratic mess lays bare govt inefficiency

A future of less mobility? An accelerated pace of AI and robot applications? An economic slump greater than the Great Depression?

There are many predictions about what the post-Covid-19 landscape will look like. But the truth is this is a new disease. We have no prior experience nor existing database to depend on for a forecast.

For now, it's probably best to settle on what the coronavirus crisis has taught us so far. This lessons should let us fix some shortcomings and become more prepared for what the future may bring.

In the case of Thailand, the outlook is not that pretty.

The Prayut Chan-o-cha government faltered miserably during the beginning of the crisis. The situation only began to look up after two key ministers, those for commerce and public health, were completely sidelined.

The future does not look bright for Democrat Party leader Jurin Laksanawisit and Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul.

Even now, people are still wondering what happened to the country's supplies of face masks under Mr Jurin's supervision. Will the shortages, alleged hoarding and profiteering end up as merely a misunderstanding as suggested by the government?

As for Mr Anutin, suffice to say his absence has not made anybody's heart grow fonder. The public health minister who should have been centre-stage in this crisis has been missing in action and not missed.

Chaos, however, remains concerning the relief measures that the government has rolled out. Some people who applied for the 5,000-baht cash aid said they got rejected for being farmers when they are not. An offer for an automatic visa extension saw hundreds of people flocking for the service when gatherings of people were the last thing the government wanted.

This inefficiency and disorder points to a major weakness that has underlined the government's faltering response to the Covid-19 outbreak, and all its reform efforts so far.

It's an inability to catch up with the digital age, to use a data-based approach to map out and implement public policies instead of relying on the top-down bureaucratic system.

South Korea and Taiwan, two countries that have been held up as success cases in Asia, relied on information technology including apps to alert citizens about virus hot spots, direct-to-home relief packages to prevent people from moving around, and programmes to track down those who have been in contact with confirmed cases.

Communications to citizens are precise and accurate as the governments could send alerts and updates directly to people's mobile phones.

Transparency and clear lines of communication have gone a long way in dispelling the rumours and preventing the panic which are all too common during a pandemic.

What do we have here in Thailand?

We have registration systems for government relief measures that crashed minutes after they had been launched.

As for the latest, we-won't-leave-anyone-behind 5,000-baht cash aid, more than 26 million people reportedly registered for the money. But the Finance Ministry estimated that only about 9 million are entitled to the scheme.

Were the guidelines unclear? If the aid is targeted at some 9 million people who the ministry consider to have been hit hardest by the outbreak, why couldn't the registration programme have been set up to screen out those who are not eligible?

To let more than three times the number of people eligible for the relief register is inefficient. That means a lot of manual screening and a lot more disappointment on the part of those destined to be denied.

To lessen its workload, the Finance Ministry added another button allowing people to withdraw their request. Authorities also threatened people who applied for the money who are not qualified that they could be prosecuted for inputting false information.

It should not be this difficult to receive government aid during an epidemic.

The massive overflow leaves ample room for mistakes. The ministry said the screening is done by AI but some people are already complaining that they have been rejected incorrectly. For these people, it appears like the ministry will allow them to re-register.

This appears needlessly cumbersome.

Indeed, it begs the question of why the government needs people to register for any new projects. It should have enough data about its citizens -- address, occupation, financial status -- based on household registration, tax collection and past projects such as handouts for the poor.

It appears the government has never mined, synchronised or managed its citizen databases. The Covid-19 outbreak has exposed the weakness. And it should be fixed.

Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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