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Bittersweet : Vietnam’s mixed progress on E-Government during COVID-19

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Despite notable progress in providing digital services, there are still major challenges in accessing these tools in practice.

“Digital tools have been developed quickly to join the national fight against the COVID-19 pandemic; governmental agencies, businesses, and people have actively utilized and promoted the application of ICT in all aspects of socioeconomic life […] This is a catalyst for national digital transformation,” former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc declared at a meeting of the National Commission on E-government on March 10, 2021.

Yet our experiences suggest a different picture. Coming into Vietnam from abroad, Truong Thuy Quynh had high hopes of experiencing digitized COVID-19 prevention processes. She was quickly hit hard by the reality: an error-ridden health declaration website, time-consuming paperwork, 100 percent manual medical screening, and mostly in-person communications. The situation was no better for Pham Thi Thuy Duong, who during her 14-day quarantine after a domestic trip interacted with not a single digital tool for medical or location monitoring.

What is the cause of the optimism expressed by Phuc back in March?

It must be acknowledged that the Vietnamese government has made significant efforts during COVID-19 to digitize contact-tracing, information dissemination, and provision of public services.

First, the government has tried to digitize contact-tracing by launching several mobile applications such as Bluezone, NCOVI, and Vietnam Health Declaration (VHD). While NCOVI is a digital tool that collects medical information and travel history, Bluezone helps detect people with a high risk of exposure to the virus. Having an edge over other apps, VHD has recently been widely promoted thanks to an updated function allowing for better tracking of users’ daily travel. In the wake of the fourth wave of infections, the Ministry of Health announced that people could be penalized for using smartphones without contact tracing apps in crowded places.

The government has also invested in providing online public services to minimize contact between officials and the people. As a splendid example, the national public service portal has come into extensive use. Throughout 2020, the access rate at this portal increased continuously and reached 100 million by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Telemedicine Center for COVID-19 Outbreak Control exemplifies the efforts made in diagnosing and treating COVID-19 patients online. Regarding vaccination, a national portal has been established for convenient public registration.

Additionally, the government makes good use of social media platforms to inform the public of COVID-19 news and prevention instructions. Thong Tin Chinh Phu, the official Facebook page of the Vietnamese government, delivers robust updated news on almost an hourly basis. Zalo, a messaging app popular among locals, has also become a channel where information can travel quickly from the authorities to the people. As of December 2020, 55 out of 63 provinces in Vietnam had featured their portal on this platform.

Government officials and researchers whom we interviewed all viewed these digitization initiatives in a positive light.

“The application of ICTs has been of great moment for Vietnam in its combat against the virus, in terms of both contact-tracing and risk evaluation. Businesses are now able to carry out more administrative formalities through the Internet compared to before,” Dau Anh Tuan, director general of the Legal Department at the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said via email.

Echoing Tuan, Nguyen Thanh Long, a research analyst at Mekong Development Research Institute, commented: “COVID-19 has triggered a growing demand for a large amount of information declaration, quick and accurate information retrieval. Consequently, the number of ICT users has increased within state agencies, among the public and businesses. It can be said that the COVID-19 pandemic is a boon to the growth of e-government in Vietnam.”

Nonetheless, what happened during our quarantines urged us to cast doubt on the “positive light” emanating from these statements. After conducting more interviews, we discovered that our stories are not unique. A behind-the-scenes look into the picture of e-government in Vietnam reveals a number of loopholes.

For example, in the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, where mass testing has been requested by authorities, testing registration and results rely on physical communication between local government and residents, without any online services.

“The neighborhood’s leader came directly to my house to announce the testing time and location, but there are people who did not grasp the information, as the leader only informed the landlord,” a resident told us when asked about her testing experience.

Trang, an office worker, confirmed similar procedures at her neighborhood: “Each family is given paper testing registration forms, and we will bring the form to the testing site. First come, first serve!”

As a result, there have been complaints and online quarrels about long queues and even risks of cross-infection at these testing sites.

This problem is symptomatic of Vietnam’s imperfect e-governance system. We learned from Dau Anh Tuan that administrative procedures in Vietnam are sometimes online only symbolically and still require significant offline interactions. He pointed out that the proportion of online public services at level 4 (where transaction and service processing are both conducted online) is still low. Specifically, by the end of last year, the national average of level 4 public services only reached 30.86 percent. Furthermore, some agencies only focus on equipment procurement and have not invested sufficiently in developing user-friendly online services and providing guidance for usage.

With that in mind, consider this statement from Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Nguyen Huy Dung: “[In our country] there is software for disease prevention and control that can be completed within 48 hours. Many businesses have participated in building top-notch applications.” However, is the focus on software building overshadowing the need for better coordination and quality control?

Back to the case of COVID-19, even when ICT is in place, citizens’ poor digital readiness still poses a formidable barrier to e-governance. Doctor Do An Nhien shared with us a story about visitors to her hospital: “Some visitors came without smartphones for health declaration, so we had to switch to paper documents. This caused the whole procedure to become sluggish.” Her story resonated with my experiences at the airport. Many elderly passengers almost nagged the medical staff for individual instructions on how to fill out the online health declaration form.

Digital inequality does exist in Vietnamese society, particularly among different generations. As of May 2019, people over 45 years of age constituted only 10 percent of the total number of internet users. Such a divide also manifests itself between regions. Although the pandemic necessitated remote learning as a COVID-19-safe alternative, students from impoverished mountainous areas with low internet penetration rate lack both the facilities and skills to adapt to this digital solution.

Another serious problem exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic is the dearth of coordination among different agencies, limited synchronization of information, and weak shared infrastructure.

Particularly, one government official working in the medical sector who requested anonymity told us, “The databases of available contact-tracing apps are not integrated, creating hassles for users who must repetitively do health declarations on different apps. Besides, when retrieving information from Bluezone, we only have phone numbers and have to match with databases of VHD and NCOVI to identify users, which slows contact-tracing down considerably.”

Similar complications could be detected for other public service portals like Vietnam National Single Window, whose connections with the General Department of Vietnam Customs and relevant agencies exist only on the surface. As each agency has their own portal, the national portal offers simply a makeshift tie between them, according to Dau Anh Tuan. Nguyen Thanh Long attributed this lack of coordination to an unfocused, unselective portfolio of e-government investments. He suggested that channeling resources into a few high-quality portals and software would curb the aforementioned hassles.

The government is in fact take steps to remedy to the system’s shortcomings, from timely adoption of more advanced technologies to smoothing the way for government-private sector collaboration.

On July 11, Ho Chi Minh City introduced a new system that allows facial recognition and location tracking via smartphones to supervise self-quarantine, hoping to ease the pressure on centralized quarantine venues. The city is also using STAYHOME and HCMCovidSafe, smart wristbands produced collaboratively by governmental agencies, tech corporations, and scientists. Such cooperation has sparked the hope for a synergy in ICT capacity building in Vietnam in the near future.

Nevertheless, problems like a lack of coordination within the governmental apparatus, digital inequality, an immature digital culture, and a dearth of ICT-qualified personnel within the public sector may remain pressing in the aftermath of COVID-19. All the experts we spoke to agreed that these issues should now rise to the top of the policy agenda, alongside infrastructure building and technological upgrades.

By Truong Thuy Quynh & Pham Thi Thuy Duong – The Diplomat – July 16, 2021

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