Vietnam's online administration procedures still far from a game-changer

March 19, 2023 | 04:00 pm PT
Nguyen Hoa Cuong Economist
Recently, hundreds of people have been waiting in line daily at several transportation offices in Hanoi to update or renew their driver's licenses.

Since my license was about to expire, I could either go to one of these places to wait in line or register online.

I started with the first method. When I arrived at those offices at the start of the day, they were no longer receiving people and I was told to return early the next morning at 6 a.m. So I turned to online registration, not wanting to waste time.

But "online" did not mean quick, or simple.

The first step is a medical examination, followed by going to the ward's People's Committee to complete procedures for a digital certificate. Only a health certificate with a certified digital signature is accepted. The ward officer walked me through the steps and emphasized that I needed to create an account on the National Public Service Portal before I could get an e-certified medical certificate.

The second step was for me to register for a Portal account using my mobile phone number as the primary means of authentication. My first few attempts were unsuccessful, but then I recalled the ward officer's advice: just enter the 9-digit ID card number that was previously associated with my phone number, and the system would recognize it. After completing the second step, I was given a digital certification for my medical exam that same afternoon.

Step three involved connecting my bank account to my account on the Portal so that I can pay the public service fee of VND135,000. The tax code must be declared before the bank account can be linked, and I doubt that everyone knows their tax code or how to find it.

Fourth, I logged onto the website and began filling out the application. Once the form was completed, I got a message saying "Error accessing information about traffic violations." I did not understand what that meant. Had I committed some sort of traffic violation? No matter how hard I tried, I just could not get it to work. The next day, I tried to fill the form again, and this time it read: "There is no violation that would warrant license confiscation." I chuckled to myself; it was obvious that I had my license in my hand, but the system had me so worried that I thought it had been taken away.

In the fifth and final step, after entering all of my information, I was told that my email address was invalid and that the system therefore could not send me the verification code. I tried switching to a different email, but that did not work, and after two days of calling a support hotline listed on the Road Administration's Online Public Service Portal, no one picked up the phone. I sent an email, but I never got a reply. Lucky for me, the Hanoi Department of Transportation announced their mobile hotline number a few days later, and this time it worked. The department representative told me that the last error I had was still being looked into, possibly due to a connection problem. But the representative said that he had informed the technical department, and that he would get back to me as soon as it was resolved.

Since the early 2000s, Vietnam has been promoting a digital government scheme alongside administrative reform with some success. According to the United Nations' 2022 E-Government Survey, Vietnam ranked 86th out of 193 U.N. member states on the 2022 e-Government Development Index (EGDI). The country maintained a consistent ranking, rising from 99th to 86th place between 2014 and 2020. Its EGDI index has been higher than the global and regional average, despite the significant gap with the leading nations.

The government aims to process 50% of administrative records online by the end of 2025. However, online public services have not yet created an optimized-user experience, resulting in numerous inconveniences. According to data from the General Statistics Office, the percentage of people utilizing this service remains low. By the end of December 2021, only 12.16% of urban residents and 4.03% of rural residents used online public administrative services. Only 1.5% of people over the age of 60 used it. The age group with the highest percentage, 25–29, also reached only 12.09%.

A man searches for administration procedures information on a computer at Ho Chi Minh Citys District 12 Peoples Committee, June 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A man searches for administration procedures information on a computer at Ho Chi Minh City's District 12 People's Committee, June 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

During a meeting, I told the leader of the Administrative Procedures Reform Advisory Council that reports indicate that a large number of online public services are currently available, but the most important thing is to focus on the quality of services used by many people, which would take a long time to do directly, such as new vehicle registration, driver’s license renewal, etc. There is a need for data on the ratio between documents processed online and the total number of documents that need processing in each field in order to determine the true effectiveness of the method. If deployed in a user-friendly, stable and quick manner, online public services will undoubtedly improve the performance of state agencies.

As a citizen who relies on public services, I empathize with the hundreds of people waiting in line to get a new driver's license in Hanoi, as well as many others who are undergoing similar procedures in other cities. From my own experience, I think the online steps that I went through are not easy for the average person to follow through.

In Vietnam, 85% of adults own a smartphone. Projects for digital transformation are being worked on by all of Vietnam's regions, divisions and ministries. Vietnam was also one of the first nations to test and manufacture 5G equipment. To put it another way, the infrastructure is ready. However, a digital transformation is a difficult process for any nation in the world. It is understandable that its implementation must go through a phase of "half-heartedness" like this one. What is important is to continually try to fix and upgrade the service to make it more intelligent, user-friendly, and truly put the people at the center.

My online application was finally reviewed recently, seven days after I submitted it. There was a good chance that I can get a new permit in five days if I had stood in line at one of the registration offices. That being said, I do hope that the digital transformation will one day proceed without a hitch.

*Nguyen Hoa Cuong is the deputy head of the Central Institute for Economic Management.

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