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Wednesday October 20th, 2021

Hiranya Samarasekera on laying the foundation for a digital government

Hiranya Samarasekera Principal Advisor to the Ministry of Technology, and Former Chief Technology Officer at ICTA

Hiranya Samarasekera had a stellar run in the private sector – including a stint building a Silicon Valley-based Sri Lankan company into a successful venture which got acquired by a Fortune 100 corporation – before deciding to answer his calling and passion for public service. As the de facto Chief Technology Officer of the government, he was instrumental in actualising the government’s many ICT and digitalisation projects. As he assumes new responsibilities with the Ministry of Technology, he reflects on his career, his tenure at ICTA and the world of possibilities to come.

As the outgoing Chief Technology Officer, how did you define your role and purpose at ICTA?

ICTA is the apex state institution responsible for driving the digital transformation of the nation. It does this by creating the infrastructure for a digitally inclusive and citizen-centric digital government. The government and ICTA approach this with a clear vision to follow a whole-of-government approach with our Digital Government Blueprint. The agency is responsible for all government-sector ICT and digitalisation projects from their ideation stage to implementation, supervision, and management. My primary role at ICTA as its Chief Technology Officer, and thereby the de facto CTO of the government, was to ensure the effective use of technology to build digital governance platforms.

As I assume responsibilities as the Principal Advisor to the Ministry of Technology, I am excited by the prospects to deepen collaboration between ICTA and state-sector bodies and bring more focus to the digital transformation drive. With the transition into my new role, I will focus more on strategy. I will be positioned to build bridges between ICTA and the various state bodies for a more focused, well-coordinated approach to digitalisation. I believe it’s an important role because it brings together all the stakeholders around a single vision and can drive results faster.

Tell us about your career and how you ended up where you are today?

I took the first few steps in my career as a software developer even before I left school. That was in the Web 1.0 era. At a very young age, I had to teach myself programming and started a small freelancing business. Then along with my undergraduate studies in computer science, I started working as a software engineer for a Swedish enterprise solution provider called eBuilder at their Stockholm and Colombo engineering centres. There I gained exposure to enterprise domains such as procurement, supply chain, and travel expense management.

After an almost decade-long stint there, I joined Sysco LABS, then known as Leapset, as a Senior Software Architect. Then, based out of Redwood City, California, it was a young Silicon Valley startup building innovative technology-based products for the restaurant industry. When Sysco Corporation, a Fortune 100 company, acquired Leapset and changed its name to Sysco LABS, I was able to help the company with its expansion into providing a wide array of solutions for the food services industry. By the time I left Sysco LABS as a Vice President of Engineering, I had played lead engineering roles in their Restaurant POS solution, data engineering, platforms, cloud engineering, R&D, and Enterprise Architecture.

In 2019, I made an unconventional move by moving from a Silicon Valley-based tech company to serving the government. Deep within, I always wanted to serve the public.

With 20 years into my career, I thought it was the right time to pay it forward. Such a move always comes with challenges, where I had to unlearn a lot of my beliefs and acquire new knowledge. As the Chief Technology Officer for the government, I had the privilege of working with exemplary statesmen, bureaucrats, and policymakers who excel in what they do in various domains. It was the perfect blend of executing hardcore engineering at a societal scale while serving the public.

I have always had a fascination for social sciences and economics. And I have been a lifelong learner, which I believe has provided me with the much needed multi-disciplinary insight to grow in my career. I am currently learning towards my Master’s degree in Public Policy.

Recently, I took up an offer to serve the Ministry of Technology as the Principal Advisor to the Ministry, where I aspire to help the government in technology strategy and policymaking.

Can you tell us how ICTA is influencing attitudes and shaping the future of this country?

The government has entrusted ICTA to implement its vision of a digitally inclusive and citizen-centric government using technology. Since its inception, ICTA has been instrumental in formulating key ICT-related policies, institutional frameworks, and legislation to further ICT adoption within the country. With a whole-of-government approach, with our blueprint for a Digital Government, ICTA is helping government institutions build the foundational digital infrastructure to offer them as a service (IaaS) and shared software solutions including platforms as a service (PaaS), and software as a service (SaaS), required to run a government digitally. These have resulted in significant cost-efficiencies, eliminated redundancies, and made technology adoption much faster to provide efficient services to the public. ICTA initiatives on significant projects such as the Sri Lanka Unique Digital Identity (SLUDI) and the Court Automation projects will have far-reaching positive impacts on the public and the economy at large soon.

Everyone is talking about a digital economy. No doubt it is conceivable, but how can Sri Lanka quicken the pace? What is the role of policy and private enterprise in this endeavour?

ICTA has a regional cluster development programme covering the entire island to diffuse technological know-how and increase the adoption of ICT across different domains such as tourism, agriculture, education, and other economic segments. It aims to make traditionally non-tech industries adopt technology to improve their products, realise efficiency and productivity gains, and contribute to the digital economy. The Ministry of Technology’s initiative to create Technology Parks is another bold step towards increasing the attractiveness of Sri Lanka for foreign direct investments.

Private enterprise plays a vital role in furthering an economy through technological advancements and innovation. ICTA’s involvement in formulating the ‘Policy on Supporting Domestic Industries’ issued by the Ministry of Finance to all government institutions is noteworthy. This policy made technology startups have preferential rights in bidding for government procurements under Rs2 million. Further, for larger procurements, domestic firms with a 25% local value addition providing software and hardware solutions will receive preference. With this policy, the government anticipates domestic firms to establish consortiums with foreign technology companies to cater to the growing software and hardware demands of the government’s digitalisation drive.

The Draft Data Protection Legislature is in the final stages of seeking approval from the Parliament. It will create the necessary institutional frameworks and focus on capacity building towards a thriving digital economy that could attract foreign direct investments into ICT.

Can you take us through notable recent developments or any exciting initiatives in the pipeline?

The Sri Lanka Unique Digital Identity (SLUDI) project is one of the largest flagship projects undertaken by the ICTA and the Ministry of Technology. A full biometric-backed digital identity is foundational in bringing about efficiencies in the way the government delivers public programmes like welfare and digital services. The Court Automation System for the judicial system of Sri Lanka is another similar flagship project with far-reaching positive impacts on society. The main objective of this project is to improve efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, and public confidence in the court system in Sri Lanka through establishing a state-of-the-art ICT-based court management system in 100 courthouses.

What is your most memorable achievement at ICTA?

With the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, ICTA quickly reacted with several technology-based responses to fight the unseen virus and help authorities manage the pandemic effectively. ICTA closely contributed to the Ministry of Health implementing its Covid Tracker, the main information system in capturing the data of vaccinated citizens. We successfully rolled out an online Vaccination Appointment System in the Western Province, home to the largest population in the country. We developed an internationally valid Smart Vaccination Certificate with digitally verifiable credentials issued to everyone travelling overseas for work and studies.

The Smart Vaccination Certificate has enabled our foreign workers to return to their workplaces, bringing much-needed forex to the country. Most recently, ICTA, together with the NOCPCO, TRCSL, and mobile telecom operators, implemented the 1904 SMS-based solution to assist Covid-19 patients who are quarantined at home needing emergency care, including hospitalization. We have helped save many lives with this solution.