Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally — and in normal times they come to Maastricht in person for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time we spoke with Atsuko Okuda about her PhD thesis entitled, ‘Towards e-compliance: Exploring the role of compliance and e-governance initiatives in the case of Bhutan’.
Mindel van de Laar: Technology is well-known for increasing efficiency and productivity – but it also has more complex ‘darker’ sides. In your PhD thesis, which you defend on 16 November 2021 in Maastricht, you investigate the willingness of government employees in Bhutan to use new e-government systems. Can you tell us more about your research?
Atsuko Okuda: My research aims to shed light on interactions among technological, social and organisational factors which have influence over e-governance initiatives designed to control corruption in developing countries.
E-governance initiatives, such as tax administration, public finance management and procurement, are increasingly seen as a vehicle to address corruption. The systems can provide transparency, visibility and traceability and help detect fraudulent transactions and patterns through disaggregated data and data analytics. Especially in countries where economic resources are limited, it is imperative to control corruption and ensure the availability of public resources to achieve their national development goals and inclusive sustainable development. There are quantitative studies which evidenced correlations between technology and corruption, but where and how technology is effective to reduce corruption remains largely unknown.
In my exploratory, inductive research, I used the lens of compliance and investigated what are the determinants of compliance among government employee users of e-governance initiatives. When e-governance initiatives are designed and implemented to control corruption and the government employee users comply with the system requirements, it is expected that the systems will eventually lead to less frauds and wrongdoings. For example, if a public financial management system requires all payments to be recorded and effected by the system and all the users comply, it may deter an user from siphoning public funds for personal benefits. My research identified where such compliance in e-governance implementation was found and what were the compliance determinants in the case of Bhutan. Based on the empirical evidence, my research proposed a new conceptual framework of e-compliance.
MvdL: For your study, you did fieldwork in Bhutan, which is not a very open country. Why did you decide to study Bhutanese cases and how did your data collection go in practice?
AO: I used a case study as research method and established criteria for country selection. Bhutan came up as the most suitable country for this study. Based on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2020, Bhutan was ranked 24th out of 180 countries globally, one place above the USA. In addition, Bhutan has been implementing e-government initiatives along their e-government masterplan of 2014. It was likely that I would find evidence of compliance in their e-government implementation.
Bhutan is a kingdom nestled in the Himalayan mountains, with a population of about 736,000 governed under the constitutional democratic monarchy. It is categorised as a least developed country (LDC), on the path to ‘graduation’ in 2023. Bhutan is a new democracy and held its first democratic elections in 2008 and its constitution was enacted in the same year. The country’s unique approach to development is conceptualised as Gross National Happiness (GNH).
It is true that not many studies have been conducted on Bhutan in the past. I was very fortunate to gain access to conduct data collection in 2019 in the form of semi-structured interviews among experts and government employee users of the Asset Declaration System of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the electronic Public Expenditure Management System (e-PEMS) of the Ministry of Finance in Bhutan.
MvdL: Your study shows that when governments introduce projects with technological elements in their institutions they should be aware of the various actors that need to work with these systems. Introducing a system does not mean employees can and wish to comply. Can you offer some examples that illustrate this?
AO: The two case study initiatives covered in my research demonstrated high levels of compliance among government employee users, but it took time to achieve the current levels of compliance and compliance was not automatic. The collected data indicated that various social, organisational and leadership factors were important, in addition to the technology. For instance, the ACC’s Asset Declaration System records nearly 100% compliance among 24,000 users, including from remote and rural areas. The users comply because they respect the ACC as an institution and fear for prosecution and naming and shaming in case of misconduct. Media also played an important role in discovering and reporting fraud cases. The users were also encouraged and motivated to comply by organisational, leadership and peer support and personal commitment of the asset declaration focal points and ACC officials, in addition to the unwavering drive for corruption free society of His Majesty the King. Among all the intertwined factors, technology and ownership were found to play the key roles in encouraging compliance in e-governance implementation.
My research found that certain aspects of technology were particularly effective. These included automation of processes and steps which eliminated human interventions as well as immutability of transactions and log records, supported by ease of use. These features have convinced the users that frauds would be discovered one way or the other and would not be worthwhile risking your jobs and reputations.
What was also interesting was that compliance was not studied systematically in the existing Information System literature. Additionally, I found that technology, in particular e-governance, was not researched extensively in the compliance literature. Some of the features emanating from the case studies in Bhutan did not fit well in what was found in the existing literature. I hope that my research is found interesting from the above perspectives and e-compliance helps explain the users’ compliance and the compliance determinants in e-governance implementation.
MvdL: On 16 November 2021 you will defend your PhD. Over the last four years you have combined your work for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and your PhD study. The last 1.5 years this included working from home during COVID time, sharing your home office with your partner and children. Can you share any tips that helped you manage?
AO: My journey to obtain the PhD was full of surprises and unexpected detours. In April 2020, I was given the opportunity to serve the ITU as Regional Director in Asia and the Pacific to support the region’s digital transformation. This was an exciting assignment for me, but the transition took place in the midst of COVID-19 lockdown. Soon after joining ITU, I had to go through a major eye operation in June 2020 and again in May 2021. On top of that, my older daughter went through university application processes, which required full support from the whole family. And then, I got COVID, just as I was finalising my dissertation. As you can see, my final years of PhD were packed with dramas.
But the drawbacks also gave me time to step back, think through and mentally prepare what to do next in my research. The COVID lockdown also gave me more time for research; under normal circumstances, I would spend 1-2 hours for commuting to the office, but since we were all working from home, I could spare extra time. For a part-time PhD student, time is a valuable commodity; I found that making and managing time for research was critical to make progress, while working full time.
It is true that working from home and doing research at the same time comes with multitudes of challenges, but I am fortunate to have a supportive family and I am truly appreciative of their moral support throughout my journey. I am also thankful to the supervisory team for their insightful advice and continuous guidance all along and to the United Nations for granting me four-month sabbatical leave which allowed me to conduct the fieldwork in 2019.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.