January 2005

e-Governance: The key players

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In a democratic system power is supposed to be vested with the citizens. This is unfortunately not true in India where the system has not ensured ‘real’ power to the people. Today we are witnessing a situation where politicians, bureaucrats, and the judiciary have real power and authority. India has been talking about e-Governance for the last seven to eight years. With an anarchic Constitutional and administrative system in place, there is hardly any role for e-Governance. However, it would be better to say that India is still in the phase of learning e-Governance.

 

e-governance is a new technology in the hands of administrators. Technology alone cannot bring about change in the scenario. India needs constitutional and administrative changes to make the system accountable to the citizens. The criminal as well as the civil justice system has to ensure justice at lightning speed, and not at the leisurely speed with which it has been functioning now. No Government should resort to e-Governance for the sake of technology, or for the sake of satisfying funding agencies. Any initiative should have a clear citizen focus. While failures are part of the evolution process – many e-Governance failures would ultimately result in true learning, and one day may result in true governance.

 

There are many issues that determine the success and failure of any project. However, before actually getting into the minutiae of implementation, which this writer would take up in a subsequent discussion, it would be useful to outline key players with roles in any e-Governance initiative.

 

 

Political masters

e-Governance is the highest form of administrative reform in any country. So, the political masters play a crucial role in e-Governance. No administrative reform can be commenced except through the political masters. The ball has to be set in motion by the political executive through policy pronouncements backed by legislation or Acts, etc.  

 

Bureaucrats

The role of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers in the field of e-Governance is next only to the political masters. These officers guide the political masters in their day-to-day administration. It is a reality in India that unless a project has the blessing of the IAS, it will never take-off. IAS officers serve at the policymaking level such as the Secretariat, and policy implementation level such as HODs/District Collectors, Additional Collectors/Sub Collectors, etc. 

 

 

The IAS, over the years, has become more powerful due to the constitutional protection afforded to it, and its proximity to the political masters. Such a position gives them a natural leverage to act as leaders in their respective roles. Yet, these officers can act only under the directions of their political masters. These directions are given in the form of Acts, legislation, rules, regulations, government orders, etc. It is futile to expect IAS officers alone to perform in the area of e-Governance in the absence of clear policy support. When a clear policy with milestones for e-Governance is in place, IAS officers can be a force to be reckoned with. However, this is too simplistic to be true. The IAS itself is under severe threat due to system deficiencies. An upright officer who goes by his/her conscience and follows the constitutional norms has less chance of success under the present system. Corruption and inefficiency in the IAS has been an accepted fact today.

It had been acknowledged at all levels that frequent and arbitrary transfers and postings of IAS officers have brought down the morale of the service. Yet no concrete action has been taken to correct this malady till date. e-Governance can never become a reality with such an anarchic system in place! The leaders who have the capability to drive the e-Governance momentum of the nation have been disabled by all these system deficiencies. India needs to address these deficiencies and redress them before aiming at e-Governance. Without addressing these deficiencies, it would be futile to create new posts/systems exclusively for implementation of e-Governance.

 

Government employees – the key

True e-Governance presupposes the full involvement of the bureaucracy. The entire bureaucracy that operates at various levels with pen, paper, and manual registers has to switch over to ‘keyboard and mouse’. The devil’s advocate would argue that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to make this happen. Their argument usually goes in the following manner:

  • The lower and middle level bureaucracy is not computer literate – it is very difficult to impart computer education to the older among them.

  • The lower and middle level bureaucracy is corrupt and inefficient and since this type of experiment has not met with any success with e-Governance thus far – it is too risky a proposition.

Tiruvarur, one of the most backward districts of Tamil Nadu proved wrong all these apprehensions. The Taluk Automation Software that administers the entire land record system, national old age pension scheme, etc. has been online for the past five years with the full involvement of all government employees starting from Village Administrative Officers to the Taluk Tahsildar (officer for a cluster of villages)! There is no reason why this cannot happen in the rest of the country. If we are not ready to involve government employees, what choice do we have – does India have to replicate the private sector driven e-Seva like e-Governance system? Certainly not. As the days pass by, citizens will take governments to task for not providing them the vital services they want online 24/7.

The private sector happily came forward to the city-based e-Seva system in Andhra Pradesh that covered only certificates and utility payments. However, the same cannot be replicated in rural areas! The private sector cannot have a place in typical government services such as rural development service, social welfare services, services to the SC/ST people, rural health services, rural education services, police services, and so on, since there are no across-the-counter services in these areas and the citizens are in no position to pay any user-charges. Therefore, any long-term plan for e-Governance presupposes the full involvement of the lower and middle level bureaucracy.

In his 14-year experience in the IAS, this writer has found that the lower and middle level bureaucracies are like raw clay. They could be moulded in any shape. They change colours according to their leader. If the leader is honest and efficient, they also try to be honest and efficient. They can reach up to any level of efficiency provided the leader is ready to motivate them. If the leader is corrupt, they all cooperate with him/her. If the leader does not believe in efficiency, they follow the leader in letter and spirit. The Tiruvarur experiment taught this writer that government employees could master computers in no time. There was no bar on the basis of age, sex or education. Even as this article goes to print, the Software administrator in Valangaiman Taluk continues to be a village Assistant (considered menial) from one of the villages of the Taluk. Looking at his interest and efficiency this writer made a special order for him to be the software administrator for the Taluk. He has been continuing for the past five years! Probably he is a drop out from school! India has to learn this vital lesson from Tiruvarur and replicate the style adopted there all over the country. The solution lies in Tiruvarur like e-Governance in the long run.

Role of the champions

e-Governance needs a visible champion. The role is to take ownership of the initiative and inspire the users. Unless users have confidence in the system they would not operate the same. Merely pronouncing policies or issuing government orders cannot implement e-Governance, and policies for each sphere of activity should be backed by projecting a champion. Such an individual has to be given the necessary policy, financial, and operational supports. Apart from these, there has to be stability of tenure (a minimum of three-to-five years in one sphere of e-Governance activity) as the system needs the champion to conceive the idea, develop it into a workable concept, implement the same, and assist during the stabilisation period.

Any e-Governance system needs at least 12 months to achieve stabilisation, and this period requires technical, financial and operational supports apart from the guidance from the champion who conceived the entire project. Rajiv Chawla, who championed the country’s most successful e-Governance project ‘Bhoomi’, had a stable tenure to accomplish this task. It is futile to expect an e-Governance project to survive in the long run without the champion factor. A mechanism should be built to sustain the e-Governance system after the departure of the champion, or at least after the stabilisation period. This can be done only through policy intervention backed by financial and technical support.

Role of private IT partners

The role of private sector IT partners is a key to any successful e-Governance implementation. So far the country had not made use of private sector IT partners in the right manner. The tender based selection process looked for software suppliers instead of application software partners. As suppliers, the Indian IT partners have done their job like any other product supplier – supply the product and move out! However, application software and its associated database cannot be run through a supplier-based system. It can run only through appropriate partnership. Governments have to accept the reality that the IT vendor who developed the application software is also a trustworthy partner in the long run. The relationship cannot end with the supply of the product as per given specifications. Because of the client-supplier syndrome, governments all over the country, barring Andhra Pradesh, have learnt to rely on the National Informatics Centre (NIC) primarily because of the continuity associated with NIC. This compromise formula can never lead the nation to a self-reliant e-Governed system.

Private sector IT application developers need to be seen as partners. Such a partnership should be on a long-term basis. It starts with an initial three-year partnership to be renewed after every three years. The tender procedures of the Government have to be reoriented to incorporate this methodology. For different departments, the government can have different IT partners, and each such partner should be treated like a lifetime partner for the government. That is the right way to go. The Government should build capacity within its own human resources. These human resources basically have to ensure quality control, security and integrity of the system. A system cannot be completely left to the mercy of the private partners too. It is a comforting thing that today we have sound encryption algorithms that provide safety and security to the database, even from its own creators!

Role of NGOs.

NGOs have a say in driving the e-Governance momentum in India, especially in rural areas. They could play a critical role in bridging the divide between the bureaucracy and the citizens using IT as a tool. The only successful experiment witnessed in India wherein NGOs have driven e-Governance is the rural e-Seva experiment of the West Godavari district, spearheaded by the dynamic District Collector Sanjay Jaju. West Godavari has proven that NGOs run by women self-help groups could effectively bridge the gap between the bureaucracy and the rural citizens using IT tools. NGOs have a pivotal role in rural-specific e-Governance because private IT partners would never enter into rural areas due to low margins. Moreover, NGOs could step in as watchful associates sensitising people and other stakeholders to any malfeasance. A new type of corporate fraud on rural people could be seen recently in the Melur Taluk of TamilNadu. Corporates were exploiting women self-help groups to procure an outdated wireless system with no Internet connectivity from precious Government of India subsidy that was meant for the poor and downtrodden. India has to be wary of this type of corporate cheating in the name of e-governance.

Role of private IT partners

The role of private sector IT partners is a key to any successful e-Governance implementation. So far the country has not made use of private sector IT partners in the right manner. The tender based selection process looked for software suppliers instead of application software partners. As suppliers, the Indian IT partners have done their job like any other product supplier – supply the product and move out! However, application software and its associated database cannot be run through a supplier-based system. It can run only through appropriate partnership.

Governments have to accept the reality that the IT vendor who developed the application software is also a trustworthy partner in the long run. The relationship cannot end with the supply of the product as per given specifications. Because of the client-supplier syndrome, governments all over the country, barring Andhra Pradesh, have learnt to rely on the National Informatics Centre (NIC) primarily because of the continuity associated with NIC. This compromise formula can never lead the nation to a self-reliant e-Governed system.

Private sector IT application developers need to be seen as partners. Such a partnership should be on a long-term basis. It starts with an initial three-year partnership to be renewed after every three years. The tender procedures of the Government have to be reoriented to incorporate this methodology. For different departments, the government can have different IT partners, and each such partner should be treated like a lifetime partner for the government. That is the right way to go.

The Government should build capacity within its own human resources. These human resources basically have to ensure quality control, security and integrity of the system. A system cannot be completely left to the mercy of the private partners too. It is a comforting thing that today we have sound encryption algorithms that provide safety and security to the database, even from its own creators!

Role of funding agencies

Today we have many funding agencies, national and international, coming to the aid of e-Governance. Notable among them are UNDP, the World Bank and the Department of International Funding (DFID), United Kingdom. Any funding agency expects quick results out of the loans sanctioned or grants given by it. e-Governance is a gradual process starting with policy changes, back office automation, front office automation, and later Internet-based level-I e-Governance [Discussion on implementation at different levels would be taken up in a separate article]. Expecting government agencies to deliver results within a short duration is tantamount to driving them to commit to wrong methodology, inevitably resulting in total wastage of funds and efforts. It is imperative that the funding agencies have experienced and qualified appraisers with them. This writer’s experience has been that international funding agencies do not have any such expertise. Naturally the outcome from these funding operations results in half-baked projects or non e-Governance projects.

Role of the National Institute of Smart Government (NISG)

NISG was formed largely from funds committed by UNDP. As such it can be considered a front-end organisation of UNDP. When NISG was formed, e-Governance lovers thought that something really had happened in favour of the e-Governance movement in India. One year into its operations and NISG proved that it was a wrong expectation. It had strayed into the enabling factor more than the e-Governance factor. Governments all over the country cold-shouldered the NISG’s invitation for submitting proposals for e-Governance in July 2004. There was hardly any good proposal from governments, with the only exceptions from Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Orissa.

The role of NISG is to act like an NGO and to motivate governments to accept e-Governance as their way of public administration. With the misplaced attitude that NISG operates with, backward states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa and the North East would be left behind. NISG whose main role is to bridge the digital divide would end up creating huge digital islands if it continues to operate on the current frequency. It should be more proactive when it comes to backward states, with a view on the long-term repercussions of any move. At least 75 percent of the funding from NISG should be earmarked for backward states. NISG has paid more attention to the ’empowerment’ part of the citizens. However, citizens get automatically empowered with level-I e-Governance, and support from NGOs is required primarily in rural areas and that only after building the e-Governance backbone in the government offices.

There is a proverb in Tamil ‘unless you have it in the kettle you cannot scoop anything from there’. This is fully applicable in the case of e-Governance. Unless the governments have something to offer using IT tools, primarily the Internet, the enabling factors such as NGOs cannot have a true impact. The perceived impact can be felt only through the media, and not on the ground if one neglects core e-Governance functioning in government offices. In this writer’s opinion, NISG has to concentrate over 90 percent of its activities in building up the core e-Governance competence of various state governments. As the core competency of various governments increases, the shift has to be made towards the enabling factor, where the NGOs play a major role, especially in rural areas. This requires a complete shift in the NISG’s current policy and the first step is to break down the corporate type structure and bring in an NGO type proactive structure.

Role of state level IT organisations

Every state government has its own state level IT organisation. These organisations, though conceived to run on commercial lines, have ended up as yet another arm of the government thus failing in their primary role. Many of them have become resellers for Microsoft and other proprietary software packages. The time has come for introspection, and to identify whether it is worthwhile to continue these state level organisations or just sell them away.

Role of the media

The media has an important role to play in promoting e-Governance. It is extremely important that media reporters are well acquainted with the issues relating to public administration and the technical issues arising out of Information Technology tools used. A person with less technical competence may tend to understand a power point presentation as a great symbol of e-Governance! Reporting such an event as a great movement may actually derail the e-Governance momentum in India. Mature media coverage on e-Governance activities in India would go a long way in promoting true e-Governance.

Conclusion

India is rich with its minerals and natural resources, yet is considered a poor nation. Similarly, India provides the backbone for IT manpower for the rest of the world but its own public administration is in shambles. e-Governance, as a technology, provides bright scope to improve the citizen focus of public administration. The problem today is poor management, and tackling the same requires huge constitutional, judicial and administrative reforms. e-Governance can become successful only if such path-breaking changes accompany it. India has to look at successful e-Governance initiatives elsewhere, such as in Singapore, and learn from their experiences. The need for a champion for e-Governance under the Indian context has to be understood clearly. The IAS, which provides the natural base for leadership in e-Governance, has to be given the honour and stability to carry out e-Governance projects.

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