“e-Governance will be promoted on a massive scale”, is one of the key priority areas under the UPA Government’s – National Common Minimum Programme. Taking a cue from this policy directive, the machinery has embarked upon an extremely ambitious initiative – the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), aimed at improving the quality, accessibility and effectiveness of government services to citizens aided by Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). NeGP is a comprehensive “programme” of the Government of India that is “designed” to leverage capabilities and opportunities presented by ICT to promote good governance across the country.
The reason to use the terms “designed” and “programme” for this national plan is deliberate. There still are gaps between the design and the institutional mechanism that is required to ensure that the objectives of NeGP are translated into reality.
Having said this, it is worth mentioning that the design of the programme is sound and well thought through. Some of the key features distinguishing it from typical short term focused projects in the Government are detailed below.
First, the programme clearly addresses one of the biggest bottlenecks to e-Government – infrastructure. It is a well known fact that lack of adequate infrastructure has been one of the key reasons for deployment of ICT for the benefit of the masses in our villages. The UNDP e-Readiness Index 2004 has also recently highlighted extremely poor infrastructure index resulting in an overall low e-Readiness Index for India. This focus on infrastructure would help address the “access-divide” which is going to be the key to provide effective government services where it is needed the most – our Villages. The programme proposes three “core pillars” for improving infrastructure i.e. State Wide Area Network, State Data Centre and Common Citizen Centres. It is understood all of the above three are extremely important components of the programme and success of these three components would to a very large extent eventually decide the fate of the overall programme.
Second, important implication of the programme is its coverage. It is important that e-Governance is all pervasive to ensure success. The fact that NeGP incorporates ICT planning across a large number of citizen impacting departments is a strong positive. However, the programme would need to find effective and innovative ways of integrating with the Government Public Health and Education initiatives to ensure synergies in delivery channels.
Third, probably for the first time in the use of ICT for governance, NeGP has laid considerable emphasis on dismantling silos and building integrated delivery capabilities. This would make enable provisioning of Government services at the grass root level in an economically feasible way. This would also ensure that citizens do not have to run from pillar to post and numerous Government Citizen Services would be provided from a single service centre.
Fourth, in line with emphasis in the last budget, the programme focuses on outcomes in the form of services to be provided with a clear articulation of the proposed levels of service. It is understood that the Apex Committee responsible for the monitoring of the programme is driving all the Central departments responsible for the various Mission Mode Projects to formulate clear service levels that would be achieved under NeGP. This would form the basis for a suitable monitoring and evaluation framework. Further, an E-Governance Assessment Framework has been created by the Department of Information Technology, GoI for assessing e-Governance projects. These two initiatives should ensure that the projects remain focused on their objectives and any slippages from the predetermined metrics can be identified on a timely basis.
Finally, there seems to be a visible public proclamation of support for e-Government and ICT. However, similar signs from the top echelons of the government could help demonstrate leadership support for this programme.
Some of the key elements of NeGP are as follows:
• Rapid deployment and scale-up of select “Mission Mode Projects” (MMPs) with significant citizen interface
• Creation of a national IT backbone for fast, reliable and efficient connectivity, data storage and access
• Integrated citizen service centres for delivery of citizen services
• Creation of web portals for 24×7 access to government information and services.
Besides the above, the NeGP also provides for significant investments in areas such as Government Process Reengineering, Capacity Building, Training, Assessment and Awareness.
In its current form, NeGP consists of 10 functional components and identified Mission Mode Projects (MMP’s) to be executed over a period of four years. An Apex committee under the Cabinet Secretary is already in place for providing the strategic direction and management oversight. The identified MMP’s include projects that are to be implemented by:
• Line ministries / departments at the Central Level,
• State Departments, and
• Integrated projects, which may span multiple ministries/departments/ agencies
NeGP as an integrated programme with several identified MMPs and various components is a relatively new concept. A number of MMPs proposed under NeGP were under implementation even before this programme was conceptualised. It was seen by the policy planners that there is a varying degree of understanding of the objectives for these projects and they have met with mixed success. Further, the individual projects are at varying degree of preparation – while some are still in concept stage, some have already started pilots, and others are even being rolled out. Additionally, there were significant differing perceptions on what constitutes e-Governance. A large number of stakeholders assume this means computerisation viz. buying software and installing black boxes are the nucleus of e-Governance. The centrality of citizen service was absent or not very well appreciated during structuring of a project. Also in the past, most government IT initiatives have been expenditure driven, where the focus has been on utilisation of departmental funds within the sanctioned timeframe.
With this backdrop it would be fair to say that NeGP is a radical new approach aimed at substantially accelerating the spread of e-Governance, giving it a citizen service orientation and ensuring fast, convenient, and accessible services.
The MMPs which form part of NeGP have been selected largely through voluntarism of the concerned line ministries / departments and inherent ability to benefit the society, and therefore the programme contours are flexible enough to include more projects as and when an interest is shown by a department.
Another important aspect of NeGP is that it is envisaged as a centralised initiative with decentralised implementation i.e. the overall monitoring, administration & standard setting would be performed at the centre, whereas the responsibility for implementation would rest with the coordinating line ministry / department at the centre or the state.
The ‘Programmatic’ Plan
To overcome the current bottlenecks that plague the existing system (Computerisation vs. service delivery; limited focus on process re-engineering, delay in project approval, limited leverage of private capital, limited internal capacity/ expertise for project management in departments etc.), a programmatic approach to the implementation of NeGP has been proposed, with the objective of ensuring:
• Outcome/ Service orientation – help bring an outcome driven approach and assist in independent assessment of achievements.
• Standardisation – It would assist in bringing standardisation of approach with respect to technology and processes across MMPs. This could help State and Local Governments to strengthen and standardise their own e-Governance initiatives as also reduce the overall cost in the long term.
• Faster implementation – Through improved project structuring, quick resolution to interdependencies and availability of additional budgetary resources.
• Cost economy – Taking a holistic view on projects including its interdependencies can bring significant cost savings. This can be achieved by reducing time taken for project execution, duplication of investments in core infrastructure, costs incurred in making projects interoperable, bringing in overall efficiencies in the work process, etc.
• Integrated approval – NeGP would allow funding of projects that include and integrate investments in capital expenditure, operations and maintenance expenses and human resources for successful project implementation.
• Capacity building – providing a mechanism under NeGP of supplementing internal capacity of departments by providing long and short-term assistance through experts from government, industry and academia, the programme can build internal capacities of department. This would also bring high visibility and advocacy to the programme at the national level.
• Leveraging of private capital / partnerships – bringing about synergies in collaborative efforts and long term sustainability of programs, partnerships and alliances need to be built at several levels. Special attention is thus required to build partnerships with the state governments, district administrations, panchayati raj institutions and the private sector, which will ultimately carry forward the project. A well-designed NeGP can help achieve the same.
• Improved project management skills – While the IT “components” of any e-Governance initiative may account for significant portion of the cost, their role in determining the success or failure of a project is disproportionately lower. It is because in typical e-governance projects, technology implementation are far less crucial to the success or failure of the project than issues like project management, change management, IT management and government process reengineering. Managing all these elements in a coordinated, sustained and planned manner requires professional project and IT management skills and capacity building, which can be addressed through a programme approach.
Over the past few months, NeGP has generated a great deal of excitement – both within government circles as well as internationally with multilateral institutions with the World Bank expressing their interest in supporting the government’s programme. The World Bank has conducted 2 missions, an identification mission in October-November 2004, which was to understand the broad scope and approach of the plan as well as identify potential areas of support. In March- April 2005 after the preparatory mission, the World Bank gave an in-principle approval to $500 million funding to support the Government of India’s visionary programme, which they have coined as “e-Bharat”.
Long way to go
While, the prevailing issues within the government processes and procedures have already been highlighted, may potentially constitute some of the major hurdles towards smooth implementation of the NeGP. Some of the core issues in greater detail:
• The biggest issue that is likely to come in way of the effective implementation of NeGP is the federal and departmental nature of our country. While, the cross cutting nature of the programme is appreciate, it is also a source of concern. It is a well known fact that Departments (ministries) in Centre and various States prefer to work independently. How the programme would ensure that its objectives are implemented in letter and spirit by “independent” departments is probably one of the biggest challenges. In most countries that have a similar programme (and there are many) this has been made possible by creating separate mechanisms to promote e-Governance that works directly under the office of the President or Prime Minister.
• One of the most critical elements of the programme that have been appreciated by many has been its stress on achieving pre-determined Service Levels through extensive Government Process Reform (GPR). GPR in most cases would require extensive changes to law, rules and regulations. It is a moot point to discuss whether a sufficient momentum exists in the country to undertake such wide-ranging government process reform. Let us take the case of Urban Local Bodies, a MMP. In the past, Ministry of Urban Development has taken a number of initiatives to bring about municipal reforms such as Model Municipal Law, Accounting Reforms, Challenge funds etc. However, its actual adoption has been extremely slow. The reason for this once again is our “federal structure” discussed above. How far does the political and bureaucratic mechanisms put their weight behind GPR would determine the real success of NeGP.
• It has been already argued that the programme is well designed, but it is clear that the challenges lie more in the implementation. It has indicated that a Programme Management Unit (PMU) is being created for NeGP to help ensure translate these plans into reality. The question is what is the degree of power and authority (stated or assumed) does this PMU have to “instruct” or “persuade” departments and state governments to follow NeGP in its entirety.
• Most States in India (exception being a few southern Indian States) have limited access to any institutionalised mechanisms for building capacities to implement such a comprehensive program, whether it is project development and design, bid process management, professional project management, development of Contractual Frameworks, Service Level Agreements, etc. The Planning Commission has already allocated funds for capacity building (17 crores in the last fiscal year) under NeGP. States would need to ensure that these funds are used effectively to develop capacities for embarking upon such an ambitious plan in a time bound manner.
• There is a need for prioritisation. Irrespective of the debate on what is likely to be the final cost of the NeGP programme, one point that all agree is that the sum of funds that NeGP proposes to spend over the next 4-5 years is huge. This brings us to the next challenge for the programme. Has the programme evaluated the absorptive capacity of the States? The programme will have to ensure that projects at the state level are executed at a pace that their current or enhanced capacity is able to absorb.
• Most components of the centralised initiatives i.e. monitoring framework, participation guidelines, policies on standards, architecture, etc. are still to be finalised. This needs to be done at a fast pace to ensure that NeGP does not create problems of non – standardisation and interoperability – this would defeat the real purpose of following a programmatic approach.