November 2005

Popularising e-Governance services

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This article traces the whys, and suggests how e-Governance services can be made more attractive and usable to the end citizen for whom they are meant. In short this article suggests ways to “market” e-Governance services, sans the money!

e-Governance seems to be the new mantra of politicians, bureaucrats, developers and implementers alike. E-Governance calls for a SMART government, i.e. simple, moral, accountable, responsive and transparent government. Towards this end the government departments everywhere in India seem to be jumping the “E” bandwagon with a vengeance. Lots of systems have been designed, developed, implemented and installed at the user department. However after the initial euphoria of the project launch, no one seems to give two hoots to the e-Governance software. It is not because India lacks in high quality software. We have ample software talent. The problem lies, in not popularising the e-Governance service adequately among the bureaucrats and the citizens.

A very good example of bureaucratic ‘U’ turn in the recent past is the ‘Right to Information Act’ (RIA). The RIA is a highly empowering act for the common citizen, in the sense that it allows a citizen access to whatever is happening inside the government. The government machinery is hence supposed to be made completely transparent. But there is a spoke in the wheel! The bureaucrats have managed to remove the file noting from the ambit of the RIA. A file noting is the green room drama before any government order/act/bill is passed. Why should a file noting be made visible to the public? If the bureaucracy does not clear a very popular decision, the public would like to know why. This is not only empowering for the public, but empowering for honest bureaucrats as well. Government departments all over the country are slowly and steadily showing up in cyberspace. Putting up departmental information, and wiring government departments in accordance with the RIA is a huge e-Governance project. And computer professionals all over India would have spent a lot of time and effort to study, analyze, design and develop the project. Dynamic web pages would have been developed, so that individual departments can post information without hassle. Now that the file noting is to be excluded, majority of the data pertaining to the functioning of a government department will not be uploaded. What we may get finally is just static pages. This is the classic case of initial hype but enthusiasm dimming down later.

When deploying e-Governance projects, problems have to be tackled at two levels, one at the bureaucrat level and second, at the citizen level.

The bureaucrat

When faced with the prospect of implementing e-Governance systems, software professionals are faced with two main categories of problems:

1. Mental blocks among government officials – It can be of following types:

  • The fear of being transparent
  • The fear of losing control if matters are transparent
  • The fear of being pulled up for inaction
  • Hence the fear of being termed incompetent
  • Overwhelmed by new technology
  • Fear about data security, whether a computer can be relied upon to hold sensitive and important information.

2. Technology related problems – It can be of following types:

  • Lack of adequate infrastructure
  • Technology idling
  • Lack of after-installation support.

Let me innumerate some ways by which a software professional may overcome the above problems:

Tackling mental blocks

  • Have an eye for bureaucrat who are dynamic and open to change, willing to adapt to technology trends, are sincere and honest.
  • These officers should be the resource persons.
  • This will also help you to network and “infiltrate” an otherwise impermeable government establishment.
  • Have confidence building sessions as often as possible, with the officers and the supporting staff.
  • Impress upon them that Computers are here to aid them and not to “replace” them.
  • Impress upon them that, an e-Governance service will be for the benefit of the citizens, by providing SMART service.
  • Impress upon them that a government servant is also a citizen and stands to benefit equally as non-government servants.
  • Impress upon them that, a SMART government is largely in the good books of the common citizen.
  • Mental blocks in using technology can be removed by making the e-Governance service, user-friendly and less overwhelming.
  • Fear of data security can be removed by taking adequate precautions at the software and hardware level.
  • The users should also be associated and made responsible for their data.
  • They should be as involved as possible, and should be encouraged to undertake important system administration activities like backup, retrieval etc.
  • Finally to successfully remove mental blocks, one needs to be innovative and resourceful.

Tackling technology problems

  • Infrastructure should be in place well in advance of commissioning of the project.
  • However care should be taken that there is no “technology idling” period.
  • Lack of infrastructure during implementation will lead the project to loosing steam midway; hence it is important that, the implementers should pursue purchase of requisite hardware vigorously.
  • After-installation support is important both from the hardware vendor as well as from the software developer.
  • Renewal of maintenance contracts should be done on a timely basis.
  • A non-existent after-installation support can lead to major roadblocks in the smooth usage of the project and can stop it dead in its tracks.
  • Software for one government department is mostly developed by another government institution/agency that too mostly free of cost. And whatever is free does not usually carry any value. Most government departments are reluctant to incur recurring costs by hiring computer personnel to take care of their long-term post installation, software and hardware maintenance needs.

The citizen

e-Governance services are meant for the people. And the success of any e-Governance project depends on how well it is popularised and “marketed”. It is a general experience that the main problem faced by the bureaucrat i.e. “mental blocks” is non-existent as far as common citizens are concerned. As long as the service is efficient, fast and reliable people do not mind embracing technology with open arms. Consider the case of “land records”. The “record of rights”, obtained at the click of a button, is far better than one obtained by doing copious rounds of the local government office. Following are some strategies that can be used in popularising e-Governance services.

Giving wide media coverage

Whenever an e-Governance project is launched the implementers should give it wide coverage in the local media, like newspapers, television and radio. The benefits of the service, its salient features as well as it limitations should be enumerated. A simple instruction set should be specified for users of the service. This could be distributed as pamphlets. For e.g. a service could be a single window system for paying all kinds of bills (like e-Seva in Andra Pradesh).

Trying innovative methods

Among the rural populace of India who have very little access to television and cinema, the media for entertainment can be as rustic as:

  1. Street theatre
  2. Puppet shows, and
  3. Stage shows at the local festival.

People identify and greatly enjoy these forms of amusement. Why not exploit the popularity of these traditional methods of entertainment and use them as a medium to advertise, market and popularise e-Governance services. Another method could door-to-door advertising and distribution of pamphlets.

Religion plays an important part in the lives of most Indians. And the local priest has a tremendous influence on the populace. The co-operation of religious heads can be sort to popularise e-Governance services.

In places where access to people is difficult like remote villages in the Bangladeshi water-shed, NGO’s like the Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha have come up with innovative ideas to reach the people. Boats! These boats are actually mobile classrooms, equipped with computers running on generators or solar energy. Accessibility is by way of mobile phones. The children unable to go to school because of the heavy monsoon attend school offshore. Not only that, these mobile classrooms educate farmers in methods of sustainable farming methods, while the biggest beneficiaries still remain women and children. In Nepal NGO’s, are making use of the local cable T.V network to surf web pages on the request of the local populace.

Similar innovative methods could be used to take e-Governance services to the people.

e-Governance services are meant for the people. And the success of any e-Governance project depends on how well it is popularised and “marketed”.


Holding workshops

When the government first decided to used the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) for polling, workshops were held in easily accessible public places on how to operate the EVM for the benefit of the public. This happened much before poll day, and helped to reduce the awkwardness of voters in using EVM’s. Similarly whenever a new e-Governance service is introduced, similar workshops should be held in public places demonstrating the benefit and the method to use the service.

Conclusion

Good governance is one, which is in tune with the pulse of its people. A SMART governance is one that goes “E”. And even smarter governance is one that popularises it e-Governance services, makes sure that the benefits reach its various actors, i.e. the bureaucrats and its people.

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