Information and Communication Technology (ICT) projects require proper identification of users’ needs. Identifying the right types of services with users’ perspective is important to make an ICT initiative successful. While there is phenomenal growth in ICT-enabled processes, failures continue to plague the projects owing to decrease in cost of computing, increase in acceptability of e-business, e-commerce and m-commerce activities. Indian ICT initiatives make the situation even more critical, not because it involves the rural infrastructure, but the complex process of involving the rural masses, who lack basic livelihood opportunities, and are therefore least concerned with them. In order to make the initiatives successful, it is essential that the people themselves identify their issues, prioritise their needs, manage their infrastructure and services with the support of government, NGOs, etc., monitor their resource utilisation and draw benefits. Increasing their capability to list the issues and to lead the intervention process is quite complex. If processes are understood and prioritised properly, ICT interventions would bring in significant improvements in addressing the issues in development process, and citizens’ role therefore is of paramount importance.
There is a phenomenal growth in ICT-enabled processes, of late. However, Indian ICT initiatives makes the situation critical because of the complex process of involving the rural masses who lack basic livelihood opportunities, and are least concerned with them
It is pertinent to discuss how the rural citizen, the system users, can be involved in the planning process to elaborate better information system (IS) planning and eventually create an effective ICT infrastructure. The concept and importance of user-led design process and the role of IS planning and its effect on ICT planning also needs to be discussed. The development process and effect of participation in the development process too needs elaboration.
Citizen-Charter led ICT initiatives
The ICT initiatives based on various business and governance models are still evolving in India, and are being considered for scaling up. However, it is not encouraging because of lack of interest among rural citizens.
e-Governance needs support of ICT, and its success depends on the technology chosen and related infrastructure such as electricity, education, transport etc.
User-centered design (UCD) is one major area of concern for an effcetive e-Governance. UCD practices are aimed at understanding the users (rural citizens), their behaviour and incorporating them in the product/service delivery. ICT initiatives for rural development can also, therefore, be mapped with this perspective. Normally UCD practices are described through ISO13407.
Citizens’ acceptance is a major concern for the success of ICT initiatives. The citizens neither have the exposure nor ability to evaluate any of the attributes. Planning in user centred processes in this context needs involvement of rural citizens who are neither in a position to put the right context nor specify their requirments in a holistic manner. This user limitation leads to a complex situation where solutions provided do not have relevance to the real situations. Presently most of the initiatives are conceptualised, put as pilots and then used without citizens’ active participation. It is, therefore, essential to understand needs of rural citizens for considering ICT options for income generation and other desired services. However, poor acceptance of all these models is due to lack of concerted effort to map the citizen priorities rendering these initiatives to remain supply-driven. Without a strategy to convert these supply-driven projects to demand-driven it is unlikely that such projects would succeed. Citizens’ acceptance determines the scope to transform the initiatives to be “demand driven”. Citizen-led IS planning can create a good demand for ICT services.
Rural ICT initiatives, especially through various models, have hastened the development process. ICT can be applied for enhancing rural livelihood, generating employment, provide business opportunities and rendering ICT-enabled services. These initiatives are not free from challenges. The digital-divide syndrome, which was primarily perceived as a problem rather than symptom led to poor design of the ICT initiatives. In India, despite having ICT policies, the problem is still mounting. The challenge to garner benefits of ICT as a tool for development process is not by its automation, but by aiding this process. Besides, deployment of ICT infrastructure in rural areas is not commensurate with the perceived benefits. Other problems are organising an affordable, scalable and self-sustaining ICT infrastructure to provide services for income generation, e-Government and conducting business in a convergent manner. The challenge is therefore to revisit the development process in the context of ICT interventions and explore possibility of citizens’ participation.
Understanding participation in development process
Approaches to development action have changed over the decades. From the early conception of ‘absence of poverty’ focussing wholly on lack of income and associated efforts at ‘economic growth’, development praxis has mutated to include multiple facets of poverty such as socio-political and psychological aspects and the economic view of poverty. It has come to recognise the multi-hued life experiences of the poor informed by their inability to deal with mainstream political institutions, social institutions, and the relevant/influential actors in the market place. While traditional income generation/poverty alleviation programmes are aimed at decreasing the income poverty, they have generally failed in enhancing the social condition of the poor in the ab-sence of any specific efforts at addressing the other facets of poverty. Theorising on civil society is increasingly emphasising the need for ‘organising’ among the poor and marginal sections. It is through the process of organising and their ‘organi-sation’ that the poor begin to acquire the mutual support system and self-belief in dealing with other democratic and market place institutions, leading to the develop-ment of ‘citizenship’ and sustainability of their livelihood related activities.
The changed understanding of development process has made the task of development management complex. First, it has been turned upside down, from the earlier approach of starting out from ‘project level objectives down to specific operations’ to start from the other end, i.e., stakeholders. The only available signpost is the development organi-sation’s broader institutional goals and value commitments. The process begins with participatory exploration of the conditions and knowledge of the stake-holders, their needs, wants and aspira- tions, and then crafts ‘projects’ in conson-ance with them. Second, the development organisation is no more the ‘director’ of the process but a ‘facilitator’ of the pro-cess. Thus, the organisation could experi- ence variety in the conditions and aspira-tions of the stakeholders across sites.
These two characteristics of development management have strong implications for information management. In the earlier mode, the organisation ‘knew’ what information to seek, where to collect them, and how to record and process them. In the new mode, only the broad parameters of information could be anticipated. Specific data and information could be varied across stakeholders and across habitation sites. Secondly, the process throws up far more data and information since the stakeholders are not bound by an ‘external framework’ but are enabled to articulate from their own vantage points. Thirdly, as a consequence, the nature of information so generated could take multiple forms.
Due to the intrinsic variety and quantum of data now available, there is a danger that a lot of it would not get used because of information handling and processing constraints. It is here that ICT has a role to play. But for this role to be played rightfully, the information system design must have built-in capabilities and robustness corresponding to the quantum and variety of data.
There have been two distinctive approaches to citizens’ participation in development projects. One is the classical top-down approach where the development agency identifies projects and invites the community to participate, and the other is for the citizens to identify projects and invite a development agency to form an equal partnership with it to develop the project. Techniques like Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) are means of generating data for gaining an understanding of the needs, preferences and priorities within the communities. They contribute to improving thinking, analysis, and decision-making processes related to the production, dissemination, and efficient use of lessons learnt from participatory development experiences.
There are several constraints in conventional methods of data gathering such as high cost, time consuming, questionable accuracy, lack stakeholder participation, and quantitative information generated, does not explain real life situations and local knowledge. PRA methods are essentially a process of learning about people’s conditions in an intensive, iterative and expeditious manner. The techniques are adopted to achieve increased accuracy at low cost both in terms of time and money.
The Causal Framework
The PRA methodology exercise leads to a metrics based measurement system, which is an important stage for ICT acquisition life cycle. The goal-question-metrics (GQM) methodology strongly fits in to the deliverables of PRA exercise since it quantifies appropriate deliverables through metrics, and these metrics are related to the long term aspirations of the rural citizen. PRA based IS planning exercise is conducted through the active participation of citizens.
PRA tools and techniques for IS metrics elicitation
PRA tools are used for involving rural citizens to share information on resources, their problems, expectations, and limitations in earning their livelihoods. Rural citizens depend mostly on local resources, support received from the agencies like government, NGOs and community based organizations (CBOs). Usually, these supports are not commensurate with their expectations thus leading to unsustainable livelihoods. Expectations are captured through PRA process which attempts to deliver certain meta-measurable indicators which the citizens consider to be important. Information systems (IS) are logical reflections of physical processes and their behaviour. Behavioural analyses are important characteristics of any process and these are mostly measured through agreed attributes. Understanding of these attributes is initiated through measurable terms, which are identified as metrics. These metrics evolve with the process and their maturity brings in a measurable behaviour of the process leading to measurable metrics. IS practices with metrics provide an interface between the physical process and information communication technology (ICT) orientated processes. Options for ICT interventions need to be carefully chosen on the basis of their strength and weakness. ICT as a technology is seen as a process improvement tool, and this is possible through an IS-ICT alignment exercise. The alignment exercise looks for the requirements of a process (process metrics), lists the possible deliveries through the systemic approach being made (IS metrics) and provides a scope to leverage the strength of ICT options through an analysis of each option (ICT metrics). Strategic IS-ICT alignment models advocate a metrics based approach for successful alignment among processes and IS – IS and ICT. ICT interventions effectively contribute towards managing transactions, organ-ised process, and bringing an overall improvement in information dissemina-tion. Therefore, prior to organising ICT resources, information systems with feasible demand driven metrics is crucial.
The natural, physical, and social assets play a vital role in peoples’ livelihoods. Yet, there has been a steady erosion of these assets. In rural areas, ecological problems such as deforestation have played havoc in peoples’ livelihoods in many ways. Climate change, soil erosion, water depletion, habitat loss, energy overuse and extinction of species are all symptoms of economic process that depletes resources. With increasing pressure on land, individual households have exploited their resources leading to unsustainable livelihoods. If the goal of development is to build sustainable livelihoods, the very people who depleted the resource base have to be involved in problem identification, analysis, prioritisation, planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of development projects. This calls for the bottoms-up participatory approach.
ICT is strong service enabler tool in development process and a medium to poverty alleviation. In Indian context, the policies for poverty alleviation are being planned with a top-down strategy making it “supply driven”. However, supply driven projects do not generate much demand without involving citizens in the planning process. Creating an atmosphere for eliciting the requirements and prioritising the needs of citizens is a complex phenomenon because of the spatial, political, social, religious and cultural dynamics. It is therefore necessary to balance the system that encourages availability of the supply driven services with active citizens’ participation.