May 2007

ICT in Government

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In India, the push for public reforms has brought in its wake the pervasive harnessing of ICT to achieve declared administrative and social goals. It is expected that the use of ICT in governance would not only improve the delivery of public services but also bring into the public domain the issues that have so far been shrouded in secrecy, mitigating corruption in public life. It would also help in improving the systemic deficiencies that allowed the wanton elements both within the government and outside, to selfishly use them for narrow objectives.`

The term ‘Governance’ may be described as the process by which society steers itself towards its collective goals. The beginning of the 21st century has been so dominated by Information Technology (IT) that in a lighter vein it could be said that the letter “e” is likely to precede almost every word. Perhaps, existence itself would now become e-Existence. It is, therefore, not surprising that everybody is talking about e-Governance. In order to define it we could say that ‘e-Governance’ or ‘Electronic Governance’ or ‘Digital Governance’ is the effective use of IT to improve the system of governance that is in place, and thus provide better services to the citizens.

In India, the push for public reforms has brought in its wake the pervasive harnessing of ICT to achieve declared administrative and social goals. The implementation of e-Governance began with National Informatics Centres (NIC) efforts to connect all the district headquarters through computers in the 1980s. This has typically included connectivity, networking, technology upgradation, selective delivery systems for information and services, and an array of software solutions.

According to National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom), an apex industry association of software and service companies in India, the e-Governance market in India is witnessing year-on-year growth. The e-Governance market grew by 18% during 2002-03, and is the fastest growing vertical in the domestic IT markets. However, the pertinent question remains whether technologies could be the answer to all our governance problems Undoubtedly, technology by itself in isolation from the social and cultural specificities cannot bring in any meaningful and substantive changes in governance or administration. There is a need to reform the administrative mindset and the entire adminis-trative culture to exploit the true potential of ICTs in reference to the governance processes in India. There is a need to examine some of the aspects of administrative culture that needs to be transformed to suit and support the phenomena of e-Governance.

e-Governance transition requisites

In India, concern about reforming administration is not something new. In 1964, Jawahar Lal Nehru was asked at a private meeting with some friends what he considered to be his greatest failure as India’s first prime minister. He replied, “I could not change the administration; it is still colonial administration.”  The efforts to reform have come a long way since then and latest in the series is the Right to Information Act that has recently been implemented, which is aimed at a more open, citizen friendly and responsive government. But the impact of these efforts is still not satisfactory. It is widely perceived both by the political leaders as well as people that it is extremely difficult to change the mindset of bureaucracy to bring in effective governance reforms.

“A close analysis of the e-Governance projects in India shows that the primary reason for the  deficiencies in e-Governance projects has been that they are over-reliant on technology as the  driving force for success while the internal processes and dynamics remain unaltered. So far  the thrust has been on using e-Governance only as a tool that can replace or reduce the engagement of more manpower enabling machines to take on the work

The beginning of the 21st century has been dominated by ICT with immense potential for the coming decades. The ICT revolution has enabled governments towards the achievement of various goals of social equity to deliver a range of services to citizens– from ration cards, motor license and land records to health, education and municipal services – in a manner  that is timely, efficient, economical, equitable, transparent and corruption free. The  application of ICT to government processes, e-Governance in short, is expected to have a  profound impact on the efficiency, responsiveness and accountability of the government, and  thereby on the quality of life and productivity of citizens, and ultimately on the economic  output, growth and development of the country as a whole. The experiences all over the world  have shown that ICT can help in narrowing the gap between the citizen and the  government, thus bringing the government closer to their citizens and ultimately empowering them.

However, the full potential of ICT has not been successfully exploited so far. It is estimated that approximately 35% of e-Governance projects in developing countries are total failures; approximately 50% are partial failures; and only 15% can be seen as fully successful. India, as such, is no exception to this.

A close analysis of the e-Governance projects in India shows that the primary reason for the  deficiencies in e-Governance projects has been that they are over-reliant on technology as the  driving force for success while the internal processes and dynamics remain unaltered. So far  the thrust has been on using e-Governance only as a tool that can replace or reduce the  engagement of more manpower enabling machines to take on the work. The focus has been on the electronic mode rather than on basic governance that has to reach the common Indian. There is, therefore, a need for sincere effort towards an emphasis on governance rather than only on adoption of electronic mode in e-Governance initiatives.

It has been realised increasingly that merely the availability of ICTs or the automation of the  government processes and services through ICT is not enough. The successful deployment of  ICTs towards transitioning to the web-based government or e-Government in India requires  more than ICTs; it requires a change in the entire administrative culture as well as the  mindset underlying it – the mindset of those who are in administration as well as those who  are administered.

Given the colonial legacy of public administration structures and processes in a society, which  still has feudalistic features coupled with the top down administrative approach and attitude, information is still considered as power in the hands of those who administer and not  as an entitlement of citizens. Any move towards transparency of government structures and  processes are thus viewed with apprehension and therefore any measure that aims at  changing the status quo of this power structure is resisted. Therefore, e-Governance, which  has a capacity to bridge administrative distances with its immense potential for information  dissemination and its wide access, is one such measure which may be accepted technologically  but viewed with apprehension where it means transparency in governance  structures and processes. Added to this is the administrative arrogance and egotism  sometimes, especially among the senior administrators who are not well adapted to the  technological revolution, and suffer from the false ego of knowing every thing; the worst case  being where they assume that any thing they do not know is worthless. This attitude is often a  major hurdle in the implementation of the e-Governance projects. Deep-rooted corruption  in the administrative system is one of the biggest hurdles in successful deployment of ICT in  governance. A majority of those in authoritative positions in administrative departments are  averse to the transparent and participative working that is associated with all applications of ICT in governance.

The real challenge in the Indian context thus lies in the transformation of the nature and  character of government, and consequently the governmental processes. Although ICTs itself  are a major tangible lever to change – they change attitudes, work pace, even whole work  culture in a way that earlier levers could not, there is still a need for nontechnology reforms  prior to the use of ICTs in government. However, in the absence of such reform the potential of  IT is not actualised.

The areas where attention is needed ranges from infrastructural arrangements to  arrangements for adequate budget, technical expertise, political will etc. Among them the  most important, but rather neglected factor in the Indian context, has been the slow response  to the cyber culture by all stakeholders in general and particularly by those who formulate  and implement public policies. Transition to e-Governance in India, more than any thing else,  needs cultural reorientation or a change in the mindset of the bureaucracy. In fact there  has been a hidden resistance to the whole process of changing the government to  e-Governance.

Change is always resisted and this resistance, among other things, is coming from the culture  of the government organisations. The digital visionary Nicholas Negroponte has perceptively commented that when it comes to development, culture is more important than infrastructure.

The problem of a feudal mindset of the officers at top level of decision-making structure is also  associated with another issue related to the not-so-successful application of ICT in governance  in India. It has been observed that most of the e-Governance projects have faced setbacks  because of lesser public participation, which also becomes the cause of discontent for political  leadership who always measure/ evaluate any government initiative by the amount of public response spread over a very short duration. However, if the response is not satisfactory it is  assumed to be a failure, and there is a tendency to roll it back or put it on a back burner. The  experiences in India have shown that where political leaders perceive that they stand to gain  from e-Governance and support, it moves on despite other obstacles. Citizens, who are at the  receiving end of e-Governance initiatives, form a very important part of the whole exercise.  most of the e-Governance initiatives have not been able to generate public momentum  because of the hesitation, unwillingness or unpreparedness of the common people to accept the  new phenomena and its new dimensions. Technology has always  been considered by  common people in India as an alien mechanism involving expertise. mostly people are  hesitant and apprehensive about experimenting with new initiatives or newer means of  functioning. There may of course be other reasons for the lack of peoples’ participation.  Surprisingly, so far there has been no benchmarking of e-Government initiatives to measure their benefits or success rate.

For a successful transition to e-Governance that would benefit all sectors in the society, the  equity dimensions of the problem also need to be addressed and innovative measures taken. The whole approach to administration would also require to be changed from an authoritative  top down model to a more easily accessible, participatory, democratic,  transparent and accountable system, than what exists presently. This would further require  a whole change in the existing character and approach of administration in India from  ‘administration of’ to one of ‘administration for’ which is more service oriented and ‘user  friendly’. e-Governance has the potential to ensure that every citizen has an equal right to be  a part of the decisionmaking process which affect him/her directly or indirectly, and influence the process in a manner which may best improve the condition and quality of lives.  e-Governance has the potential to ensure that citizens are no longer passive consumers of  services offered to them by allowing them to play a more proactive role in deciding the kind of  services they want and the structures which could best provide them those services.

To achieve this, following measures may be fruitful: Survey of actual needs of the people from  the ground level; awareness campaigns; continuous assessment of the existing Government websites analysed for various aspects like the availability of a website, the quality of the  website (design, functionality, navigation); the richness of the information displayed and its  relevance for the society at large (be it businesses, other government organizations, NGos, education sector, individuals etc.); quality and timeliness of the information displayed (frequency of updating) and the e-service delivery etc.; and, exploring the maximum possibilities of two-way communication between the government and the citizens.

The yawning gap between the policy statements and the actual achievements and gains from  the use of ICT should be a matter of concern. At present it is a situation where hype  overshadows reality. To quote Paul Appleby, “We are good at talking but when it comes to  implementation we are ‘action shy’. We do not walk our talk.” And, in the case of  e-Governance mere technology adoptive actions are not enough. Actions have to be initiated  in a mission mode with reforms encoded therein. Electronic governance has to be viewed as a  political administrative process dealing with reform of governance towards good governance  eventually. And, governance reform is a slow process requiring engagement with governance  institutions and bringing about both attitudinal and constitutional changes.

Conclusion

In sum, it could be stated that the basic work culture and framework of the government and  public administration in India at present is not conducive for e-Governance. Within the  milieu described above, the potential for ICT in e-Governance initiatives to make a significant  difference in actual administration on the ground level may be limited. However, this should  not be the rationale for inaction. one must recognise that uncertainties come with every new measure and ICTs have the potential to act as a relatively concrete lever to unprecedented  change. We have to bear in mind that technocratic responses in themselves are not a solution  but only a tool. A holistic solution would be able to deploy the tool with feasibility and  sustainability. Hence in this framework, there is a need to bring the objective of achieving e-Governance at the forefront, beyond mere computerisation of stand alone back office  operations, and to focus on the idea of change at a more fundamental level of how the  government is required to and should work in the new electronic mode and to delineate the  cultural mould in which it has to be rooted and identify the new set of responsibilities which it  entails. Culture here is essentially the congealed mindset and the way of doing things that  flow from it. So if we really want to use the potential of ICT for better government services and  good governance in the long run, the pertinent question is how to bring about the cultural change.

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