Interview

Single-Window Access to Government Information and Services – India Portal : Neeta Verma, Senior Technical Director, National Informatics Centre

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Neeta Verma, Senior Technical Director, National Informatics Centre

What is the vision of the India Portal Mission Mode Project (MMP)?

India Portal or more popularly known as the National Portal of  India was set up essentially to  provide a single-window access to government information and services as a whole. Whether it is from central government, state government or district administrations, what ever service or information that a citizen is looking from the government, National Portal should be the first place to go. The primary objective therefore was to develop a citizen centric portal providing or presenting information the way citizens look at it.

Further, when we began development of  the portal, there were a large number of  Indian government websites already in existence, so we thought that it would be pertinent to aggregate these also through the Portal. National Portal today provides a unified interface to over 5000 Indian Government websites and also acts as a front-end to e-government initiatives under various government  programmes and schemes.

What is the strategy that is being followed to realise this vision?

Keeping in mind the fact that a common Indian citizen is the primary stakeholder of  this  portal, the very first thing we did was to identify, what kind of  interface, what kind of architecture this portal should have in terms of  technology & information. There were lots of deliberations, and informal studies that took place, and finally we worked out  a comprehensive framework for the portal, and accordingly the Portal was developed and launched .

As far as Technology aspect is concerned, state of art, open access tools & technologies have been used for its development. It is also hosted on highly scalable & reliable infrastructure in NIC Data Centre.

Content is the other important aspect of the Portal. Comprehensive content frame work to accommodate long term content requirements on the Portal  is already in place. Workflow oriented web based content management system with role based access is also developed for contribution of  content from different constituents of the government.

Since for a government portal, authenticity and trust are the important considerations, so from each central government department and State, we have nominations of  senior level officers as National Portal Coordinators. Content on the Portal is always contributed or approved by respective coordinators prior to its publishing on the Portal. We already have over  100 such National Portal coordinators (NPC).  We have also nominated NIC Coordinators for National Portal (NCNP) from each State/UT and who work in close coordination with the NPCs. Thus content contribution  in the portal is a joint, collaborative effort of all the stakeholders.

Are there plans to integrate the departmental applications to the India portal?

Some applications have already been integrated to the India portal. We are also working very closely with the National Service Delivery Gateway Project, which will facilitate the integration of services, and shall also be hosted at NIC Data Centre along with  the national portal. So using the service gateway based on open standards, we intend to  integrate more and more services. The national portal, in fact, will act as a front end to the services integrated through the gateway.

In the national portal, we have already build up repositories for Application Forms (over 2500 forms already available), Services, Schemes, Acts/Rules, Policies , Documents etc. Quite a few services, either completely online or partially online are already registered with the National Portal and  information regarding how to avail  many of these services is also available on the portal. When the National Service Delivery Gateway is in place, the online services/ applications can be seamlessly integrated through the portal. so, for example, if a citizen wants to file his tax online, he can seamlessly navigate through the portal and reach to the last level and avail a service.

Are there any new features that have been recently added to the portal?

If you look at the national portal, primarily it has four major stake holders. Citizens are the largest stake holders, then the business community, overseas community and finally the government itself. We have completely rewritten and enhanced the business module of the portal and recently launched the revised module, which will become a very good resource for small and medium class entrepreneurs. It will work like a kind of encyclopedia for them and all those who are interested in knowing about the intricacies involved in various stages of business lifecyle in India, right from starting a business to managing and growing it, from taxation policies to labour laws and from doing import/export to even closing or changing the line of a business. Further, this module would provide seamless link to business related services available online.

What are the efforts being made to make the citizens aware of the national portal and the services it provides.

Initially we had been working on the awareness generation in a ‘closed group’ as we had  requested the state government portals as well as the central government websites to prominently display the National Portal banner and provide a link to it. The philosophy  behind this was that many citizens would not know which department provides which  service, so when a citizen is looking for a certain information on any government website, and  he cannot fi nd that information and does not know where to go, then through the  prominent link, the citizen can come to the India portal where he would be able to access the information easily.

Secondly, we are also conducting awareness workshops in states, on a periodic basis, wherein,  all department heads and other concerned offi cers are invited. It helps in promoting the portal as well facilitates greater contribution of content. Further, we also promote the Portal at various National and International Foras by presenting papers and case studies.

Then, another important aspect of our Promotion Strategy is through a monthly e-newsletter that is sent to over 30,000 registered users of the National Portal. We have also instituted awards under the national portal primarily to promote contribution of more and more content on the portal.

We receive about 23 million hits on the portal per month.. We feel that more needs to be done to spread awareness about the portal among citizens of India & other benefi ciaries. Lately we have also come up with posters that shall be displayed at citizen centers and Information kiosks, CICs and district centres. We are also working on comprehensive promotion strategy for the National Portal.

What are the localisation efforts that are being undertaken
to provide information in regional languages, given the fact that India is a multi-lingual country.

I look at localisation from two aspects. One is with respect to the languages. With regards to  that, we already have the Hindi version of National Portal and we are keenly working towards bringing it in regional languages. However, the problem there is that beyond a  certain point, information or services have to come from the individual websites and the regional language content on these websites is very limited. Since the state governments and  individual departments are also getting sensitised, so I think they will take adequate steps to  have regional language content soon. We do not want to create a false impression of interface  where after a point, the real content still comes in English. Since we have already developed  the Hindi version using Unicode, the technology is fully available to create a regional  language version in a short time. For us, the challenge is that the content at the other end  should also be available in that language. So, technology wise, we are ready, and whenever it is apt to put it, we will come out with the regional language versions.

The other aspect of localisation is with respect to personalization depending on which  demography or location our users belong to. We are already addressing this through our  ‘personalisation’ feature in the portal. We are now working on giving a customized ‘My India  Portal’ kind of facility to our users whereby they can get the customized information and its look and feel based on their profi le & preferences..

What are the plans to involve the private sector in the
implementation of the project?

Content contribution is a major element of the portal as technology-wise the complete solution  is built up, content frame work is already in place and the process of content contribution is also ready. In that sense to a great extent, the project is complete at the level  that it was actually destined to. Now the intention is to make it grow further. We are now  trying to involve more and more private participation in helping us package and compile the  huge prospective content and data. For example, the NPCs (National Portal Coordinators) in  some states were fi nding it diffi cult to compile the data from their state, and needed some  kind of support. So we are facilitating & supporting them to hire  local agencies, who would work with them and interact with various departments to compile the content, package it,  and then pre-publish on the portal. Moreover for some exclusive content sections like Overseas  or Profi le of various Sectors of economy, we are looking for private partners having  domain expertise to work with us and compile and package this content as well as maintain and update it.

Are there any challenges that you have faced in implementation of the portal? How are they being overcome?

When you are undertaking a project of such a vast scope, challenges will always be there, but  you have to look at it with the solution oriented positive point of view. Content has been one of  the challenges but I feel with the support of content advisory committee (specifi cally setup for  the Portal), collaboration from our coordinators from central & state government as well  as private participation, we are making a steady growth. We are also working on long term  solutions for provision of good quality, citizen centric content by formulating guidelines and  content framework to be followed by government websites and thus facilitating electronic  exchange and integration of information and services..

Unlike other websites, this portal does not have a specifi ed or restricted target audience. So,  when it comes to demographics, to cater to such a large and diverse audience is in itself a  great challenge but we have been fortunate enough to be able to meet up with this challenge  to a great degree of success and we are trying to move further in that direction. Meeting the  aspirations of one billion people and having one portal will always have challenges but we are  happy that we are on the right track & shall succeed in achieving the same.

What have been your learnings so far?

One of the important things that we have learnt is the inevitable need for ensuring a certain  discipline in the government departments to digitize and publish all content meant for public  consumption online. In other words, there is a need for sensitisation at all levels in the  government that at the very source at which the content is produced or digitised, it should  also be made available on the web along with for other purposes and media. Websites present  virtual face of the department in cyber space. They have to closely synergise with day to day activities of the departments.

Another important factor pertains to the realization that the existing Indian government  websites follow different standards, protocols, navigations styles, design schemas and all this  makes it quite an arduous task for the citizens to understand these differences and look for the  desired information. Hence it is extremely signifi cant to set standards and ensure  interoperability in order to facilitate easy information exchange among government  departments as well as make it convenient for citizens to visit and use government websites.  To address this issue, as an initiative under National Portal, we are working towards making comprehensive guidelines to ensure a certain standardization and uniformity amongst Indian  Government websites so that they become more citizen centric and visitor friendly.

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