Special Secretary, e-Governance, Department of IT, Ministry of Communication and IT, Government of India
”Amongst the states implementing e-Governance there will be some who will be leaders, others who will be trying quiet hard, and yet others who might not be able to do as good as others”
You will be completing six years in office, so in retrospect what do you think were the major roadblocks when it came to adoption of Information technology (IT) in Government, in a macro-perspective?
Six years is a long time to look back, but since you have brought up the topic then I would say that the first hurdle to be crossed was, for people to atleast understand as to what was the need for a national programme like National
e-Governance Programme (NeGP) and how has it arisen. There was a wide spread perception that something was happening in different parts of the country. But the need for the kinds of integrations we are talking about today was not at all self-evident and much less understood at that point of time. Moreover, since there were a large number of players, ministries, governments and departments involved it did take quiet a bit of time for people to be brought together and reach a convergence on a kind of a broad framework of a national level programme.
The second hurdle was that six years back it was still not very well understood that e-Governance as an area was not a concern of only government and technology partners, but infact there were a whole lot of other stakeholders that were equally involved. You as an organisation are a prime example of a kind of stakeholder who analyzes and conveys the message to others; then there are stakeholders who benefit from the system outside the government; then there are stakeholders who benefit from the system inside the government; then academic institutions like IITs and IIMs form yet another stakeholder who help study and analyze trends. Moreover, private sector as in the IT organisations were not hugely involved in e-Governance at that time.
So really spreading the word around to all the stakeholders and to arouse their interest on the one hand; and on the other hand to get their perspective on the whole issue was indeed no easy task. Thus, it took almost three years before this kind of collaborative framework could be established and the broad contours of this national level programme could be concretized. And then ofcourse the next phase was that of initiating the process of formal approval by the government which finally happened around May 2006. And this approval by the government gave a kind of unifying vision to the whole programme thereby truly initiating the real processes of collaboration, consultation and bringing together of all the stakeholders. But even before the final approval by the government, in the last year of that phase leading to May 2006, various elements of the programme started to get clearer. Elements like the concept of shared infrastructure, the concept relating to Public Private Partnership, started to get crystallized even as the government formed a clear vision, direction and mandate. And broadly speaking this was the phase of actually getting down to action of actually putting some of these pieces together.
So starting from 2006, i.e. after the approval by government, to may be the middle of the next year it is the phase of actually putting these individual pieces together on the ground. And in parallel with this another overlapping process which has already started is that of integrating all these pieces together to create the orchestra of a complete shared delivered services through a common shared infrastructure. And I would say that we will be seeing a lot of these services being visible on the ground, getting delivered in an integrated manner over the next two to three years.
You started from scratch and as you said it took you two to three years to build up the agenda and develop a framework, it must have been a hard process. So which was harder, to sell NeGP to your seniors including the political parties in power; or was it harder to sell it to your colleagues, juniors and other public partners?
I don’t think I was selling at all, infact it will be presumptuous enough to think that I had something which I was trying to sell, it was not at all so. The task that I had was to try and understand all the dimensions and try and put them together, and also keep distilling out whatever was common. So, it was really about trying to understand the perspectives, which infact had many advantages accrued to it. First advantage was that each one of the collaborative partners, no matter which walk of life they came from had some idea about e-Governance. But as the discussions proceeded I think everyone’s ideas got moderated and modified by what other people had to say. Another advantage was that it made people look closely at what they wanted out of the process and what they could get out of the process.
As a result of which the understanding of each player of their own roles became perhaps clearer. And since the benefit of that consensus and collaboration was visible, all the players were ready to go ahead with the process and the programme. For instance let us take the example of inside the government, it took some time for various departments to realize that they were better off riding on a common programme because than atleast some parts they will get already readymade, rather than trying to manage an entire programme on ones own. Anyways there was an absolute limitation on the kind of progress that a single entity could achieve on its own, from the perspective of a citizen. So for various departments even within the government the benefits of the collaboration became more evident and advantageous. Therefore I think this sort of arrangement has been really helpful for all partners involved.
Rather than asking about the intended consequences, I want to ask you about the unintended consequences of both positive and the negative kinds that you encountered in developing this whole NeGP programme over the past six years?
If we look at some of the intended positive consequences then I think that first and foremost the kind of collaboration that became necessary among the various stakeholders had a very positive outcome. Infact all of us ended with a greater degree of respect for what the other agencies were bringing to the table. There was also the realization that in today’s world as more and more number of parties joined the collaboration, the collaboration went on becoming stronger; but for the collaboration to work the framework needs to be clear to all parties involved. Everyone collaborates because they expect to get something and contribute something to the collaboration. And even if one does not get into the rigid calculation of whether I get more than I give, as long as everyone is contributing as well as getting something out of it the collaboration should work well.
Other positive consequence of the whole programme was the development of concepts, like this concept of shared infrastructure, external support from other agencies, and piggybacking on the efforts of others, which not only made different parts of this programme more cost effective, but also effective in terms of achieving the end-results. Moreover the programme was able to generate a lot of passion amongst different people and that energy was very important in a national programme of such giant proportion.
Some of the un-indented but not un-anticipated consequences of the programme was that there was a gross mismatch between the pace at which real progress could be achieved and the pace at which expectations increased. So a lot of effort had to go, on the one hand, in not allowing the feeling to grow that expectations are not being met or that things were not moving, and on the other hand to generate quick wins where people could see the tangible benefits of some of what was happening; even today it is a constant battle, so there needs to be a constant balance between the short term, middle term, and the long term goals as well as benefits as we go forward.
The entire Information and Communication Technology (ICT) space has grammatically changed in terms of tool, technology and the cost involved in the last six to seven years. So in your view, if you had to start this National e-Governance Programme (NeGP) from scratch now in this changed scenario, would you do anything differently, be it in terms of technology, economy or partnership?
Obviously if we were planning step one of the NeGP programme in today’s environment, things would have been very different because any plan has to take into consideration not only where we are in terms of evolution but also the environment in which the programme is being planned out. But since there was a detailed consultation process combined with long sessions of discussion even when we had started six years ago, so in my view all the reasonable perspective did bubble up to the top and got adopted. Yes, one perspective is that one perhaps could have used higher degree of force, force as in more mandated approach, more implementation-oriented approach, with lesser emphasis on discussion, deliberation, consensus and collaboration. And it is possible, that it could have led to a speedier implementation, but it is also possible that it could have led to larger mistakes. So I think there was a certain amount of trade-off in terms of the speed in the approach which was been taken up based on consensus and collaboration, but it also helped to get better abiding and thus avoid bigger errors.
There is a growing awareness about e-Governance which has increased drastically in the last five years amongst various government officials at all levels. But the feeling still persists that at the ground level, especially in the case of state government officials through whom most of the public interface happens, there the transformation using ICT is not as fast as one was expecting. So what is that one factor which can induce wider adoption of ICT at very-very basic fundamental level like that of state, so that various states can very soon claim for themselves the status of fully ICT enabled states of India?
I would say there are two very broad approaches or perspectives towards citizen-centric e-Governance, one is the inside-out view which is looking at the supply side of the e-Governance and at how quickly you can e-enable the systems and processes inside the government to make available the services. And a typical example of this nature is the MCA-21 programme which is an end-to-end e-governance projects which has on the supply side made available the service to the corporates side.
But there also exists an outside-in view which is the way the citizen will interact with the development. And given the situation, for a very long time the inside-out view was the only view available because unless the service is e-enabled from inside nothing would be available outside. But as the common front-end infrastructure base is coming into picture, like CSCs through which all physical services would be made available, SWAN which networks these services, and SDCs which house these services; so eventually even if we adopt outside-in view, this shared infrastructure is going to be used. Hence once this infrastructure is in place, even the outside-in approach is possible where you can e-enable the systems from outside and then work towards e-enabling them on the inside progressively. And as has been observed, it turns out that it is possible to show dramatic improvement on the outside-in path fairly quickly and then include the back-end system which takes time. So while this process of e-enabling of the front end of a system does not provide true e-Governance but combined with proper shared infrastructure and proper middle-ware, it does provide the advantage of making available atleast 50 to 60 percent of the benefits of services under e-governance straight away to the common- man in rural areas for a very wide spectrum of services, and that too very quickly. And this is the exciting phase we are entering now, which will take maybe another six months to get fully functional.
Even in your last avatar in the state government in Andhra Pradesh you have played an important role in initiating processes towards an IT-led Government. And now you are again playing a similar role at the centre. So how is it different now when you have such a broad framework, in comparison to the earlier situation at the state government where you had a barren land to start with?
Yes that comparison is clearly demarcated. The obvious advantage of having a baron land then at the state level was that of having to deal with no constraints, which allowed one to think both out-of-the-box and absolutely fresh. But otherwise it was very difficult to make any progress at that point of time because then the level of growth of the IT capability within the country was not as good as it is today; even the level of maturity of IT tools and capabilities was not as great; moreover the interest of other stake-holders who in my view bring an important value to the table was just not there. So, it was then largely based on thoughts and efforts of a few individuals and a lot of the learning was also by trial and error which was not only a little expensive but also very slow.
Today the environment is much more conducive and the employees are also not threatened by Information and Communication Technology (ICT), so the receptivity towards any ICT based programme is much higher. And also with a broader framework in place one not only has a sense of what one needs to do internally but also of the externalities that one can depend upon.
In your view what are the inherent natural advantages and disadvantages that India has over other countries when it comes to implementing and adopting Information Technology (IT) in the government and in the country as a whole?
India surely has many inherent natural advantages, some obvious others not so obvious. There are disadvantages too but advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
So, let me start with advantages. First and the most obvious advantage is that India has a very vibrant IT sector which has enormous depth. And speaking clearly from the perspective of e-Governance we also have the advantage of some turmoil in the global market as a result of which the entire attention has turned towards domestic markets. And in terms of Human Resource (HR), India is the provider of skilled HR to the world, so in today’s environment most of these HR capabilities can be tapped to take the e-Governance agenda forward which is not the case in any other country. Another not so obvious advantage is that we are late starters in e-Governance, as a result of which we do not have a lot of legacy, legacy in terms of back-end as well as non-standard applications. This puts us in a very good position to take maximal advantage from the learnings coming from implementation in our own country as well as learn to from the experiences and failures of the other countries.
From the point of view of disadvantages in light of the NeGP, it is essential to reconcile the tight structured programmatic compulsion imperative with the decentralized, disperse, dissipated decision-making structures of the government. Moreover, in my view language is not as big a challenge as it is made out to be because language is needed only at the front-end. Another big constraint is the lack of highly-skilled inter-disciplinary manpower, which understands the area of e-Governance in terms of technology, process, project-management, organisational-behaviour and handling public-private partnership. There are also constraints in terms of people who are responsible for certain domains not being able to reconcile their domain route with the types of extra skill required to lead such projects in order to manage the whole transition to a technology based organisation from a essentially manual structure. And also in order to change these processes which the government has followed for centuries, it needs certain entrepreneurial manpower employed within the government itself to take the initiative.
The IT spending of government has been very low. Do you think that a financial regulatory reform making it mandatory for all central and sate government to spend a certain part of their budgetary allocation on Information Technology (IT) would work better than the current approach based on discussion, consensus and collaboration?
Personally I am not in favour of the mandated force based approach due to certain reasons. I also think that there are many alternative approaches available which are being currently used, and are proving out to be quiet effective.
Let me start by why I was against that kind of an approach, it is mainly because mandated-force based approach is rooted in an era where it was believed that the mere induction of technology would improve efficiency. Second problem with this approach is that for the government in the budgetary system once money is used as a yardstick, there is always an emphasis on expenditure alone. While in the short term this kind of approach may be beneficial for the business, but in the long run this kind of an approach is detrimental for both government and businesses because no democratic government can sustain expenditure for a long time without any visible benefits being made available to the people. And NeGP is very clearly based on outcomes and value for the investments that are being made.
There can be another approach to implementing these mega projects like NeGP, which is the one being currently followed by the government. This approach rather than emphasizing on budgetary expenditure necessitates that these mega programmes need to be implemented in e-Governance mode such that the entire supporting system becomes e-Governance enabled. Infact, when the cabinet approved the NeGP it also mandated that all the major flagship programmes should be implemented in this mode. Herein in this approach money-spending and the percentage of spending become consequence rather than the cause of the decision, and thus I think this is the right approach to take forward.
How has the role of private sector evolved in the last ten years especially in the domain of e-Governance? And how do you think it will be further shaping up in the future?
I think the role of the private sector has evolved a lot in the span of these five years. Ten years ago the sole focus of private sector was towards the international market. Moreover at that time Indian government also did not know how to procure Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in a meaningful way because besides hardware, procurement of intangible products like softwares, consultation was still not well understood within the government spheres. So the net result of an outward looking industry combined with a government which was not appreciative of these nuances of the private players, was that private sector did not look at e-Governance in any significant way. There was some interest amongst smaller industries towards e-Governance, maybe because they could not afford to look at international market, so they looked at government to provide some kind of opportunity. But on the whole the aspirations of the private sector was out of sync with government’s own requirements, because government required a certain minimum level of back-up and sustained support from the organisation. So with regards to both big and small private sector companies, there was a big mismatch between the expectations of the government and these private players. But over a period of time,not only has the government matured but also the private sector has become more stable and also more mature. Moreover with the movement of these private companies higher on the value chain, development of an understanding amongst them about the nuances of the government has significantly increased. Also the recent downturn in the market has forced the private sector to look inwards. Moreover even the government in accordance with the need and imperatives of e-governance programme has increased its spending. Hence a combination of these developments has changed the entire scenario, such that now government and private-sectors are working together successfully in a lot of projects in the domain of e-Governance as well.
In the next five years what are the further developments we can expect to witness on the horizons of the e-Governance scenario in India?
If one is looking for measurement tool, then in the area of e-Governance there are two yardsticks which will provide a clear distinct assessment of e-Governance projects. First yardstick is that of the percentage of services which have been e-enabled. And second yardstick is that of percentage of people who have an access to these services. I think these two percentages form a very good indicators of the amount of progress that has been made in deep-seated areas like literacy, e-literacy and other infrastructural problems.
And the dream is to see that over the next three years atleast 50% of the services should be e-enabled and atleast 80% of the people should have access to these services. And then over the next five years we will progressively e-enable all back-end services as well as end-to-end services. And as always, amongst the states implementing this e-governance there will be some who will leaders, others who will be trying quiet hard, and yet others who might not be able to do as good as others. So broadly this is the stratification for the categorization of the states planning to adopt and implement e-Governance in my final analysis.