January 2011

Let tech take backstage

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Let tech take backstage

ICT is a great enabler, but e-Governance vision is best driven by those trained in the ethos of citizen service

Sanjiv Mital
CEO, National Institute for Smart Government

Modern information and communication technologies are rapidly transforming not only personal lives but also the manner in which citizens interact with governments. e-Government is rapidly expanding its footprint not only across geographies but also in all walks of life from paying utility bills to e-voting.

Over the years the concept of e-Government has moved through three stages:

The first phase emerged from the success of e-commerce in the world of business. The primary view of the government was that of a provider of public services and hence e-Government was primarily seen as a means of improving service delivery.  This view, having a technology bias, was the primary driver of e-Government initiatives all over the world. Thus governments converted a whole basket of services to electronic format to make them more easily accessible over the Internet.

As electronic delivery of services gained widespread acceptance as a vehicle for delivery of public services, the view emerged that this was part of the ongoing reforms and transformation of the government. Governments were seen to be reinventing themselves to be more citizen-focused, mission-driven, result-oriented and decentralised. ICT tools came to be seen as key drivers of a major transformation of government processes, systems and structures.

In evolving to the next stage of e-Governance, a community empowerment and development agenda, not technology, should inform the policy making process

The third evolutionary step is to locate e-Government in the context of good governance. Thus e-Government now becomes e-Governance. This enlarges the scope of e-Government beyond delivery of services to include participatory governance, socio-economic development, transparency and accountability with the aim to make governments effective and responsive. The defining feature of this view is that government orientation shifts from government-centricity to citizen-centricity. This means that the needs and conveniences of citizens drive government processes, procedures and strategies and not the other way around.

During the first two stages of evolution, e-Government is primarily driven by technology. The main objective is to leverage the benefits of modern ICT tools to improve service delivery, benefit from digitisation of data and creation of management information systems (MIS) and to decrease transaction time and cost.

Some of the benefits that ICT tools provide are single-window delivery, reduced transaction costs, improved efficiency, better decision making through the use of MIS and decision support systems, accountability through process transparency, and effective targeting and preventing leakages using identity authentication and transaction authentication.

The above benefits, among many others, have been the primary drivers of e-Government initiatives in the country. India is in the middle of the second stage of maturity and now it is time for our policy makers to focus on the task ahead, of taking India to the third stage.

The third evolutionary stage should not be driven by technology. Instead a community empowerment agenda and a development agenda should inform the policy making process for the third stage. Development policies and programs aim not only at delivering a set of services, but also at enabling communities towards greater empowerment, through building their capabilities (to use Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s capability approach).

Correspondingly, the potential of ICT is not only as a service delivery platform, but also as a means for empowerment of communities towards self-determined goals. It is important that e-Governance policies are situated within overall development policy frameworks, and not just seen as a part of telecom or other infrastructural policies. This approach requires an appropriate institutional framework, and a programmatic design that is oriented towards community empowerment.

To ensure that e-Government initiatives result in achieving an inclusive society; fostering an open government culture, and promoting citizen-centric governance, it is essential that policies are framed keeping people and their empowerment in focus rather than being based on what is technically convenient or market friendly. Policies have to evolve beyond a service delivery approach and focus on community involvement, empowerment and social equity. An e-Governance vision and strategy for the coming decades can be built on certain guiding principles, which could be as follows:

• An e-governance vision should be based on frameworks of social equity and justice:
e-Governance is not about computers and networks. It is primarily about  governance which implies that the welfare of citizens is the prime  consideration. Any e-Governance policy cannot be solely based on technology or economic considerations. Principles of participation, social justice and equity should also factor in the decision making process. Most importantly,  policies should be drafted in such a manner that the outcomes favour the  disadvantaged sections of the population.

Principles of Participation, social justice, equity and welfare of  citizens should be the key considerations, not computers and networks

• A two-way information flow tocreate space for community involvement:
ICT technologies shrink time and distance. This means that the transaction costs are greatly reduced for citizens to participate in the governance process and this in turn opens up myriad ways in which citizens can participate in the policy formulation processes, leading  to a true participatory democracy. Since
in today’s complex societies a lot of information must be collected and  processed in order for the decision making processes to be fruitful,  technologies that facilitate accretion, processing and dissemination of  knowledge are especially useful for enabling participatory democracy. Such  technologies already exist and there is a need for our decision makers to factor those in.

• Conceptualisation of e-Governance should transcend digitisation and service provision:
Current e-Government initiatives are primarily focused on digitising reams of     historical data and on providing government services like land records, driving licence, passport, payment of taxes and utility bills, and submission of applications. The next paradigm shift in e-Governance will happen when we  move beyond these to a stage where we start using the power of technology to involve the citizens in decision making processes and use the disruptive power of ICT to change dominant exploitative social and economic structures. However transformation and re-defining relationships is a challenge that canbe met adequately only if there is an e-Governance strategy that goes beyond service provisioning and looks at issues of social equity and justice.

• Public information systems:
The current e-Government paradigm talks of creating decision support systems   and MISs. But these are all oriented primarily to the bureaucrats or      the decision makers. A paradigm shift is required where we start building public information systems, of which the primary purpose is to provide all the information required by the citizens so that they can make informed decisions. This means that rather than giving the citizens pre-digested information  generated by an MIS, citizens should have access to raw data (or to use the  current jargon, open government data), which can then be processed in  different ways to yield various kinds of information required by the citizens.  This requires a shift in mindset; it is about inverting the lens and looking at  information from a citizen perspective rather than from the government  perspective. It implies that information available on government Websites  should be in open machine readable formats that can be processed using  various software tools rather than being available as a PDF file.

The principles and public sector ethos that guide public policy should also  govern the design and deployment of software used for e-Government. The  current manner of e-Government software procurement is based on the belief  that software procurement is best left to computer experts. Well-meaning civil  service officers who otherwise put public interest above all else in other matters of governance seem to abdicate their responsibility by default when it comes to e-Government procurement.

There can be no debate on the transforming power of ICT technologies and the  impact of e-Government in improving the lives of citizens. What is debateable is  whether we are making the best use of the transformative power of ICTs in putting the public interest first.

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