July 2014

Technology is What Works for People

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Anil Swarup,

Anil Swarup,
Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

No matter what technology you have, if people are not present in the scheme of things, it will not work, since any technology is only as good as its impact on the ultimate beneficiaries, says Anil Swarup, Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

Relevance of a technology lies in its practical application. No matter how good or bad a technology is said to be, what matters eventually is its impact on the intended beneficiary.

That is why, for all the schemes that government runs, or for all the technologies that we talk of, I have been vigorously emphasising on their evaluation in the context of the benefit that it has on the ultimate recipient.

Let’s take the example of Aadhaar Card. What exactly did a consumer get by having an Aadhaar Card? Has there been any third party evaluation of the 60 million Aadhaar cards that have been issued? Of these, how many actually got the benefit? We need to find all these out.

Also, for an idea or a technology to work in a democratic setup, it is important that it gets political backing, without getting politicised. If it gets politicised, there is every possibility that the next government would dump it. Therefore, while opting for a technological application, two things need to be kept in focus: firstly, whether the ultimate beneficiary is getting any value out of it, and if that value is good enough to sustain the idea; and next, whether it is socially desirable, technologically feasible, financially viable and politically acceptable. But I repeat that the idea should not get politicised.

In this context, I am reminded that I was involved with a scheme called Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), which was not getting any attention in India, but internationally it did get noticed. When the government discovered that this scheme is happening, they took me away from serving the poor, and placed to serve the richest of the rich.

“It is easy to run a pilot project because everyone puts energy there…and somehow it happens. The real test is to walk the talk, as this is the way you realise the problems on ground”

A group was constituted to monitor and facilitate projects that had an investment of  Rs. 1,000 crore or more. Here, I ensured out that whatever is done is transparent, so that no one is able to point a finger. Despite not knowing anything about technology, we used it, and ours is the only office that does not have a single file. All our business happens on the portal. Even in the Cabinet Secretariat, a normal letter goes under a sealed cover. But by not adopting that, we were not only making it transparent but also publishing on the portal for everyone to see. We did not want another scam, so, we wanted everybody to know what we are doing…so much so that even my errors would be known to everybody. My point is about making everything transparent. I am an operations man, and not into technology. But I am very thankful and indebted to people who bring technologies to me and make me understand how to use.

Any industry, with an investment of more than Rs. 1,000 crore, having any problem may go to the portal, register themselves, list out the problem, ministry-wise, that he has. The moment that project is accepted by us on the portal, automatically these problems go to the designated officers. The officers are mandated to put their comments on the portal which are visible to the industry. That is how information flow happens. We have 12 sub-groups based on the problem-creating ministries, which we would euphemistically call “recipient ministries”.

India does not have a problem with the technology as billions of software are running here. Before embarking on a new project, the first thing they do is to buy hardware. Only then they proceed for the software and then the process. However, what we do is exactly the reverse. On a fixed day of every week, we meet the concerned ministries, and minutes of the meeting are put up on the portal.

Every Monday and Friday our teams would travel to states and discuss the issues with them. The advantage of such meetings is that you do not discuss it with just one person, as the whole team of officers would be present. And, that is what matters, as no matter what technology you have, if people are not present, it will not work. The environment surrounding the technology is more important.

Same theory applies to cloud: while it is common knowledge that it should be used, many people won’t be able to use it because they do not understand the utilities, efficacies, the potential of cloud computing, and how cloud can be useful to them. It is extremely important to educate those using technology not only in terms of how to use it, but also why they must.

Consequent to what we did here in one year of operation of project monitoring group, we managed to facilitate the clearance of 155 projects entailing an investment of ` 5.5 lakh crore. Because of this, perhaps for the first time in this country, presidents of both FICCI and CII wrote to the Prime Minister stating that this is how it should be in states also. Fortunately, states are on board also. Jharkhand is about to launch its state project monitoring group. Overall, 14 states have agreed to set up their own project monitoring group.

This is important not only in the context of technology, but also in context of the ownership of their technology. If stakeholders own the technology you are giving, your job is done. But if it is seen as being pushed down the throat, it will not sustain. We also keep talking about pilot projects, but unfortunately in India, pilots don’t fly literally and otherwise. So, the true test of any idea is its applicability on a scale. If it is not scaled in a country like India, it has to be run into millions for it to be tested. You need to test it on a large scale, and not through pilots. It is easy to run a pilot because everyone puts energy there…and somehow it happens. But those energies cannot be replicated elsewhere.

So, the key test is whether an idea is replicable and scalable. We are good at ideas but we have to understand the ground realities. Most of the time, we have the diagnosis and prescriptions, but the problem is application. The key is to walk the talk, as this is the way you realise the problems on ground.

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