How has the e-Governance scenario changed over the past three years?
If I look back at the past three years, there have been a number of significant achievements. Some of them have been soft achievements, which are extremely important and some of them are hard tangible achievements.
The soft achievements are: complete clarity, understanding and consensus around the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP). The roles and responsibilities of each player is very clearly defined. In a programme like e-Governance, spread across different ministries, which means many things to many people, both within and outside the government. It brings in convergence across different stakeholders both within and outside the government like industry, academia, niche media like yours and other mainstream media. This is a significant achievement. I think it is very important, because it converts all the small efforts happening in different places into a uni-directional force. There is a clear focus on services, ownership, people responsible for the domain and mission team in each Mission Mode Project. All these improvements have taken place over the past three years.
Coming to the hard achievements, I will divide it into two sub-categories. One is hard achievement with regard to infrastructure. There has been a complete clarity on the element of infrastructure required for pervasive e-Governance in the country. We need data centres, connectivity and access infrastructures for the masses. Out of these, State Wide Area Network (SWAN) and Common Services Centres (CSCs) are in the advanced stages of implementation. We are confident that by the end of 2008, we will see them on the ground. Much time and effort had gone in just leading up to the contract. Various official and legal procedures like preparing of Request For Proposal (RFP), getting the approval, formalizing the award, entering into the contract etc., have taken a longer time than we expected. But it has been done now.
The third pillar is the State Data Centre (SDC). We are expecting the government approval within a month. Then the implementation of SDCs will start. Effectively speaking, by the end of 2008 we will have all the three core infrastructures in most of the states. Another aspect of infrastructure, which is important for service delivery, especially for the service access providers and also for integration of services is the service delivery gateway. This project is also slated to be completed by February 2008.
Another sub-category in the hard achievements is the capacity building. The lack of suitable capacity at different levels of government is recognized as a major bottleneck. Implementing an ambitious programme like NeGP requires the highly skilled people as well as people with domain knowledge within the government. It requires a multi-disciplinary team to be involved in the implementation. We have spent significant amount of time on studying this problem and have identified some solutions. The capacity building programme that has been drawn up under NeGP is not only based on the analysis of the problem but also on a discussion with the state government. It is radically different from the way in which government normally deals with this issue. It provides a mechanism for professional resources to be inducted from the market on a compensation at par with market. We are expecting the final approval of the government any time now for this programme. Therefore, the implementation of capacity building programme will result in a small but highly competent e-Governance mission team in all the states. The real challenge we will face is finding such a large pool of talented human resources within a short period. As far as the financial provision is concerned, we are ready to complete the implementation within this financial year itself.
Among the various challenges involved from an e-Governance perspective, software plays a very small part, just one percent of the entire project. e-Governance is about transformational change, leadership, visualisation, inspiring people to adopt new system. These things can not be achieved by softwares alone
The second part of the hard achievements are actual projects, which are aligned with the service philosophy of NeGP. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA 21) project is one of the best example of a project, which was conceptualized in a service manner. It places the end customers at the centre and built the other key elements around them, rather than placing the departments at the centre. Another remarkable achievement in this project is that the entire project was implemented in 77 weeks. This project shows that you have to be more ambitious and should have a fixed plan. There are other major projects at the centre like Income Tax and Central Excise. These projects are also aligned more towards the delivery of services.
Similarly, we have the Passport Project, which has put on a comprehensive Request For Proposal (RFP). In all these projects, we felt that e-Governance is much more than computerization. They have now triggered major transformational effort in many different ministries.
Providing the hard infrastructure is the easiest part. Most of the states are not yet geared towards providing services through Internet. What are the plans towards resolving this issue?
I completely agree with the conventional wisdom that hard infrastructure is the easiest part and provision of services is the hardest part. To some extent it is a chicken and an egg problem. If you do not have the infrastructure, it is difficult to provide the services. In the meanwhile, if you do not have the services ready, it is difficult to convince the administrative authorities to put the infrastructure in place. I think, the focus by the government on e-Government have enabled to break this chicken and egg problem and place its faith in the whole programme.
There are successful examples of e-Governance implementation in different states, but, the fact remains the same. There is no project, which is implemented across the length and breadth of the country and this has been a challenge. There are several dimensions to this challenge. In some cases financial resources have been a problem. Some of the states do not have sufficient resources to allocate or e-Governance is not one their high priority list or they do not have the capability to structure an e-Governance project.
The Apex Committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary of Government of India has been driving this programme and pushing this in all the ministries to speed up the implementation. On 7th December, 2007, a meeting was held with all the ministries concerned with State Mission Mode Projects (MMPs), where the concern over the pace of implementation was brought out and the ministries have been advised to speed up the implementation. The good news is that almost all the ministries concerned with state MMPs also have worked out the timeline and the detailed implementation plan will be prepared in the year 2008. Therefore, in the next two years actual implementation of these projects will happen. In fact, I would say the next three years will be the years of State MMPs.
Another interesting project is the e-District project, which will be steered by the department of IT (DIT) in the centre and it is a very important project. Because, it provides a number of miscellaneous services. It will have a good impact. But again the issue will be how quickly we implement it and how quickly states will be able to absorb and adopt this project.
A general question that people ask is that, why we do not use a single software for an application and localize it depending on the need? Why is it not shared rapidly, what are the challenges?
Among the various challenges involved from an e-Governance perspective, software plays a very small part, just one percent of the entire project. e-Governance is about transformational change, leadership, visualization, inspiring people to adopt new system. These things can not be achieved by softwares alone. In fact, in many cases it is not the software, it is the hand holding support, which drives the success of e-Governance. NeGP is very clear that change in procedures should not be done after the implementation and can not be done before implementation. Therefore, it should be done as part of the project. In many cases, carrying out that in a systematic manner including change management, training, hand holding support, communicating with people are more critical. One of the reasons why projects like MCA 21 succeeded is because it was handled properly. The continuous interaction and training not only for employees, but also for company secretaries, chartered accountants and other stakeholders outside the government contributed much for the success. We are undergoing a societal transformation, nothing less than that.
In fact, the role of the central ministry is not to visualize a project and ask the state governments to implement it. It picks up the bests from the projects succeed and then makes support available to the states to customize it for the local need and then implement it. This is meaningful and much more likely to succeed in our federal setup. Each state is at different levels of e-Readiness, earlier only two or three states were trying e-Governance. Today one can easily say that 10 states or 1/3 of states are implementing e-Governance programmes seriously and making significant progress.
People are talking about top-down and bottom-up approach and they are also saying that NeGP is a top-down programme and may not have as much success or ownership. As you rightly mentioned, people are much more concerned about their district level administration rather than the state level government. Do you have any plans to keep the district as the hub rather than the state?
Though the district is a very important administrative unit in our country, I think that the state would continue to be an important hub. States have a very critical role in the constitution. Secondly, there is not much of a difference in the level of homogenity across the state and across the district as compared to the difference between the state and centre. The point you made about replication is much more valid within the state since the softwares and administration is almost going to be the same there. Therefore, the role of the state in pushing that and feeding it up is paramount. Having said that, NeGP recognizes the essential dilemma of e-Governance, which is that it is to a certain extent top-down. For example, the focus on e-Governance is a National priority and part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s agenda. It is a part of the National Common Minimum Programme approved by the government at the apex level. From this view, it is essential for any National programme.
At the same time, there is a clear recognition that it can not be implemented in a centralized manner. The implementation should be based on bottoms-up approach. Many flexibilities have been left to the states. Therefore, it has to have a combination of top-down and bottoms-up approach. The whole name of the game is ‘balancing the top-down and bottom-up’ in the right manner.
How do you see the role of private sector? What role should they play to gear up for future?
In pre-2000 era, the role of the private sector in e-Governance was peripheral. But increasingly the tendency of the government is to procure services and equipment from the private sector. There are many challenges in creating and maintaining this infrastructure. The government is not ready to do that and the private sector can do this much more efficiently and also provide the type of service level, which people expect. The services can not come without proper infrastructure, people, maintenance and many different dimensions have to be worked together. Putting all these together becomes a challenge for the private sector. Most people have shown willingness to pay a token fee for the highly efficient service. The service orientation has created a revenue potential with e-Governance and that potential in many cases far exceeds the costs. Therefore, different business models emerge. So, in a sense it works well for everybody.
The other key point that I want to bring out is that in India, we have roughly about 3000 people as IT professionals working with the government and we have little over 1 billion people outside the government. Take the case of CSCs; We are talking about 100,000 people for one project. Getting IT trained human resource for implementation of this project will be a challenge. I would see a huge role for private sector. But I would also say that even the private sector is not ready today and to a significant extent they are unprepared. Building up the capacity is equally a big challenge for the private sector. It is a learning process for both the sides.
Another key stakeholder is the civil society, how are they involved in the ICT arena?
The civil society has a major role in the scheme of the things envisaged under NeGP. In the NeGP, the core infrastructure at the front-end, which is the CSCs, the government, private and developmental services are merged together. This brings out efficiency in a cost effective manner. The cost is very important in rural areas. The role of the civil society organisations becomes extremely critical in developmental efforts. The quality of services like quality of teaching, quality of medical care, level of compassion of health worker are better handled by civil society organisations especially locally based organisations. When you look at the large dimension of ICT for development, which is, to some extent in CSCs, the role of civil society organisation becomes very important.
The second aspect is that we have already witnessed the emergence of Right to Information (RTI) in the country and higher level of public and media awareness created on governmental information and governmental services. The civil society organisation becomes a watchdog in this area. An effective implementation requires appropriate role of government, private sector and civil society organisations.
Transfer of the key people leading e-Governance project is cited often as a key factor hampering e-governance project in the country. How does NeGP plan to solve this problem?
Yes, in many of the projects, the causes of failure is the key people have moved at critical point of time. In order to solve this issue, under NeGP we have proposed proper project management team with a stability of tenure. This should help improve the situation.
If by any chance NeGP program is halted, how will it impact the e-Governance implementation in the country?
To answer this question, once has to understand what are the forces propelling e-Governance. Is it government approval of the scheme? Is it a policy of the government? Or Is there larger underlining force which is inbuilt in the society? It is very clear to me, as I see it there are very powerful highly dispersed and fairly ubiquitous setup propelling it. This is evident by the fact that today if you see the government it does not matter whether you have a government of any political view, you take the entire spectrum of politics in India. All governments in the states are seeing merit and pursuing them. May be with different degrees of effectiveness, but all of them are pursuing it. I will not be concerned, whether the NeGP will go or not, but e-Governance as a movement has come. In fact, it has given a shape to a longstanding desire everyone has, how to change the system. This has been articulated through NeGP. In any case NeGP is not a program, it is just a framework which provides routes and unified framework for a number of projects to be implemented in a concerted manner.
Is there a need for making e-Governance mandatory by law?
It has two different dimensions, one aspect is providing legal basis for e-Governance services which is absolutely critical. In fact we have a working group on standards on legal issues. For example, a service which provided at a kiosk how to ensure that the document provided there has the same legal validity. There are many solutions that different states have tried out. But, a more pervasive legal basis is the necessity yet to be fully documented. There is a group which is going into this issue headed by former high court judge. This part is not only important but very urgent.
The second part is making e-Governance mandatory like RTI. I think it is still a pre-mature. One day it may be required, may be the day is not far off, but today if you ask me it is still premature. But I do agree, there may come at certain point of time, where it need to be legislated. Attention must be given to the ability to implement and enforce the law. It would be fair to see that in e-Governance projects, the limiting factor is not money or the intention of the government. It is the ability to execute from conceptualization to post-implementation. This is been the case, the law itself is not going to help.
Which government departments will emerge as leaders in e-Governance and which will not?
The government departments which have direct interface with the citizens are taking a lead in implementing e-Governance. But several other departments, which are engaged in developmental activities may take longer to implement e-Governance. This is an area of concern.