It is only in India that I have seen such a large scale, comprehensive, well thought out, national level plan for harnessing the capabilities of ICT in the area of governance”
Before joining Cisco, you worked with the government for a long time. So how do you rate India when it comes to the question of ICT deployment in the government sector?
First let me start with the big picture. We have to work in two essential dimensions, first is the area of broad government strategy, that is ICT to support social and economic development, including the important role of ICT in the health and education sectors. The second dimension is more narrow, and is about enabling the transformation of government in terms of improved services, improved efficiency and effectiveness which we traditionally label e-Governance.
In India, the government is working in both these dimensions. In terms of e-Governance and the work underway, I do not know of a plan which is larger in terms of scope, scale and vision but at the same time so thoughtful and comprehensive. And I think India is as advanced as any other country in terms of thinking through, end to end, as to what role e-Governance can have in transforming the service provision to the people. Though I do not feel qualified to rank India compared to other countries, I feel India is in early days both in terms of transformation of the government itself as well as in terms of the readiness of the environment which includes the state of automation, capacity, training and skills. The infrastructure piece out of the whole plan has moved ahead of the services and the applications pieces. So now the next obvious step is to work on the services and applications both at the state as well as the national level. It is time to build on the early successes and move very rapidly for which the government is well poised. Another factor is the readiness of the population in terms of access to the infrastructure, access to computers and the Internet, and the readiness to use it; and this I think will come about quickly because there is a no lack of interest regarding this amongst people. I think once the services are available, citizens will be accessing the services of e-Governance. India is also a role model in terms of its role in the BPO and ITES sector. It is only in India that I have seen such a large scale, comprehensive, well thought out, national level plan for harnessing the capabilities of ICT in the area of governance. But yes there are challenges and so it is important to stay focused.
But unlike the west, in India a standardised e-Governance programme will not fit the needs of all areas, mainly because of the linguistic problems. So what are your comments in this regard?
Yes, that is very true; India has many challenges. Also never is it possible to simply replicate the e-Governance plan of some other country and thus accelerate one’s own process of adoption and implementation of e-Governance.
But personally I do not think linguistics is such a big problem because content generation in varied languages can be achieved relatively quickly especially in the context of web-content. The bigger challenge is dealing with the cultural differences both in the case of the government departments as well as in the case of clients, so that at the end of the day e-Governance is adopted, implemented and maintained well. To overcome this challenge, leadership in terms of keenness and the initiative of the government officials and political leaders towards making e-Governance a reality is especially important. Moreover the participation of the clients/ end-users is very important as happened in the case of the MCA-21 project, and is one the important reasons for its success.
How difficult has it been in other countries like Canada, America when they started thinking about e-Governance?
It is always very hard. When I was director of the development of Ontario’s first enterprise-wide information- technology strategy, we got it approved and funded by our Cabinet in 1998 as a three year strategy which we thought would be achievable within the time-line. But it is ten years later that the vision we had thought of then has been achieved. Part of it was the usual over-optimism and yes, there were challenges. One was the challenge that the year 2000 threw before us, but a large part of it was the need to take incremental steps rather than taking one big step.
For India the biggest challenges are scope, size and scale. The projects need to be broken down into manageable chunks so that implementation proceeds in incremental steps rather than attempting one giant step. Another need for India is to take client-feedback into consideration in setting priorities and redesigning program delivery.
Another area where some developments, though only baby-steps, are being taken by some governments especially in Europe, the U.K., U.S.,Australia, and New Zealand is the area of web 2.0. This recognizes that Internet-based technology allows for two-way participation and collaboration within and across governments and with citizens. It is an entirely new avenue in terms of thinking about service delivery, policy and the public-sector role. Through Web 2.0 technologies, one of the most important dimensions that is emerging is the role of public feedback and participation in service improvement.
There are other interesting models as well, like that of the U.K. government which has established a task force called the ‘Power of Information’. It is looking towards an entire paradigm change by putting much more information in the public domain in usable forms for anyone to use.
There are these ranking that are given every year in the sphere of e-Readiness and e-Governance. But in these rankings generally the placing of the various countries are fixed like U.S. and Canada at the top, Singapore, Switzerland in the middle rungs but countries which are always ranked below fifteen generally have a bad time? So what is your comment on this?
We all look at these rankings as an interesting and useful tool which indicates how various countries are faring. But at the same time these rankings must be looked at and used with a lot of caution. First of all, there is a bar to these rankings which keeps changing every year. Secondly, one needs to look into the criteria that go into your assessment because these also keep changing. Moreover, one also needs to keep in mind what they are measuring and how relevant is the thing being measured in context of your own goals. What one needs to be most mindful about is what each government aims to achieve, what measures relate to those goals, and is that measurement happening. In the case of India and other countries, what is important is that they measure their own progress against their specific goals and in relation to their own unique context. Besides that, yes international rankings are important as one more way of knowing how you are doing but only when you are well aware of the underlying criteria of measurement. because I think it could be very risky to draw quick conclusions based on these rankings.
This idea of yours to ‘lead a change’ through the Internet Business Solutions Group is very innovative and educative. So what are your near future plans for India?
The Internet Business Solutions Group works with governments around the world to understand their goals and provide strategic advice to help them achieve those goals based on trends, best practices, and experience from other jurisdictions. In India, we have had discussions with the Department of Information Technology (DIT) in its role as leading change in the area of e-Governance. I think there is a great opportunity to focus on some the Mission Mode Projects that will be designing the services and applications that will be using the infrastructure. There is an opportunity, for example, to help accelerate these initiatives based on the experience of how these transformations have happened in other jurisdictions. Another way we can help provide leadership for change is to use our convening power to bring together key stakeholders in the central and state governments to address implementation issues and challenges through facilitated workshops.
In your conversations with government what did you find to be most striking especially regarding this entire issue of bringing about change?
I think the most striking thing with everyone I meet in the government is the high level of commitment. It is a very ambitious, impressive plan and has come a long way.Although much has been already implemented, the next steps will be focused on services and applications as this is where the client impact will be happening, and that is going to be very challenging. My role to date with DIT has been to advise on putting the right pieces in place and I look forward to contributing in any way I can in the next steps to accelerate the implementation process.
Ravi Gupta & Sandeep Budki