Digital India Initiative has been launched with enthusiastic opportunity-projection. The market, across the globe, has shown positive sentiments ; noting a new sense of intent & stability in governance in India, enormity of the size and depth of demand at sight, ease of doing business in a democracy, and the quality of available ICT skill-set at any project-site, says Dr Amitabh Rajan, former home secretary, Maharashtra, in conversation with Gopi Krishna Arora of Elets News Network (ENN).
How do you assess the strength of the vision of the Digital India Initiative?
There is a marked comprehensiveness in the vision statement of the initiative. It aims at providing
(i) digital infrastructure as utility to citizens
(ii) services and software on demand, and
(iii) digital empowerment of citizens.
The vision commits a duty-based ethic of transparency, and has an intent to use digital technology for probity in life. It also has a sense of history : it sees digital revolution as a unique opportunity for national empowerment.
This Vision Statement has seventeen components–
(i) availability of high speed internet as a core unity for delivery of services to citizens
(ii) generation of authentic & online unique identity for citizens
(iii) participation of citizens through mobile phone bank-accounts
(iv) universal access to Common Service Centres
(v) shareable private space on a public cloud
(vi) safe & secure cyber-space
(vii) seamlessly integrated services across departments & jurisdictions
(viii) availability of services in real time from online & mobile platforms
(ix) all citizen entitlements to be portable & available on the cloud
(x) digitally transformed services for improving ease of doing business
(xi) making financial transactions electronic & cashless
(xii) leveraging Geospatial Information Systems for decision support systems and development
(xiii) universal digital literacy
(xiv) universally accessible digital resources
(xv) availability of digital resources/services in Indian languages
(xvi) collaborative digital platforms for participative governance, and
(xvii) creating facilities so that citizens are not required to physically submit documents/certificates.
Through Digital India Government has endeavoured to think big and approach problems with a moral mindset : in this sense it is an unprecedented ethical stand. It looks at the world ahead, and understands India’s strengths and advantages in the ICT sectors.
Your comments on the techno-financial architecture the initiative ?
Vision in e-governance gets realised through its techno-financial policy-base. Digital India has a document on this [e-Governance Project Lifecycle (2013)]. Mission Mode is the approach of implementation, and there are Steering Committees for monitoring & review. Government funds overarching infrastructure public finance and the rest is achieved through public-private partnerships of which there are several models. Project Management teams identify project-phases, work-out requirement definitions, go into the appropriateness of design, undertake change management and process re-engineering exercises and vet contracts from the angles of risk and value for money.
Investment approach on India’s e-governance is still guided by the principles of New Public Management, a one-time (pre-2008) dominant neoliberal approach to e-governance financial management across the globe. There is a need now to fully deconstruct these postulates from the public-interest accountability standpoint. Markets do need regulation, and there should be no mistake about it. Global Financial Crisis 2008 must be taken as a learning lesson in fiscal management, and regulators, auditors & the central bank should be taken seriously in ICT -sector as well. The whole world is working on consumer concerns, prudential investment-norms, procurement transparency ,risk-proofing in public-private partnership contracts, and policy stability in governance. ICT is a fast-moving innovative sector and cannot be haltingly captured.
To what extent are markets prepared for this initiative ?
Digital India Initiative has been launched with enthusiastic opportunity-projection. The market, across the globe, has shown positive sentiments ; noting a new sense of intent & stability in governance in India, enormity of the size and depth of demand at sight, ease of doing business in a democracy, and the quality of available ICT skill-set at any project-site. The ICT-market has not minimised omissions and commissions in India’s past performance, but seems to have resolved to move forward for business-partnership with hope & trust.
Crux of the matter, under these circumstances, for India as investment-destination are two —
(i) reasonability of the rates of return and
(ii) fairness in project-implementation discourse.
ICT- projects are successful only when terms of contracts are drafted with a tranquil-prudent state of mind, and executed in framework of integrated work-discipline. Numerous impact-evaluations have shown this. Dispute-resolution mechanisms have to gear up, and regulatory decisions have to be handled by the government departments with a sense of urgency.
Are reforms needed to improve the procurement-process in ICT-projects ?
India needs a credible public-procurement law. There are sporadic executive instructions on aspects of process-reforms on procurement, but they cannot match the strength of discursive & resolute piece of legislation.There is another issue: India has ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption 2003, Article 9 of which requires establishing systems based on transparency, competition and objective criteria in public procurement. It will also be a fitting reply to those who doubt the moral intent of the holders of powers in such matters.There is an excellent document from Global Compact Network India on this with seven propositions [Business Recommendations for Public Procurement Legislation in India (2017)].
On procurement of ICT specifically, India can draw inspiration from the reformed institutional arrangements in Australia and the United Kingdom. There is an Approach Paper from the Government of United Kingdom [Commonwealth ICT Procurement in the Digital Economy (2017)] which highlights
(i) the need to improve the visibility of suppliers
(ii) digital contracting methods
(iii) contracting with an eye on modular development
(iv) mutual benefits of transparency & implementation-discipline, and
(v) accelerating SME-participation.
How adequate is the change-management strategy for implementing Digital India?
For initiative of the magnitude of Digital India, a mature change-management strategy shall be needed– of mindsets & processes.
Mindsets have to be aligned for co-creation, in which
(i) bidders shall have to understand public-interest
(ii) governments competition
(iii) regulators innovation, (iv) managers value for money, and
(v) officials a sense of history.
Knowledge Management in Digital India Transformation shall be important, but change of mindsets shall be a tougher challenge. Because of the Digital Divide, approach to change shall be evidence-based.
Processes ,too, shall have to change with the introduction of the new technology, and quite fast. This can only be done through interdisciplinary discourse-ethic and mutual institutional learning. Since 1990s process re-engineering has been recommended to bring in better alignments with the objectives, but we shall have to shun the influence of the New Public Management to use it as a tool for cost -cutting.
How can the monitoring of outcomes under the e-governance projects of India improve?
There are international benchmarks and indices to rate the state of e-governance : UN e-Government Development Index is one such bi-annual exercise. It is a comparative ranking of 193 UN Member-States according to three primary indicators–
(i) Online Service Index
(ii) Telecommunication Infrastructure Index, and
(iii) Human Capital Index.
It’s methodology is sound. Nations will do well to accept its computations and not unnecessarIly dispute them. For concurrent-monitoring, there can be mission-specific indicators and composite scores as-well. India is working on it. A mission-wise Outcome Reporting System should also be prepared and put in the public domain along with the milestone gap-analysis.
Institutional mechanism for e-governance monitoring in UK has undergone change in the recent years. They deserve attention ; also the work done by the LSE Public Policy Group on improving Digital Era Public Management.
Where do you see India in terms of digital knowledge economy, in the next five years?
India’s e-governance journey today has the combined strength of technology, strategy, enterprise and global market-support. The glory of the next five years will depend on the ethical dimension of governance — i.e. on the equilibrium of tolerance within its hierarchies and persistent sovereign vigilance on human misconduct.