5-Years of e-governance

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E-governance today is like a half empty glass, some people look at the part that is full, some look at the part that is empty and some people don’t see the glass at all, says R Chandrasekhar, Special Secretary, Department of IT, Ministry of Communication & IT.  This, in effect, highlights the disparity in opinions that exist about India’s progress on the e-governance front.

First conceptualised in 2003, the face of e-governance in India today is the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), which aims to focus on a change in public service delivery through a centralised initiative and decentralised implementation. The plan was launched in 2006 with the vision of “making all Government services accessible to the common man in his locality, through common service delivery outlets and ensuring efficiency, transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs to realise the basic needs of the common man.”

But, this was not the first e-governance initiative in the country. The roots of e-governance initiatives in the country can be traced to creation of the National Informatics Centre (NIC) in 1970s. This was a period when e-governance was yet to become the new buzzword for taking the government to the people and this is clear if we look at the long-term objective of NIC, which was to “establish the feasibility of a system for the provision of detailed information to government ministries and agencies to assist them in making decisions relating to the country’s economic and social development planning and programme implementation.”

Even as it pioneered these applications, the National Informatics Centre (NIC) helped combat the ‘aversion’ that government employees had to computerisation. In fact, they pioneered what can be termed as a ‘cultural revolution’: people got used to looking at PCs in a real environment, they started looking at their context sensitivity, electronic democracy process, the relevance of electronic data, among others.  

But, the Planning Commission’s Working Group Report on Convergence and E-governance for the 10th Five-Year Plan noted: “although ‘e-governance’ began with NIC’s efforts to connect all the district headquarters through computers in the eighties, the approach over the years has grown out of the same philosophy. The philosophy has been dominated by connectivity, networking, technology upgradation, selective delivery systems for information and services and an array of software solutions. A serious look is now necessary at the ‘re-engineering of procedures and rules’. Very little has been done on this front which is the crux of bringing about e-governance and its benefits to the common man in a sustained manner.”

The Planning Commission report gave the necessary impetus that led to the formation in 2002 of the National Institute of SMART Government or NISG. Forged as a public-private partnership, NISG seeks to offer the orientation and efficiency of the private sector combined with the accountability of the public sector to help realise the national e-governance vision. This need for re-engineering of government procedures and rules also led to the conceptualisation in 2003 of the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), which was formally approved only in 2006. 

Five years down the line, where do we stand. If one looks at the UN E-Governance Readiness List, India has slipped in its e-governance ranking from 87 in 2005 to 113 in 2007. The rankings are based on a composite index comprising of Web Measure Index, Infrastructure Index, Human Capital Index and E-Participation Index. Accordingly, the UN report ranks India’s Web Measure Index at 0.478 as opposed to the world average of 0.354, its Infrastructure Index at 0.044 as opposed to the world average of 0.210, its Human Capital Index at 0.620 as opposed to the world average of 0.783, and its E-Participation index at 0.250 as opposed to the world average of 0.191. 

But do such rankings really tell the story. For example, the infrastructure index used in the UN Rankings is a composite weighted average index of six primary indices based on basic infrastructural indicators, which define a country’s ICT infrastructure capacity. These are: PCs/1000 persons; Internet users/1000 persons; Telephone Lines/1000 persons;Online population; Mobile phones/1000 persons; and TVs/1000 persons.

On most of these categories, India would fare poorly. And, the UN index does not tell the whole story. As Chandrashekhar points out, “the front-end delivery vehicles for mainstreaming the citizens—the Common Services Centres (CSC) scheme—are completely functional and operational in Haryana and Jharkhand. By the end of this year, these will be ready and functional in Gujarat, West Bengal and probably in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as well. By June 2009, they will be operational in almost all states, barring some in the North East and perhaps Jammu and Kashmir.” The CSCs are so structured that they preclude the need for everyone to have a PC, access to internet or even the need to be online; instead, the CSCs and centres like the e-Sewa Kendras enable access to government services to all from certain notified points.

Thus, while the ratings take into account factors like accessibility to computers, literacy levels, and web presence, they do not take into account services that are available through assisted means. Also, the UN ranking appears to follow the thinking that one size fits all or that a solution which works well in one place, time and context can be transferred elsewhere to yield similar results.

More importantly, the scale of e-governance in a country like India is vastly different from something being attempted in Europe or even the United States. In both these regions the use of computers and literacy levels far exceeds the levels prevailing in India. In fact, there exists a clear digital divide in India and as a recent UN survey shows that “while in the United States, 54.3 per cent of citizens use the Internet, compared to a global average of 6.7 per cent, in the Indian subcontinent, the proportion is just 0.4 per cent.” And this percentage comprises largely of the urban populace.”

Yet again, as per the popular definition, e-governance can simply be defined as “ensuring the effective use of ICT (information and communication technologies) to improve both the relationship between public authorities and civil society, and the functioning of the government.” However, in India’s case, Skoch Consultancy Services, a leading strategy and management consulting group, has refined the definition to “the electronic delivery of government services (that are actually received) to citizens, businesses and other external consumers of such services in a reliable, timely and transparent manner."

The use of the latter definition can enable a multi-stakeholder evaluation of any e-governance initiative, leaving little ambiguities. The situation in India also offers another variable given that infrastructure constraints are part of daily life here. For example, an e-governance service may draw excellent response from a user when there is electricity to operate the systems. But, it will draw negative responses, if there is no electricity. This cannot be a reflection on the e-governance process.

So should the government first invest in infrastructure and accept the consequence of a longer gestation period for delivery of projects, or should it implement e-government initiatives in areas comparatively better equipped in terms of connectivity infrastructure or should it invest in both simultaneously? As the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific has noted “…the inadequate connectivity infrastructure, particularly in the rural and topographically difficult areas, presents a difficult choice for the government. This would demonstrate the efficacy of e-governance; however it would also largely address the needs of only the more affluent sections, thereby creating another divide in society.” 

In fact, it was this need to bridge the digital divide and take the government to the people that gave birth to the NeGP. As Chandrashekhar asserts, today progress on the NeGP must be measured first in terms of the physical infrastructure that we are putting in place. “Implementing even this infrastructure layer itself is no mean task. Take SWAN, for instance, it goes down to  6,000 location in the country, it connects over 100,000 government offices to these various locations; the CSCs go down to 100,000 locations, 100,000 villages, these numbers are absolutely mind boggling by any definition, by any standard in the world. The fact that all of this is actually going to be on the ground by middle of 2009 is significant.”

But Tanmoy Chakrabarty, VP and head, Global Government Industry Group of TCS, sees a huge dichotomy between the NeGP and the policy pronouncements versus actual deployment. “The NeGP had an outlay of 4-5 years, with the government committed to having public-private partnerships (PPPs) to the extent of $6 billion. Under it, 29 Mission Mode projects were to be undertaken. Today, barring three, all the others are in the conceptualisation stage, i.e., still on Power Point presentations. What is the reality on the ground?”

The NeGP has a three-tier functional model. Thus, there are three types of MMPs viz. Central Mission Mode Projects, State MMPs and Integrated MMPs. The delineation has been done on the basis of stakeholders/ implementing agency basis and the constitutional status of the domain. For example, income tax, passport, and immigration are central subjects, so they have been kept under Central MMPs. Likewise, state subjects come under State MMPs and those in the concurrent list are Integrated MMPs.

Here, Chandrashekhar concedes that while work on the Central MMPs appears to have got off to a good start, the State and the Integrated MMPs are lagging behind. “There have been issues and these are there not just because of the complexities of e-governance and other projects, but also with regard to individual states. You have to give a certain degree of freedom to the states and this is pretty much the way it happened in the case of infrastructure also. So, it has taken a long time and we have really not progressed as much as we should have. As far as approval of various schemes by the States is concerned, I would say that today we are at level of two out of 10, but I do expect again by March or April 2009, that will definitely be at the level of seven to eight. Implementation thereafter would probably extend over at least two to three years.”

However, Anurag Srivastav of Microsoft India says that NeGP is based on the simple formula of ‘thinking big, starting small and scaling up fast’. “I think the first thing we are already doing as part of NeGP is enabling connectivity to the last mile through Common Service Centres (CSCs), State Wide Area Networks (SWANs) and State Data Centres (SDCs).  This really is one of the ways to accelerate e-governance in India because despite having a well thought out strategy and plan, unless we can reach to the citizen at the last mile, it would not be possible to have an initiative to be successful.”

Critics here argue that starting the CSCs is like putting the cart before the horse. Ajai Chowdhry of HCL points out “you first have to have the necessary applications. The second thing is that you have to have state data centres and then a state wide area network or SWAN and only then you should set up the CSCs.” This then brings to fore the issue of having the necessary applications that are to be offered to the citizens to enable effective e-governance. Says Chowdhry, “today what is actually happening is that there is a time lag in all initiatives. Thus, while the CSCs are coming up first, the SWAN networks will take almost a full year more to be set up while the data centre would take another year after that. And, the applications, which are supposed to be prime movers of any e-governance move, will take even more time to be developed. Such time-lags could effectively sound the death knell for the CSCs.”

Concurs Chakrabarty, “people are excited with implementation of the SWAN network. But tell me honestly what is that the SWAN is supposed to do? I believe that SWAN is only a car without wheels, where are the applications on top of SWAN, which are going to bring transformation in governance.”

Citizen services are linked to applications that come up on any e-governance platform. Importantly, it is this that determines their involvement. Consider MCA-21, a mission mode project that has successfully eased the life of a corporate citizen in the country. Under it, the government transferred the business processes of the Registrar of Companies (RoC) to the e-governance mode, eliminating all physical interfaces and bringing a balance between trade facilitation and enforcement requirements. Again, while critics may argue that this represents a public-private partnership that benefits the latter, no one disputes the fact that it has eased the life of the corporate citizen, cutting red tape and enabling business to do business.

But MCA-21 is a service that only touches one segment of the common man. It is the creation of the other applications, or basket of services that the common man needs that any e-governance initiative has to address. Here, as a visit to a CSC in Bhondsi (Haryana) shows the only two services that a common man can take advantage of by visiting the centre are getting a birth/death certificate or a domicile certificate. For the rest, it still means a visit to the district headquarters in Gurgaon. More importantly, it highlights the need to come up with applications that meet the regular needs of citizens rather than their one-off needs: the timeline at which a citizen needs a birth or death certificate is rather long.

According to Shankar Aggrawal, Joint Secretary, Department of IT (DIT), “e-governance programmes should largely be citizen driven and not conceptualised on supply side planning.” And this is one of the major challenges that the CSC scheme faces. Set up with the objective of developing a platform that can enable Government, private and social sector organisations to align their social and commercial goals for the benefit of the rural population, there is as yet no clarity of the kind of services that they can offer, specially those that the operator has to generate to be able to stay in business. This is because the CSC model is based on the premise that 25-30 per cent of the revenue would come from G2C (government to citizen) services and the balance from B2C (business to citizen) services. Here, the G2C services were supposed to drive the footfalls to the CSCs but with very applications available, the success of any CSC in the short run rests on its ability to provide B2C services that will enable it to stay operational.

In fact, a critical issue that the e-governance movement in India today faces is that the programme has been underwritten by the DIT while the drivers have to come from the respective domain ministries. As Aggrawal notes that the DIT has only been designated as the coordinating agency for planning and monitoring of various mission mode projects under NeGP. “Today, there is a critical need to ensure collaboration among various government agencies using technology as a key enabler; for vertical collaboration between state departments and central line ministries; and for horizontal collaboration amongst various state departments.” According to him, engaging in cross boundary collaboration is unavoidable for successful implementation of e-governance projects at either the Central government or the state governmental level.

But is this collaboration actually taking place on the ground. Consider e-governance in Panchayati Raj Institutions. The Ministry of Panchayati Raj, which is the domain ministry in this case, is supposed to implement a mission mode project for computerisation of all panchayats and offer a host of e-government services. Here, the project is caught at the initiation stage itself due to divisions between the Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and the Planning Commission.

The reason for this is not very far to see. While the NeGP has been publicised as a national mission, a Rs 226 billion plan, the budgetary resources actually allocated to it are negligible. In fact, it is the domain ministries that have to prepare the applications that will give result to the whole initiative and it is they who have to raise the necessary fiscal resources for the purpose. And, not surprisingly, few ministries made allocations for any e-government initiatives when they formulated their budgetary requirements under the 10th Five-Year Plan.

As a result, for incurring expenditure on all e-governance plans, the domain ministries have to seek fresh approval from the Planning Commission, which refers such requests to the Finance Ministry. The latter, on its part, sees such expenditure as Plan expenditure and not a non-Plan one, and accordingly says only the Plan panel can take a decision: A merry go-round, if there was one.

Meanwhile, some States have not waited for the Centre to act. States like Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal have gone ahead and implemented their own version of the e-Gram project. As a result, more than 60,000 PRIs have already been computerised even as the Centre dawdles. Another issue that is critical to an e-governance service achieving full deliverability is interoperability. For delivering efficient citizen centric services, the respective domain ministries have to be able to talk and interact with each other. Instead, what is happening is that the babu sees in all such efforts an encroachment on his turf. It is a case of a mindset barrier, the fear of losing power over departmental knowledge, and the inherent inertia in the administrative structure. This is something that the NeGP is seeking to end by promoting synergy through the mission mode projects.

There is yet another dilemma that the domain ministries and the NISG face when it comes to taking the government to the people. The domain ministries lack the necessary capability to draw up a suitable plan of action, drafting proposals, specifying and justifying the technology choices, detailing the programme outlines and the methodology of execution.

 The NISG, on its part, was founded on the premise that e-governance was an entirely different domain from computerisation and database compiling, something that the NIC had been doing all along. It was, therefore, felt that it required specialised people, who could be hired from the industry at industry wages. It was expected with such experts, NISG would emerge as a professional consulting organisation, having the involvement of the best from both the private and the government sector. But while it got the technical capabilities, the NISG lacked the domain expertise to prepare and advise on projects relating to specific domains.

Here, it is important that bodies like the NIC take the lead in sharing the expertise and knowledge that it has been acquired over the years to take e-governance initiatives to the next level. Such sharing will help prevent duplication and check ‘re-invention of the wheel’.

The best thing which the Government of India could have done so far through NeGP is by provisioning for a component of finance to the states, saying that if you go by the plan we will take care of part of the investment which has actually motivated some of the states but the negative side of this is that some states which were going ahead with their e-governance programmes independently have now started delaying them thinking that the funding would come from Centre. The government has principally decided and clarified that even if you have done the project you would still get your share of the money. The idea was to bring the lagging states at par with the leading states but it was never meant to slow down the leading states but that was one of the impacts it had.

For any e-governance project to be successful, what is needed is a holistic approach based on innovative partnership models. So far, the Central and state governments have tended to follow a silo approach to e-governance; some implementation has taken place but this has tended to be piecemeal and disjointed and, consequently, has had little impact. Points out Chakrabarty: “I think the fundamental flaw in the system is that the government is trying to do e-governance on its own, ignoring the country’s vibrant IT industry. Today, most projects are still being pursued by bodies like the NIC and other government entities because of the process complexities of using the IT industry.”

Raising a note of caution, Chandrashekhar says that while public-private partnerships in any area are welcome, in the e-governance sector “we cannot adopt the one shoe size fits all principle. This is different departments have different needs and different levels of acceptability. And, because we are talking about the core processes of a government, there has to be a balance between what the industry can do and the level of government control.”

Also, for government services, people need to trust. So if there is a vendor kind of a situation, where one kiosk is being put up to deliver government services, such trust does not come culturally to the people. For this, the front end has to be manned by the government, with the partner industry at the backend.  You actually trust in a certificate given by a government employee but not by a kiosk owner whom you cannot hold responsible if something is wrong. In the end, it is the citizen who will determine the success of any e-governance initiative.

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