Life Beyond Pilots

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In more than 1,000 milk collection centres in Anand district of Gujarat, women take the milk to a weighbridge, the fat quantity is assessed and payment immediately calculated. Middlemen have been effectively sidelined. 

Karnataka has computerised 20 million records of land ownership of 6.7 million farmers. Each record is available online from 177 taluk kiosks at a cost of Rs. 15 per record. 

In an important e-governance initiative, the Tamil Nadu government has set up tele-centres in all 206 taluks, with touch screen kiosks and laser printers, that provide over a dozen public services. 

in 15 districts of Kerala, many public services, including online payments of numerous government dues, are available through one-stop service centres, enabling the local population to administration at their doorsteps. 

About 80 tele-centres have been set up i
Panchmahal district in Gujarat to cater to all the information needs of neighbouring villagers. The network provides more than 200 online forms of different government schemes apart from GIS services in the local language.

Over 214 registration offices have been completely computerised in Andhra Pradesh and these offices now provide encumbrance and valuation certificates.

 e-gram, a unique satellite-based broadband Internet facility connects all the 13,693 village panchayats across Gujarat, and provides community services to villagers.

The Maharashtra Government has implemented the e-governance application software model developed by the Kalyan Dombivali Municipal Corporation (KDMC) in all urban local bodies in the state.

All the above projects are successful examples of ICTs for governance and poverty alleviation. But, success must not be viewed in isolation. There have been many more projects that have been abandoned or got lost along the way for a number of reasons, including change in leadership; over-dependence on technology; and the lack of a clear top-down approach and bottom-up involvement.

So, if the government’s initial efforts in 1986 to streamline the working of the passport department were a failure, it was because the effort did not improve efficiency and delivery, but instead increased the workload. This is now being corrected with the government implementing the project in the mission mode under the public-private partnership model. 

Pilot projects, by their very nature, have been found to have a limited scope, reaching only a small section of society. This is even as it is true that pilot projects are not organised in a vacuum, being implemented in an environment of economic, political, social and cultural rules, regulations and traditions. In fact, it is this environment that decides the success or failure of a pilot project. And, for the government to achieve its developmental and social goals, such pilot projects need to be scaled up and their reach widened. Once the pilots are over, the strength of coordination and networking in actual pursuance of the projects dwindles down.

As Ajai Chowdhry, Chairman & CEO, HCL, points out that “conceptually, pilots are essential to gain confidence. But once you gain confidence, then there is no sense in going in for a pilot in every area. My view has always been that somewhere there has to be a repository of applications developed in the country. And if that repository is available at a central location like the National Institute of Smart Government (NISG) or the ministry, then the experience of one pilot in one state can be used by another state in the same area.”

The expansion or upscaling of a pilot project often requires “formalisation”, with the key factors that led to their success being identified and an enabling environment for upscaling is in place. An adverse administrative and policy environment can limit the impact or prevent the upscaling of a pilot project. Examples include the inability of neighbourhood communities to receive government grants because they are not legal entities. 

In fact, a very successful pilot project that could not be suitably upscaled or even replicated is the Gyandoot project. The failure of the Gyandoot project clearly shows that projects driven by individuals lose their steam if the promoter or champion moves on.  Successors often have priorities different from those of the original promoters. Aarohi, another excellent project that introduced computer led education across all government schools in Uttarakhand (erstwhile Uttaranchal), actually resulted in improvement in pass percentage at all levels including board, particularly among girl students. So much so that there were improvement in marks scored as well. Aarohi today is a thing of the past due to poor planning and lack of maintenance. On the contrary, software innovation, good conceptualisation and proper implementation, backed by both people and processes have been responsible for the success of the Bhoomi project. Even though a best practice has been established in Bhoomi, land records projects have not been able to upscale nationally learning from this. 

Thus, for pilot projects to be successfully upscaled, what is needed is a suitable administrative and policy environment. Such an environment must be dynamic, not least because needs and demands of the people vary from region to region. According to an expert, “the main issue in the e-governance scenario is to find out how we can replicate the projects which have already been implemented successfully.” In this context, she cited the need for knowledge sharing and cooperation. 

Even in places where e-governance initiatives have been undertaken, lack of manpower trained to handle information systems is a problem. This is especially applicable at the village level and is an important factor to consider in the effectiveness of e-governance. 

Yet another factor that affects upscaling is the lack of a facilitating institutional structure. In many cases, the success of a pilot project has come about because of the commitment shown by a group of individuals. But when such projects are upscaled, the challenge that arises is the need to retain such human component. This is where low salaries and the lack of an incentive structure become a stumbling block. Additionally, over-dependence on the human factor can significantly limit the upscaling potential, and this is why there has to be an institutional mechanism to extend outreach.

Village information systems need to be developed through rural citizen participation. This will incorporate their demands at local level. While local relevance is key to the success of a pilot project, a more generalised approach to defining information and services delivery is more likely to foster widespread diffusion. Accordingly, scaling up successes require more than the mere replication of services, although that can be useful in many cases, but it will also need the institutionalisation of the process.

As Tanmoy Chakrabarty, VP and Head, Global Government Industry Group of TCS, says “We have to move towards institutionalising governance and e-governance, rather than continuously following an individual approach.”

Several factors are critical for successfully scaling up projects and it is important that the planning stage itself must have well-defined strategies, focusing on self-sustainability and incorporating specific plans for scaling up, along with community involvement from the development stage. And, rather than treating them as pilots, it would perhaps be better if the ICT projects are rolled out in ‘phases’ rather than pilots. 
And, if one looks at the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), one can see that the NeGP has identified a slew of projects that it is implementing in a phased manner.  Says R Chandrashekhar, Special Secretary, Department of Information Technology, “the core strategy here is to move ahead in a systematic manner, and the approach is to achieve success step by step.”

“It is expected that the entire infrastructure of the three pillars is expected to be in place by the middle of 2009. And, given the enormity of effort required to connect 6,000 locations by SWAN and establish 100,000 kiosks, the progress achieved so far is measurable,” adds Chandrashekhar. The fact that all of this is actually going to be on the ground by the middle of 2009, will provide much needed boost to the deployment of applications and solutions for e-government. 

In terms of deployment of applications for public services in states, the situation is good in only a few of them. These are essentially the one where the domain ministeries, e.g., Panchayati Raj in West Bengal, Gujarat, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, have taken the lead and fully own the mission mode project. In other states, the situation is far from satisfactory. This can be attributed to the need of building both the absorptive and delivery capacities of state government functionaries entrusted with the task of implementing various mission mode projects envisaged under NeGP. Although the State Data Centres are expected to be in place by mid-2009 as per government representatives, the applications that will run on SDCs are non-existent as of today. 

In a nationwide study, supported by the Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP), UNDP India and Department of Personnel and Training, data was collected from 18 projects that had one common factor, that they used ICTs to reduce poverty, often through e-governance applications, but sometimes through the delivery of services that increased incomes. The intention was to understand what influences would determine the extent to which the projects could be scaled up from what often appears to be a perpetual pilot syndrome; either to greater use within existing recipient beneficiaries (infusion) or among wider beneficiary populations (diffusion), or both. The study revealed that scaling up from experimental modes of technology operation to mainstream practice requires certain enabling conditions. 
“For example, the diffusion of technology beyond experimental usage seems to demand the removal of uncertainty and a high degree of predictability with regard to the outcomes of its use.” The study concluded that scaling up of pilot projects was more feasible when multiple applications were delivered, making maximum use of the physical infrastructure. 

Scaling up of pilot projects can also be achieved through the greater involvement of the private sector. Public-private partnerships have normally been used for building a country’s infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, power stations, hospitals, etc. Lately, however, PPP models have also been used to execute development projects, since they enable lowering of costs, improving the quality of services and bring in professional expertise. PPP models accelerate implementation of projects by increasing the cooperation between the government, public agencies and private sectors. An increased public-private role also gives a business dimension to such projects.

As the Zero Platform BC model, being used by 21 banks to increase their outreach in the countryside, shows how pilot projects can be upscaled, yielding sufficient cost benefits to the project, becoming a good business model and empowering the people. (See ‘The Zero Platform’: pp 15-17.)
Corporation Bank Chairman and Managing Director B Sambamurthy summed it up well at the 5th Skoch Summit 2008 on BFSI (Banking, Financial Services and Insurance) in Mumbai recently, when he said “Financial inclusion can no longer be treated just as an outreach or social development programme. Today, it is a business model that has shown its viability wherever it has been introduced, both in rural as well as urban settings.”

Echoing his view, J M Garg, Executive Director, Punjab National Bank, said “branchless banking is giving a new meaning to financial inclusion, specially among the rural poor. Today, we have embarked on the path to upscale the sector’s role in the rural economy.” This is evident from the fact, Garg said, that PNB is targeting 100 million new accounts using the banking correspondent and facilitator model. This upscaling of financial inclusion projects using the business correspondent model is today being implemented by different banks using different technologies. 

What is thus clear is that scaling-up of successful pilots is a function of many factors. Firstly, implementing agencies can mobilise resources for scaling up useful practices only if they monitor spending and undertake advocacy for ensuring proper allocation. The importance of resource generation for replication of projects cannot be overstated. Since funding agencies support projects for a limited period and implementing agencies rarely have their own resources, it essential for projects to plan a model that incorporates a mix of paid services and social goods. Scaling up also depends on the ability of implementing agencies to influence policies and programmes and to bring about institutional reforms, enable convergence, collaboration, and information exchange. 

Scaling up will require resolving a number of human resource problems, including staff shortages, the need for training and ongoing worker support and inadequate remuneration. We need to focus on learnings from successful pilots and take these to a wider scale instead of initiating new pilots. The time for experimenting is running out if we want to take the benefits of development and growth to the masses. 

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