Seven Blind Men and the Elephant - ICT and e-Governance in India

R K Bajaj
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The government must make citizen a stakeholder in ICT planning at an early stage and work for organisational transformation simultaneously while acquiring software, hardware and connectivity

It is said the story of seven blind men and the elephant originated in India, and there are several versions, with only six men in some. Over time, the story evinced global interest and has often been used as a metaphor, but the concluding line of the poem ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’ by John Godfrey Saxe, the famous nineteenth century poet, “Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong” seems to some the story of e-governance in India, and may be elsewhere.

The arrival of desktop computers in India in mid 1980s generated sufficient curiosity, for hitherto computers were considered the realm of specialists, who would punch cards to talk to these huge machines, which required the pampering of an air conditioned environment. It was, thus, interesting to discover that desktops could lie on office tables and be used by ordinary mortals for typing, and managing data. But, there was a huge debate on men vs machines, with basic questions on power of small gadgets that these desktop were and their need and relevance as a tool for efficiency improvement in government. Willy-nilly, government departments started buying computers, in the hope that these machines would change the face of governance, yet it is difficult to recall many success stories from that ‘era’.

The advent of ICT was, however, seen as a game changer, for it added a new dimension to the power of computers and was expected to change governance, everywhere and forever. By now, the man vs machine debate had settled in favour of the desktop and India had commenced its journey down the path of liberalisation and globalisation. Interestingly, by now the private sector Indian IT industry had also emerged as a global giant. Ten years ago, e-governance started with a big bang, marked with awe, expectations and apprehensions and celebrations at every little step. Ten years later, both enthusiasm and celebration are missing. But that is not to say we have not travelled at all. There indeed have been some remarkable success stories, at the same time several projects are yet to take off. In the words of John Godfrey Saxe, some were partly right, but all were indeed wrong. 

The desktop era of use of computers in government predictably started, with buying of hardware, including the desktops. By now though it is understood by all that use of ICT in government and public systems is not just about buying the machines and that the key stakeholders, namely, government, businesses and citizens must work together to manage the traumatic change unleashed by ICT. It is not difficult to appreciate that the degree of usage of ICT by the three stakeholders is linked to their degrees of readiness to use and benefit from ICT. All implementers and drivers of e-governance initiatives agree that the biggest challenge of deploying e-governance is not technology, but ability of various stakeholders to work together to manage the disruptive change introduced by ICT. 

For instance, ICT changes the rules of the game, because it allows sharing, and thus expects collaborative working and flattens the hierarchical communication, a trade mark of bureaucracy. It does away with paper and offer real time, but faceless communication. In the ICT world, how does one prepare ‘agenda papers’ for ‘meetings’? It is possible to argue that e-governance is faltering because ICT, a new animal, is being managed in an old-world framework? A system created for buying tables and chairs, or office tools and equipment clearly cannot be appropriate for hiring IT-enabled services and the L-1 system will not hold good in evaluating intangibles. 

Within the government, thus, the challenge is not the hardware, or software or the connectivity, but organisational transformation that includes redefining rules and procedures, and addressing associated legal issues necessary to create an ICT-enabled environment. The framework for decision making must be redefined and appropriate management and business models adopted. All this is easily doable: one only has to look back at the resistance faced for computerisation of banks and today there is not a single bank that has not implemented core banking solutions. It is not difficult to reckon that all successful e-governance schemes did break away from the old world framework in some way or the other and that the more the deviation the more successful the program was. The question is: Are we doing enough to manage the disruptive change forced on us by ICT?

Another interesting feature of e-governance is that remote access to public services enhances the experience of citizens, but it also brings in the spectre of faceless government. Use of ICT in public services throws up questions of identity of users and so on. As a result, the citizen becomes a key stakeholder and should be included in the ICT planning at early stages of any project, a task easier said than done. All implementers and drivers of e-governance programs do agree that citizen focus is the key, yet how many ICT based schemes achieve the objective of being citizen-centric. 

It is also interesting to see that in the meanwhile, in the past decade or so, use of ICT has grown in private sector. We no longer receive paper bills for telephone and mobile service, and air travel is easier planned through one’s smart phone and we use SMSes and emails to get complaints addressed. This is because the agility of private sector allows it to quickly adapt to the rapidly changing ICT environment. While e-governance has yet to find its feet, e-commerce is on the roll. To the question, ‘is there a lesson in this?’ the answer is a big yes for the private sector is successfully using the same ICT to deliver services to its customers, who incidentally are also citizens seeking similar comfort in access to public services. It would be worthwhile to explore the possibility of using e-commerce solutions to deliver e-governance. If it is agreed that the private sector is a key stakeholder in e-governance, then in the era of PPP, it should be allowed to play a proactive role in planning and roll-out of e-governance programs. The e-governance programs should be citizen centric and all stakeholders should work together in innovative ways and use e-commerce solutions for delivery of public services. 

In short, use of ICT for e-governance is not about hardware, or software or connectivity or change management or citizen services, it is all these and much more put together. To understand this new animal and harness the potential of ICT, government, private sector and citizens must share and collaborate in a creative manner to deploy e-commerce solutions to e-governance. 

R K Bajaj is Commissioner of Income Tax, Faridabad

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of INCLUSION. Comments are welcome at info@skoch.in)

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