CV Madhukar | The technology imperative
For all the acclaim that India has received for its software prowess, we continue to fare very poorly in our government’s ability to harness technology to improve people’s lives.
Over the years, there have been several examples of how different kinds of technology have been put to use by governments from time to time. Back in the 1990s, when N. Chandrababu Naidu became chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, it made news that he used video links to districts to monitor the progress of various initiatives. Around the same time, the digitization of land records in Karnataka under the Bhoomi project was held up as a major step forward in the use of technology. The National e-Governance Plan, a major effort by the government of India launched almost a decade ago to draw up a road map for electronic governance, was one more concerted effort to reap the benefits of technology.
However, despite these successes and several other ongoing initiatives, the progress in e-governance in India has been rather disappointing. The recent United Nations E-Government Survey report, which tracks the status of e-government preparedness across countries, puts India at 118th place among 193 countries with the E-Government Development Index of 0.3834. The report also shows a strong correlation between the E-Government Development Index and national income of various countries. For a nation of a billion-plus people, we have a lot of catching up to do.
There are several enabling conditions that are also pointing in the right direction. The data on growing literacy levels, massive mobile phone penetration including smartphones, a steady positive trend in Internet penetration, etc. are all good signs for the rise of a digital economy. The various initiatives on e-governance in India, and the number of efforts globally, will all hold valuable lessons that can enable India to leapfrog and make a significant impact.
There is a shift in the core idea of governance itself in this highly interconnected digital world. The traditional notion that governance was about the state focusing on provision of services to citizens, is changing. There is a much broader definition that is evolving today. In addition to the traditional government to citizen focus, citizen to government and citizen-to-citizen engagement are becoming an integral part of the governance ecosystem. In this emerging governance paradigm, there is a need to think about the use of technology differently. Some of these principles are critical to bear in mind as we make more investments in the e-governance space.
First, e-governance can be truly transformative only if much of the business process within government is re-imagined and brought online. Using computers only to service citizens by printing out receipts, or where a data entry operator converts paper-based data to upload information to meet some obligation is sub-optimal and self-defeating.
Second, even as e-governance projects will be commissioned at various levels of government, some basic process, data and software protocols need to be carefully defined. This will enable any state or municipality to know what standards need to be adhered to when commissioning technology-centric projects. Most importantly, this will ensure that these numerous and simultaneous efforts can interact with each other seamlessly, as necessary. The current approach of governments at various levels commissioning e-governance projects with no standardization of the architecture, software, etc. is a recipe for disaster in the long run.
Third, while citizens will expect better services online, the information revolution is already setting another expectation from the government—that large amounts of public information will be available in a freely accessible and organized manner in real time. Indeed, this kind of transparency about how government functions will be an important determinant of whether citizens’ trust in government will grow over time. In Chennai, the municipal corporation has much of its business process online. Thanks to the initiative of the leadership in the corporation and the efforts of eGovernments Foundation, a Bengaluru-based non-profit organization, it is now possible for officials to track the progress of every civil work, and contractors to receive payments directly into their bank accounts through wire transfers when the work is completed. Many other municipalities have set up citizen complaints tracking systems, with real-time data being available for citizens to check the number of complaints that have been addressed, etc.
Fourth, while the government has a central role to play in making e-governance a reality, it would be critical to enable a large and thriving private sector ecosystem. The private sector will not only be able to develop innovative approaches to addressing challenges being faced in government, but also use the public data that is generated in creative ways to benefit citizens. For instance, open GPS data enables massive mapping and GPS-based services that are rapidly growing. Another example is where apps have been developed to help commuters track the arrival of the next bus, once GPS data on bus movements is made public by authorities.
With the rapid pace of evolution of technology, this is an area for endless innovation. Even as the nature of technology in the hands of citizens changes, there is a whole set of opportunities for governments to harness that new power to improve governance. This is a mutual learning ecosystem where citizens and governments are continually reinforcing each other in creative ways.
Technology is no panacea. But it can be argued that the appropriate use of technology can be one of the most important determinants in improving the quality of governance for our billion people.
C.V. Madhukar is director (investments) at Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm.