The Approach Paper to the 12th Five Year Plan rightly recognizes the need for improved governance in ensuring that the large outlays proposed for poverty reduction are translated into enduring outcomes on the ground. The over-arching challenge, according to the paper, is to ensure better implementation and improved accountability.
How can better governance contribute to more efficient and accountable delivery of basic services to the poor? Can we prioritize the reform agenda so that the time-bound commitment to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target by 2015 is kept?
The Planning Commission would appear to list effective implementation as a priority. The approach paper suggests significant measures like professionalization of public service delivery, adoption of Total Quality Management (TQM) concepts, innovative use of IT and other technologies, social mobilization and capacity building in order to improve the quality of implementation.
While these prescriptions are unexceptionable, it is in their adoption that we find significant gaps. An instance is the use of IT in ensuring effective and efficient delivery of services. The National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) was launched by Government of India which, among other things, supported a Citizens Service Delivery Mechanism. The aim of this massive effort was to make all government services available in each locality and to ensure efficiency, transparency, affordability and reliability of such services.
What has been achieved so far with respect to e-infrastructure is impressive, but there has not been commensurate progress in addressing issues of government ‘processes’ which are the crucial bottlenecks in delivering services to the common people.
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To illustrate, an applicant for old age pension has to apply in the prescribed form to the Block Development Officer (BDO), enclosing an income certificate and a residence certificate, both issued by the village officer. It does not help the applicant that both these certificates have been computerized as she still has to go to the village office to collect these before she can submit the application to the BDO. There is again further verification of the claim by the BDO office before the file is sent to the social security/welfare department. In spite of the application of IT, the applicant has to visit at least three departments – revenue, development and social security.
The process can be simplified if one single agency in any of these departments is made responsible for receiving and sanctioning/ rejecting the application. The agency should collect the clearances from other departments through the IT network without the applicant having to run around. Only such an integration of processes, focused on the delivery of each identified service, can benefit the common people.
The National Knowledge Commission had, as far back as in 2006, pointed out that Government Process Re-engineering should precede any computerization: “Simply digitizing the existing government processes merely adds an additional layer of expense, complexity, delay and confusion. NKC feels that there is now a unique opportunity in the history of India to leave behind the British Raj and re-engineer and modernize government processes to build a new India of the 21st century. Hence it is essential to first redesign the government processes keeping the citizen at the centre, providing for the enablement of citizens, businesses, producers and consumers, replacing the old mistrust and control regime of the colonial past.”
Such redesigning was not attempted at the pilot stage of NeGP implementation by the Departments of Information Technology and Administrative Reforms, the two central departments which collaborated in launching NeGP. It was left to state governments to introduce process changes. We now know that this has not worked, as neither state governments nor the vendors who designed and implemented the projects had either the capacity or the incentive to simplify processes.
While formulating Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS), the eagerness of the Planning Commission and the sponsoring ministry is obviously to utilize the existing administrative machinery at the district and block levels for delivery of services. This unfortunately encourages the freezing of age-old processes at these levels. At the Block and Panchayat levels, CSS schemes constitute the major developmental activity and neither the state nor the centre would like any drastic changes in the processes.
Moreover, the thrust of the IT-based monitoring system, which is part of the guidelines proposed by sponsoring central ministries in each of the flagship programmes, is on quick utilization of allotted funds. The concern expressed at paragraph 15.20 of the 12th Plan Approach Paper on ‘Tracking of Central and State Releases’ is representative of this obsession. It leaves the monitoring of the end-use and the quality of the service delivered to the state or local governments with their weak ownership and weaker capacity.
Process improvements are essential also to guarantee delivery of services, as is emerging from the experience of some states that have successfully legislated and implemented such guarantees. Although sufficient data for a proper analysis of the working of this legislation is unavailable, one clear feedback is that the present system of diffused accountability in government systems is not conducive to smooth implementation of such a guarantee. It may even lead to miscarriage of justice as fixing of responsibility under the present system is not always easy.
In sum, government process engineering should be a priority area in governance reform during the 12th Plan. As the NeGP expands its ambit (in what has been touted by the midterm review of the 11th Plan as ‘e-Governance 2.0’) it should be possible to develop model sets of processes for service delivery which should build in a strong element of individual accountability on the employees. This may not be left to the state and local governments.
C.K. Ramachandran is an expert on governance, institutional reform and rural livelihood.