Painless public service delivery

Painless public service delivery

Forget the big numbers in the 2010-11 Budget. Tucked somewhere in the middle of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s speech are proposals that matter most to the common man: promises to improve public service delivery.

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Ask any citizen in a queue in front of a government office what it takes to get work done. He will have a simple answer: infinite patience. Try getting a driving licence, a tax refund, a pension or any number of services, without bribing some official. You will discover that’s impossible. One way out of this bleak situation is to eliminate officials from the interface with the public. Technology offers this possibility, and this has not been lost on Mukherjee.

In his speech, Mukherjee has proposed setting up a technology advisory group for unique projects (Tagup) to be led by Nandan Nilekani. Tagup will look at the technology issues related to projects such as the tax information network, the new pension scheme, the national treasury management agency, the expenditure information network and the goods and services tax. This is a welcome step.

This, however, should only be the beginning. There are two issues here. First, for efficient delivery of these services, it is important that there be no officials involved in what is colloquially called “public dealing". That is the major source of corruption in India today. This will not be easy as the government has over the decades employed an army of petty bureaucrats to man these positions. If it employs technology as a driver, how will it get rid of this legion of parasites?

Then, there is the matter of bureaucratic sabotage of innovative ideas. The Right to Information (RTI) Act is a good example. Delays, harassment of RTI applicants and multiple exceptions built into the rules are derailing this vital right. The reason for this is simple: From the initial application to appeals at the intermediate level, each step has a bureaucrat deciding the fate of any RTI petition.

If the new information technology projects for public service delivery are to avoid this fate, there should be no bureaucratic participation in them. This is a tall order. Civil servants are not about to give up their turf easily, especially when parting with data and control over processes in service delivery. Managing that is the challenge for reformers in government.

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