Millennium Post

Citizens first for Digital India

Technology is a boon for society and governance, and it is here to stay. But technology is like salt in food. It has to be in the right proportion. While one can manage with less salt, one cannot have food that has excess amounts of it. I was quite amused by the analogy the IT secretary of one of the largest states in India had given. But he set me thinking about the whole Digital India initiative that aims to transform the country into a digitally empowered society and knowledge-based economy.
India’s vision of an e-enabled nation seems to have suffered from the same syndrome for over a decade now. Narendra Modi’s government, however, seems to have taken it further, no matter how good the intention. 

Any technology-first strategy without a comprehensive integrated roadmap thrown in is bound to have its set of risks, when it comes to addressing the needs of a country like India. 

To its credit, information and communication technology (ICT) has helped the nation change global perception about its capabilities. ICT interventions have also helped the country overcome the issue of transparency in governance, curb corruption and bring probity in public life to a large extent. But does that mean as a country we start believing in ICT as a goal in itself, when we should be seeing it as a means?

It is also important to pause and check if some of the “mad rush” of embracing ICT might actually be driven by technology vendors who, in their bid to sell, have “helped” government departments “create” needs around their respective solutions. If so, it may be worth conducting a course corrections at this very stage and drive process changes that are focused on the outcome. 

Some of the early computerisation initiatives at public sector banks, for example, have yielded good results in the form of new processes and accounting systems, leading to the core banking system. The income tax department and the Indian railways are other examples where technology was effectively used to deliver better services. Interestingly, none of these were actually driven by the department of electronics and information technology (DeitY).

Even the national e-governance plan (NeGP), which can be credited with creating a massive ICT infrastructure and backbone for rolling out e-governance services across India, is not without a malady. The programme is a typical case of putting the horse before the cart, which in fact, is an implementation project that should have followed a citizen’s charter or a service level matrix for service delivery. 

The reason
As the age-old Indian adage goes, jo dikhta hai wo bikta hai (what you see is what sells). And the technology that can drive the backend process change can seldom be seen. It is like the database and rules of an ERP system, which though drive the entire enterprise resource and ensure that the processes are not violated, are non-existent for the customers. What is launched and makes headlines are the swanky outlets, with websites that can be clicked to cheering crowds or programmed with fancy jargons. 

Eight years after formally launching the e-governance programme the country is yet to enact the citizen’s charter bill and the right of citizens for time-bound delivery of goods and services and redressal of their grievances bill. Even the much talked about electronic delivery of service bill itself tells a story of how lop-sided the planning process has been so far. 

While the NDA government has been able to push through several bills, taking the ordinance route, an implementation programme (Digital India) was announced without a citizen service delivery framework being in place clearly indicates that despite a change in regime, the mindset has barely changed. This is much like creating a city master plan after developing major infrastructure.
A right approach could have been to first decide how the government wants to provide services to the citizens, say by 2020. The next step should have been to engage various ministries, states and union territories to create a framework at their local level, breaking it to the last-mile delivery level if required. These could then have been used to create a common minimum standard of citizen service delivery, and helped bring about necessary process and legal reforms.  This would be the right time for DeitY to step in and map the ICT requirement needed to meet the standards for better service to citizens. How can one decide what technology to use unless one knows what needs to be achieved? 

Objective-first strategy 
During my recent trip to Japan, I had the opportunity to visit Nanbu-cho town whose citizen charter says: “We shall love people and nature and create a beautiful town, and help create a warm-hearted town by continuing to practise kindness.” The charter further says that the citizens shall respect the town’s history and culture in order to contribute mental richness of the town and train themselves, mentally and physically to realise a healthy town.

Compare this to the rush of creating a Digital India, where the sole objective is to digitally empower the society and to create a knowledge economy. Also, the related government document defines one of the key focus areas as “making technology central to enabling change”. 

The important question that needs to be asked is whether we should overall empower the citizens or just “digitally empower” them? Secondly, what will the citizens miss if they are not digitally empowered and the country targets to become a stronger economy rather than just a knowledge economy? Perhaps it will help to also define the key indicators of a knowledge economy and the related benefits so that it can be measured against the deadline set up by the government itself. GOVERNANCE NOW
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