This is the first post on this blog on India e-government. This post provides comment on the recent e-government Event (second in a series) organised by Dataquest.
What disturbs any keen observer is what was NOT discussed in the seminar rather than what was discussed. More of it later in the post.
Another thing that is note worthy is the accute intolerance of the government functionaries to any hard talk on expectations. This perhaps comes out of a frame of mind which fumes: "We know better". At one point in the seminar, the Indian Government IT-Czar even dismissed an NGO e-govenment enthusiast who tried to point out some short comings in the current pace and set up with harsh words "You know nothing".
The third thing that comes through is that we (actually, Indian bureaucracy) DO NOT want any legislation that will make a mandate on the bureaucracy on a time bound program for delivery of the government services to the citizen on cyberspace. This is understandable. What is not so obvious to many is that it is NOT the bureaucracy that should set the policy on this matter. It is the people and those who are elected to rule the country that should be doing this. In other words, it is a political decision and not a program implementation issue. But then, the bureaucracy can not be credited with undue alacrity on the matter of which is a political policy issue and what is an implementation issue. The bureaucracy wants current system of allocation of budgets for e-government pilots and projects and "hope for the best" on the basis of the champions who are motivated to do what is necessary on the basis of their individual motivation. The question is whether this framework has worked in other countries? Fortunately, we are not the only country that has emabarked on this journey. So we have role models to follow. What may be of interest is how those who are far ahead of us forged far ahead. It is not that they had the availability of technology that we did not have. What technology is available to them is also available to us almost at the same point in time. Technology diffussion to the government in our case may be slow, but, in this aspect of availabiity of technology, our industry is not very far behind their counter parts in these advanced countries. So, technology availability is not the issue. Technology diffusion defnitely is the issue. Now, how to fasten the technology diffussion is the question that should engage the attention of the summit of this nature.
How have these other advanced countries achieved a faster pace in this technology diffussion? The answer is not far to seek. A political mandate on the government machinary to make available services to its citizens on a time bound manner seems to have been the trigger. How has the US achieved this? By a legislation in the form of "E-government Act of 2002". But our Czars dismiss this as unnecessary even with out studying this act.
What is understandable is that there can not be undue motivation on the part of the bureaucracy to demand a legislation that would mandate them to deliver the services on a time bound manner as a consequence of a legal framework. Once that is in place, then those who fail to deliver these services to citizens through the cyberspace on a time bound program may be breaking the law. Breaking the law may invite harsh penalties. But we dont want penalties, we only want incentives as the distinquished panel came to the conclusion.
If incentives dont achieve the results, should we not consider other alternatives? That is exactly what the US has done by bringing out "e-government Act of 2002".
Is "IT Act of 2000" achieving this purpose? The answer is a defnite NO. Essentially IT Act of of 2000 does exactly 4 things:
- Legalise the digitatl signature and recognise the validity of electronic document for evidence and other legal purposes.
- Create a Super Czar Certifying Authority in the nature of Controller of Certifying Authorities and vest vast powers in this Authority. (How come USA does not have a similar authority and yet they have progressed in digital signature itself? That is a question that will require a dedicated article for the subject alone)
- Define computer crime and punishment and set up legal infrastructure in the form of Adjudication and Cyber Regulation Appellate Tribunal to deal with this.
- Amendments to various statutes to include electronic records.
Obviously, the IT Act 2000 does nothing more than the 4 things stated above. Before we reject the debate on the need for an "Indian e-government Act", the least the respected panelists and delegates are expected to do is to read the corresponding act passed by USA. A collection of delegates consisting mostly the government bureaucracy dismissing it with out even reading this is the most bizzarre act. Actually, it is not that bizzarre. Which bureaucrat would like to have the threat of violating a statue and consequent punishment behind their backs when they can get away with all initiatives limited to few champions and their self-motivated actions ?
Another possible reason for inadequate appreciation is the confusion in the minds of many about the e-government itself. Many mistake this with introduction of IT with in the Government Departments. If e-government meant this, obviously, this is an internal matter of these Departments. Now, e-government necessarily means delivery of government services to the citizen and organisations and businesses. When this is appreciated, then the issue takes a whole new dimension. The wishes of the people to have it done on an urgent basis becomes a political decison and the tuning the governmental machinary to do this becomes a political mandate. The issue is no more introduction of IT for internal efficiency of these departments and no more an internal matter to be left to the bureaucracy to achieve it at their pace. There lies the true urgency and the peoples' mandate for e-government.
This is one area which was glossed over but not clearly spelt out. Unless the challenges are clearly spelt out, program implementation will falter as these challenges are not taken into account in their implementation plans. Some of the challenges are:
- Significant Process Reengineering of the government. Adopting technology as some sort of a panacea for good democratic governance, accountability, responsiveness and transparency ( and hence elimination of curruption) seems to be the hope and expectations from technology. This seems to be flawed, to say the least. This can not be done by just throwing money at technology, what is needed is a thorough process reengineering. And this can be done by the Government staff with out needing resources for system implementation which should largely come from the industry(more of the latter a little later)
- Building skills in government staff in mapping these processes into Universal Modelling Languages (UML) for faster implementation of service delivery by skilled architects and programmers who are always in short supply.
- Development of a Government XML to faciltate application to application communication facilitated by XML.
- Significant outsourcing of the development work to industry skilled in building applications rather than government departments engaging in an industrial activity. Outsourcing or acquiring part or all of a product line can allow an organization to focus its energy more fully on its core competencies. In addition to better workforce utilization, this approach can also result in lower costs, faster time to operation, and higher quality.( All Departments use motor transport, but how would you view if the government departments decide to design and develop cars and other transportation vehicles themselves rather than engage in acquisition of these from industry!) Hence, government departments should engage themselves in sytem acquisition and not system development. System development is a risk laden business/industrial activity best done with venture capital or high risk equity and not budget allocation of tax money. Failure should result in severe market punishment of business failure and not just CAG objections(which are at best ignored) after a decade!
- Achieving level 5 in Maturity Model for System Acquisition is itself a very big challenge for the government staff. Rather than doing this well to optimise ROI for the tax-payer money, Government Departments engaging themselves in a business activity of system design and development is sub-optimal or perhaps wrong utilisation of scarce resources both in government and industry.(Any business activity involves risks and if Government officials engage themselves in this risky system production activities with budget allocations, country will be poorer by this. Those government officials who like the thrill and challenges of system design and development should quit the government and start or join enterprise system development where risk manangement under competitive industrial activity is carried out under the risk of running into losses and eventual business failure. If they use exchequer money for enterprenuerial activity, we will have encouraged neither efficient Government nor enterprenurial business activity! One Government panelist talked of industry learning at "our" expense. What about total sunken cost of government officials and employees learning enterpreneurial and industrial activity at tax-payers' expenses out of allocated budgets where the only question that is asked is whether one has spent the budget allocation by the end of the financial year!). "Beyond Pilots" as the theme of the event perhaps symbolises this frustration with things not moving beyond pilots. More than 1400 pilots and not many production systems capture this frustration in vivid detail.)
- A strong presence in research and development is essential for the general strength of encouraging and supporting the research & development effort of Indian companies through ICT sector and for their take-up in the economy at large. (Governments should be the creator of a favourable scientific, financial and entrepreneurial environment rather than compete with this enterpreneurial activity with budget money.)
- There are many other regulatory issues including protection of copyright, the rules applying to mobile and micro payments, the protection of privacy and the need for law enforcement. A concerted effort is needed to identify and implement solutions that will safeguard the legitimate concerns with appropriate business and regulatory environments.
- A networked economy where different ICT intiatives communicate with each other, will only reach its full potential if sectoral boundaries are dismantled and an even take-up of eBusiness greatly encouraged by an enhanced ability for businesses and administrations to communicate and conduct transactions with one another online.
- How best to avoid wastage of resources in repetitive projects in different organisations where a large part of the system effort are mere repitition of work done else where with the peoples' tax money. Development of a comprehensive reuse of application design and system implementation did not get any focus in the seminar.
- Considering increased dependance on on line services will increase the importance of security and privacy issues. Activities to support stability and availability of services which are network and system dependant will require consolidated action on every ones part to increase confidentialty, integrity and availability of the systems under a hostile environment of hackers and cyber terrorists.
- New ways of communication and interaction between citizens, businesses and the state, leading to new social and economic structures and new ways of governance. A number of issues is considered relevant for the development of a coherent and
forward-looking Information Society policy. Research directions in this should come from academia and research support to develop institutions and people engaged in research in this area. This can not be expected to come from government bureaucracy engaged in day to day operational matters and fire-fighting.
- Ensuring equal access to and the availability of ICT services for all at an affordable cost. This is required for equity in access to services irrespective of economic circumstances of the citizen. If any thing, the poor citizens requires more easy access to services than the rich who can afford to travel to the capitals to derive benefits of government services.
- Digital literacy is about ensuring that citizens have the necessary critical skills to be able to
make full and effective use of the services. If nothing is planned and executed in reducing the digital divide, the planned services of e-government will bear fruit only for digital elite of the society.
- A thriving research and development base and the availability of a breadth and depth of skilled labour performing well in the latest ICT technologies. Public policies have to address this aspect.
- With global sourcing practised by American and European and some Asian and middle eastern countries, Governments will have to compete with these employers for resources. These resources if they are competitive by world standards are going to be expensive. Attempting to nurture them under government sector with Government compensation system would only be a pipe dream. Any attempt to do this will result in total mediocrity and that is not what is desired to embark into a modern e-government environment.
The list is non-exhaustive, but the event or the Panelists did not focus on many of these issues. With accute shortage of time, the moderators were only generous occassionally to allow very few questions to be raised to be "answered" by the panelists. Larger issues went untouched while focusing on issues like the government departments have only 20 or 30 programmers on their rolls! It seems the focus on the trees blurred the vision of the forests.
This communication launches a process of reflection on substantial issues if we want to deliver all the Governmental services to citizens and businesses and other organizations on a cost competitive basis within bounded time. If we use the e-government projects for pilots and silos for consumption of valuable resources budgeted from the exchequer so that these budgets dont go lapse at the end of the financial year, we will end up with a "Government that is inefficient and expensive" as a visionary rightly warned!