E-Governance:not the technology,stupid!

Way to go about e-governance

Mar 18 2009

Now is a unique opportunity in the history of India to leave behind the British Raj and re-engineer and modernise government processes to build a new India of the 21st century. Hence it is essential that we first redesign the government processes keeping the citizen at the centre, providing hassle-free enablement of citizens, businesses, producers and consumers, replacing the old mistrust and control regime from the British Raj, says the Knowledge Commission in its report to the Prime Minister of India

Businesses often do not harvest optimum benefits from computerisation. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes messy processes are computerised. The computer helps to speed up the mess. Sometimes silos and fiefdoms come in the way of sharing data and information. Software platforms are not inter-operable. Systems cannot be scaled up. Reliable data is difficult to find. Companies create islands of information and it is difficult to sift business insights for decision-making.

Thus, chief information officers do what Hanumanji did when asked to fetch Sanjeevani — they use larger boxes and faster wires to transport “mountains” of data!

Not surprisingly, what ails the private sector also bedevils the government. Business transformation is not just about IT. Boxes, wires, software and systems are important ingredients of e-governance. But e-governance is not about automating existing government processes that are archaic, bureaucratic and not designed for customer service. In this case, we are dealing with a different customer. It is not the customer who votes with his wallet. It the customer who pays taxes and actually votes at the ballot box — the citizen.

Successful businesses place the customer at the centre of their strategy and do everything to improve customer experience. E-governance should not be driven by layers of bureaucratic rules, thereby increasing the misery for citizens. So, how can we improve services for citizens? We can do so by making access to information easier, by cutting cycle times, by providing web-centric self-services and by improving efficiency and productivity. In order to do that, we need to focus on the hardest nuts: administrative reforms and re-designing of government processes.

It would be unfair to conclude that all our civil servants are corrupt or inefficient or both. The majority of our civil servants are hard-working, intelligent and well-meaning as individuals. But much of the delays, inefficiencies, harassment, corruption and hassles are either engendered or facilitated by archaic government processes and rules. If we rely only on technology to take-off, we will be embarking on a project akin to making an old truck fly like a jet plane.

I have five suggestions. First, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. If certain applications are working successfully in a particular state then that e-governance application should be picked and replicated across the country. Why should different states embark on 10 different land records systems and 15 different motor vehicles registration applications? If there are problems with incompatibility, then let us re-engineer the processes. The barrier of difference in vernacular languages and scripts is a red herring. Technology can solve the issue of using a Telugu application in Bengali without much effort.

Second, let us set standards that are common and well thought out. The standards should be vendor-agnostic and must provide the best value. I am not a fanatic about “open systems”. I would make sure that the total life-cycle cost is the lowest measured by performance.

Third, use outsourcing thoughtfully. Some of the most dependable services required by government employees are outsourced. Motor vehicles, canteen and security services, for instance, are usually run by outsourced contractors. Why not citizen services that are IT-enabled? In some cases, citizens are willing to pay user charges. The knowledge commission in 2006 had recommended the appointment of chief information technology officers (CITO) for every state and every major central government department. I take this suggestion, which has not been implemented, with a few pinches of salt. It is difficult to attract and retain the best IT talent in a bureaucratic ecosystem. Besides the real power in the government rests with ministers and the civil servants who can

render the “IT guy”completely ineffective with the swish

of a pen.

Governments will not succeed in running large captive “IT shops”. They must use outsourcing smartly to clean up corruption and drive efficiencies. They should develop vendors who can perform the tasks cheaper, faster and better. After all, even in the corporate world, companies such as ADP process millions of payrolls of Fortune 500 companies for a living.

Fourth, instead of aspiring to build large IT shops within the government, we should focus on imparting to government teams certain managerial skills. These skills will include intelligent procurement of services that are to be outsourced, managing projects tightly to time and budget and thinking long-term about using technology to make governments efficient, clean, agile, transparent and citizen-centric.

Last, but not the least, India must increase its spending on e-governance. We will acquire the reputation of the best cobbler’s shoeless son if we do not. Our best talent in consulting and technology are transforming businesses and governments across the planet. They are helping them become more efficient, productive and successful. In India, we are saddled with old and archaic systems that are becoming bottlenecks to our own development and modernisation.

The writer is the managing director of Deloitte Consulting. These are his personal views