After being part of a recent panel discussion on eGovernance I have changed
my views on the subject. I do not think it will ever take off, until some very
basic changes are made in the way it is being planned and handled. I think that
the government and its various departments will continue to spend money on
buying IT, and on installing it, but nothing much will happen after that.
What I discovered was that in most of the places where PCs have been
installed there is no in-house expertise to firefight even small problems. In
some cases all work comes to a halt even if paper jams in the printer. The
result is that the public completely loses confidence in the usefulness of IT.
On the contrary, they sometimes blame IT for the problems, and curse the
government for focusing on IT.
Lack of champions-not just for special projects but also even for the
routine computerization drive taken up by specific departments or organizations,
was another surprise. For instance, if the RTO in a particular state is being
computerized, there will be no driver who is completely clued into the project,
and who directs and monitors it. At the most, this function is taken up by the
vendors. Therefore, once the computerization is over, the adoption is so slow,
and there are no milestones to measure benefits and objectives, whatever these
might initially have been.
The size of IT departments (call them state level eGovernance driving teams)
was another shocker for me. You would be surprised to know that in one of the
leading states of India, which is said to be doing quite well on the eGovernance
front, this IT group has just five people. This small team is expected to plan
as well as monitor all the computerization happening in the state. In the
private sector, even small organizations of 1000 people and 600 PCs have IT
teams with three or four members.
The total absence of any clear plan about what processes are to be
computerized or what technology platforms are to be used is another reason why
eGovernance comes unstuck beyond a point. Because of lack of standardization.
Every department functions clueless about the rest. For instance, in a state
government education department in South India, one office uses MS word for
making a database of primary schools, while another uses Excel. Benefits of
economies of scale in procurement are missed, costs go up, upgradations become
difficult. Departments cannot talk to each other, and multiple databases have to
be created. This results in inefficiencies, and these do not make citizens’
lives any better.
Lack of co-ordination between various departments trying to computerize is
also not helping anybody. The result is experience and expertise are not passed
on or shared between the various departments, but instead have to be reinvented
every time. An interesting case in point is this story about a particular
district land records office in a western Indian state that did not know how to
prepare an RFP, although the neighboring district had already done so. This
office asked the vendors to make an RFP. Amazingly, the vendor gave that sample
RFP to yet another office in the same state. In fact, perhaps taking advantage
of this absence of communications, lots of consulting companies have also jumped
in, and are making good money. All one can do is sigh, if only the various
government organization shared information among themselves.
The election debacle in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, which many of us
attribute to the respective governments’ excessive focus on IT, should
actually be attributed to “diffused focus on IT”. Had Chandrababu
Naidu ensured that villagers visiting the DM’s office for an SC/ST certificate
were not asked to come again as the computer was not working, or had SM Krishna
made sure that people at the electricity office were not told to come again
tomorrow to pay the bill as the system had hung, perhaps they would both still
have been running their states.
The author is Editor of Dataquest IBRAHIM