Tomorrow’s Reform - Why The Government Needs A Tech Mindset To Change

by Chinnu Senthilkumar - Jul 15, 2016 04:10 PM +05:30 IST
Tomorrow’s Reform - Why The Government Needs A Tech Mindset To ChangePrime Minister Narendra Modi
  • To stay relevant, new-age digital economy and governance require us to adopt a data-driven approach in policy planning

    There are also compelling arguments that our reforms should go well beyond economy and extend focus to other critical governance areas – such as judiciary, police, administrative and empowered local governments

This month marks the 25th year of historic reforms that were set in motion, either by political compulsion or by political vision. The far-reaching economic reforms initiated in the early 1990s altered India forever.

As the country celebrates and debates the 25th anniversary of its economic reforms, there is also a larger critical question to be answered – what should be the nature of reforms going forward and what should be the areas of focus?

India’s 90s-era economic reforms were primarily focused on “removal of unnecessary controls” – reducing government regulations, making it more market oriented etc.

While continuing on the path of economic reforms (in itself an unfinished task), there are also compelling arguments that our reforms should go well beyond economy and extend focus to other critical governance areas – such as judiciary, police, administrative and empowered local governments.

India has been slow to adopt technology-driven policy planning

Over the last 25 years, while India’s political executive and planners have understood the necessity of reforms, a systematic technology-driven approach in planning and designing suitable delivery mechanisms were largely missing.

Till date, we struggle to quantify how our public funded R&D labs like Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have been contributing to our R&D eco system. Some of our key regulatory bodies like TRAI have been dragged by telecom companies to courts for supposedly arbitrary decisions, criticised for failing to setup a right and time-bound framework in critical policy discussions such as “net neutrality”. Of late, our judicial delivery system is also under criticism for failing to clear the mounting backlog of court cases.

Another key enabler in a tech-driven economy is, the office of the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks (CGPDTM), which has not been spared either, for not having the urgency to facilitate a globally-acceptable intellectual property (IP) framework.

For years, India’s ambitious initiatives such as building a latest multi-billion semiconductor Fabs continue to elude success; because our policy planning is not keeping pace with the global semiconductor market dynamics.

Approximately, in the same time, Taiwan achieved a sustainable electronics manufacturing eco system through Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) and perfected the art of commercialising R&D success. Moving onto emerging electrical vehicle (EV) industry, even ahead of Chinese entrepreneurs, India’s entrepreneurs demonstrated commercially viable electric vehicles (Reva and now Mahindra E2O). Thanks to a coherent policy formulation and incentives, in a quick span of time, China-based EVs are being talked about as competitors to the market trailblazer, Tesla, in the Asian market.

Missed opportunities – the cost of failing to adopt a tech-driven approach

Common symptoms across our critical programmes and policy initiatives point to a broader issue – slow adoption of technology-driven approach keeps us costing dearly and limiting India’s growth in multiple ways – economically, in global competitiveness benchmarks, and even from a quality of life stand point!

Issues like mobile call drops or slow internet issues are largely a manifestation of our failures to apply tech-driven methods. The need of the hour is to accurately forecast exponential growth in data bandwidth requirements arising out of smartphone growth.

Going forward, questions have already started to emerge about our readiness in dealing with cyber security attacks, a new kind of global threat impacting government and private institutes – making our digitally integrated banking and payment systems vulnerable.

In addition, for historical reasons, being a vast country with multiple languages, India inherited many so called “last mile” issues – last mile bureaucracy, judiciary etc. To overcome India’s systemic inefficiencies and “last mile” issues, and to reach out to 1.3 billion at one go, today’s powerful computing platforms and sophisticated technology delivery mechanisms like “Digital India” offer hope – but it requires a concerted effort to turn this giant wheel!

Global best practices and successes

Globally, there are ample examples and case studies wherein technology-driven approaches paid off. Israel’s first president Dr Weizmaan, a scientist himself, evangelised scientific methods and concepts like chief scientist for every ministry to inculcate an innovation culture. Today, Israel is not only recognised for one of the best high-tech hubs, but also for cutting-edge technology practices ranging from agriculture to sophisticated military technology.

Looking from a social angle, well-known venture capitalist and high-tech social entrepreneur Erel Margalit took the technology story well beyond big metros like Tel Aviv and built a high-tech hub in Jerusalem, joining hands with its mayor. Establishments in United States (DARPA), Taiwan (ITRI) and of late China have assiduously built a robust feedback eco system between different stake holders – government planners, regulatory bodies, universities, industry, technical experts and end consumers.

Under the leadership of Dr Arati Prabhakar, DARPA with only 240 employees, executes many complex military R&D projects which heavily leverage university research network, demonstrating cost-effective military R&D programmes.

A flexible system, allowing lateral induction of technical experts (like Dr Arati Prabhakar), helps US institutes to tap into cutting-edge perspectives. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US has instituted a culture of bringing outside technical experts into their leadership team and the current FCC chief technology officer (CTO) Dr Scott Jordan is a University of California, Irvine Professor (on sabbatical). A good percentage of Silicon Valley start-up founders are faculties (on leave) from universities around Silicon Valley – Stanford, University of California Berkeley etc.

Unlike the US system, India’s parliament system and centrally-administered Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) steel frame hardly encourage lateral experts, depriving our government institutes of the cutting-edge practices. Taking the Indian equivalent, within UPSC, technically-oriented services like IES (Indian Engineering Service) or ITS rarely get to head technology-focused regulatory bodies or key enabler institutes like TRAI, Technology Development Board (TDB) or Patent Office (barring exceptions like E Sreedharan who executed Delhi Metro).

In summary, we lag behind in comparison with global best practices – adopting tech-driven approaches in our public funded R&D programmes, policy initiatives and implementation measures.

Re-orienting India towards tech-driven economy and governance

Going forward, it is imperative that our reform of any kind should be tightly coupled with a technology focus.

Best technology-driven practices and institution building practices from other countries like Taiwan (ITRI), US (FCC) etc, should be studied, leveraged and customised for India’s prevailing conditions.

Following Israel’s model, chief scientists for critical ministries may be worth examining to transform to an innovation culture. A similar model exists in our Defence Ministry, but it may have to be improvised and explored for other ministries.

To bring workflow efficiency in our citizen engagement services, as planned in Digital India charter, appointment of chief information officers (CIOs) should be expedited. Transforming passport offices through a process of re-engineering and digitisation that brought noticeable differences and similar efforts should be replicated.

In tune with global practices, serious efforts should be made to induct experts (PhD or domain experienced or cutting-edge global practices) in key regulatory bodies like TRAI, TDB and Patent Office.

Incentives and flexibilities should be designed for faculties in premier institutes (IIT, IISER etc) to participate in start-up eco systems or to rotate assignments in government policy institutes or regulatory bodies

Promising tier II/III cities like Pune, Coimbatore and Cochin may want to tap into well-known entrepreneurs to build future city specific strategy along the lines of Jerusalem to emerge as future technology hubs

Finally, as India is going to play a decisive role in the digital economy and entering into digital age, government of India may even consider appointing a CTO office at an apex level to evangelise R&D programmes, outline technology roadmaps, inculcate technology-driven policy planning and to execute key digital initiatives.

The panacea to the India’s problems is not through technology alone, mindsets have to be changed as well. In a lighter vein, a chief mindset officer also should be explored!

The writer is a partner and CTO in Exfinity Venture Partners (with inputs from Ravi Annavajjahala – a Silicon Valley technology executive and Wharton MBA graduate)

Also Read:

1. The Reforms Story: Much To Cheer About

2. Surjit Bhalla: More Reforms In Two Years Of Modi Govt Than In Previous Twenty-Two

Chinnu Senthilkumar is a Partner & CTO in Exfinity VC fund. Chinnu held senior Management roles in Intel, SanDisk in US and India and holds 9 US patents.
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