Digital India: Citizen Services Delivery

by Aashish Chandorkar - Aug 18, 2015 12:30 PM +05:30 IST
Digital India: Citizen Services Delivery

Technology enablement that will facilitate Government to Citizen (G2C) interactions can be hugely beneficial. But this can be made to work only if the processes are rationalized, a challenge that must be met and conquered.

In the first two articles on Digital India, we looked at the program overview and the challenges in creating the broadband infrastructure to enable the whole program. Once the infrastructure is in place, the objective is to move the bunch of Government to Citizen (G2C) interactions online. That will make the experience better and reduce the pain of dealing with the unpredictable government offices. This Citizen Interface Layer of the program hinges on four pillars.

e-Governance: Reforming Governance Through Technology

This pillar aims to rationalize government processes and simplify administrative procedures. It is a good sign that the government has realized the need to rationalize the underlying operational environment in addition to planning the technology initiatives.

In the corporate world, business-IT alignment is a given. Various departments work with the CIO organization to ensure that the IT investments not only improve interoperability between these departments but also drive simultaneous operational improvements, process rationalization, and organizational redesign as required. Every business aspires to divide its technology investments between the core and the front end in a judicious manner, and not just depend on the band aid of prettier user interfaces when a back-end overhaul is required.

That the government is thinking in that direction demonstrates that professional thinking is at the core of the program. However, the change management associated with such transformation is never easy in a government set-up. For starters, the organizational structure that almost always changes when a corporate undertakes a transformation program is a given fixed monolith in the context of the Indian government.

The concept of fiefdoms and creating organizational silos is not alien to the corporate world either. But with respect to the Indian government, there are two key additional obstacles. Firstly, unlike in the corporate setting, a top-down intervention in the Indian government is more likely to result in union strikes or worse, voter disenchantment, rather than in behaviour change. Secondly, the range of incentives available for the government to induce change is a much smaller one.

Nevertheless, Digital India promises all the right things –integration of services and myriad government platforms, online workflows, tracking, storage and reporting of all citizen interactions and very importantly, simplification of forms and paperwork.

Digital Initiatives: A Beginning

One of the early areas where these Digital initiatives have taken shape is Employee Provident Fund Organization (EPFO). The Ministry of Labour has created online access to check provident fund balances and initiate fund transfers between employers. The roll out of Universal Account Number (UAN) will additionally help in tracking the PF across employers without employer intervention. Anecdotal evidence shows how this much-required change has yielded only mixed success without the EPFO office not being transparent.

Today, if a user transfers PF balances from employer A to employer B, the EPFO portal promptly helps in registering the request, generating a tracking ID, and sending it to the employer A in almost real time. Assuming that the employer processes the request in the stipulated time – usually, 45 days at the most– the cheque with the funds goes to EPFO. The user is notified as well.

That is where the trouble begins. The EPFO then does something – the portal isn’t useful at all in explaining what – to generate some paperwork and to send the cheque to Employer B with credit instructions. Through this duration of EPFO processing, the portal keeps showing the status of the request as “In progress” without any updates at all. As soon as the paperwork reaches Employer B, the portal becomes active again and gives near real-time information until the cheque hits the PF account that Employer B maintains.

Is the concept of UAN and the portal great? It is. Can we rationalize the process to eliminate the part where EPFO intervenes – sometimes for as long as four months? That’s what this pillar of e-Governance needs to address. Alternatively, at least, the Digital investment – in this case, the EPFO portal – needs to intertwine better with the underlying operational process within the EPFO. That might mean getting frequent updates on files from EPFO employees, creating service level agreements (SLAs) for them for each step of file processing and measuring their output. That’s  easier said than done.

e-Kranti – Electronic Delivery of Services

India started digitization of land records almost two decades ago. The National eGovernance Plan (NeGP) was launched amidst much fanfare in 2006, focusing on 31 Mission Mode Projects (MMPs). A decade later, many citizens or businessmen are still unsure of how to avail the benefits of these programs. Anyone buying property would rather rely on a bank search process to ascertain the legitimacy of title and clearances rather than consult a government portal.

Digital India aims at introducing technology interventions in 44 G2C areas, with some of them still under design and development. Some are only partially active right now. The 15 G2C areas are fully operational, including Aadhar, EPFO, Passport, e-Visa and Income Tax.

In his seminal 1991 book Crossing The Chasm focusing on marketing of High Tech products, Geoffrey Moore had explained how the target audience adopts technology products and how the widespread success of these products depends on delivering solutions and convenience, not just the technology platform itself. The figure below explains Moore’s model of defining the chasm, which a technology product needs to cross to adopt mass success.

 (click to enlarge)
 (click to enlarge)

Today, we have a range of e-Kranti services, which are attracting users and simplifying the life of the citizens in their small ways. Maybe some – like e-Visa for foreigners aiming to visit India – have even crossed the chasm to attract the early majority pragmatists – after all, the number of tourists seeking electronic travel authorization to come to India has seen a 770% jump since the launch of the program. However, most of the 15 live and 11 partially live services today continue to be useful for innovators and early adopters, but not many from the majority may have discovered the full power of these services.

This is not to say that these investments aren’t productive, only that G2C initiatives cannot be transformational without the majority of pragmatists and conservatives coming on board. Until the technology is seen as a proof of convenience, that won’t happen. Who would not want to avoid going to a police station or a police commissioner’s office for a check when renewing a passport? Which MSME will not like to pre-qualify for a tender based on a central repository of registration documents rather than uploading them, sometimes in different formats, on each state government website before a tender process?

Some of the ideas under e-Kranti can be revolutionary, despite not being new ideas. That list includes interconnected crime and criminal databases across states, counter-terrorism information sharing across agencies, health records for citizens via a central repository, single view of all municipal taxes and so on. However, this requires dedication and commitment from every layer of administration and governance. The government may do well to roll out the full suite of 44 e-Kranti services to, say, five states or five metros with 100% coverage to make a real, demonstrable impact, alongside the underlying process rationalization in place. Otherwise, the vast scope may mute the effectiveness of the incremental roll-outs of these 44 services.

Information For All

This pillar aims at providing open access to government data as well as increasing citizen participation in various areas via exchange of ideas and thoughts. It is a pillar where some progress has already been made even before Digital India was formalized. An Open Data platform  with some useful data visualization built in is in place. MyGov, a citizen engagement platform is live and being adopted rapidly with associated recognition – in July, top contributors got a chance to meet the Prime Minister himself – in place.

The logical end state of this initiative should be something like the European Union Open Data Portal which is a single repository for a humongous range of data points across all member nations.

Today, individual central ministries, forget state governments or municipalities, struggle to produce simple reports like where they are spending money and what measurements are in place to gauge effectiveness. Any investment banking economist trying to measure the success of fiscal expansion or a doctoral student attempting to the research effectiveness of governance programs can vouch for how difficult it is to get simple, relevant data sets. Try tracking a welfare scheme of a state government. It is nearly impossible to understand how funds are being utilized to reach intended beneficiaries and what difference are they making.

The good news is that government is seeking professional assistance to improve. The Digital India program has attracted industry professionals, who are seeking quantum changes to the way government data is used and shared. As a first step, a National Policy on using Government APIs was created in May this year by DeitY  (PDF file)  to create standards around publishing and use of such data.

Early Harvest Programs

This pillar represents a collection of “catch all” initiatives that the government has taken to take or will take in future across departments to enable the delivery of e-Kranti services. Some of the low-hanging fruits are already in place or in progress – like biometric attendance for central government offices, the rollout of Wi-Fi in all central universities and standardization of government websites, emails, and design process.

While these appear trivial, a large part of the management attention in the initial stages of Digital India will be spent on such initiatives to improve the consistency of service delivery. Additionally, there are some fast tracked department specific initiatives that are part of this pillar.

The Department of Women and Child Development has launched a Lost and Found portal for tracking missing children and reducing trafficking, based on an initiative first launched by the UP Police. It has been successful with over 1,500 children saved from potential trafficking since launch.

The Department of Commerce has digitized the entire process to seek FDI in India. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has put the entire clearance process for new infrastructure projects online. The Department of Labour has improved the process of labor inspection using randomized allotment of units, which will be checked by the inspectors involved, followed by online report filing in 72 hours.

This pillar will continue to promote bottom-up changes, which will deliver delta improvement to the citizen experience via standalone projects.

As stated in the first part of this series on Digital India, the government seeks to appoint a Chief Information Officer (CIO) to coordinate between approval authorities as well as various government departments to run the program.

The G2C initiatives will succeed if the CIO runs this transformation program like similar programs in the corporate sector. There’s a need for a far-reaching vision, an ability to fundamentally improve government IT architecture, an ability to keep rolling out quick wins without losing the sight of long-term objectives and above all, to unify the citizen experience across multiple layers of governance. Most importantly, the CIO cannot lose sight of the operational process improvements, even though decision making on them is not the remit of that role.

If, in the next four years, Digital India makes an incremental change to the NeGP, the program would have done a disservice to the ambitious vision with which it is designed.

In the fourth and concluding article in this series, we will look at the avenues of industry participation in Digital India program.

Aashish Chandorkar is Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of India to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. He took up this role in September 2021. He writes on public policy in his personal capacity.
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