A couple of months ago I was invited by Bangalore University to deliver a talk on Opportunities in e-Governance. This time the invitation didn’t surprise me because I had been the Ph.D. supervisor of the young professor organizing the conference.
I was happy to agree because, back in 2007, I had contributed a chapter to a book on e-Business edited by my old and dear friend Tapen Sinha. So I knew that carving out a brief lecture from a long chapter would be rather easy.
I remember, however, that writing the chapter had been hard work. It took me a month to do it and I was horrified when Tapen told me that the reviews had been mixed: one reviewer gushed that it was a valuable essay, the other quite rudely asked “where’s the beef?”.
Fortunately Tapen used his prerogative as editor to push the chapter in. But what angered me then (and amuses me now) is that the publisher did not even offer me a complimentary copy of the book. Worse still, I had signed away all my rights, and the publisher could, if he wished, sell my chapter to a second publisher (something that indeed happened in 2009). Even today if you want to read my chapter you’ll have to pay the publisher $30 first.
So what, then, is the definition of e-Governance? It is essentially the smart use of computers, the Internet, hand-held mobile devices etc., etc. to make governance happen faster, more efficiently and with less tedium. Think of the time we stood in queues for long hours to buy railway or cinema tickets … and think of how we do it today: just log into a portal, request a ticket, pay for it using net banking or a credit card, and print out the ticket. You may not even need to print it if you can show it on your mobile phone.
Or think of how we obtain exam results today, and how it was like back in 1975. Those days the results were pinned on a notice board two months after the exam and there was a mad scramble, involving the tugging or tearing of shirts, to see if you had passed or failed. Today when we do those GRE type of tests, we walk out of the exam hall only after seeing our result displayed on the computer screen.
How did e-Governance ‘evolve’? Actually a more accurate question is: How is e-Governance ‘evolving’, because things are still changing every other year as bandwidths grow, as software applications grow, and as the Internet mesh gets more and more tangled and complex.
But, broadly speaking, we can identify four phases in the evolution of e-Governance and we are probably between the ‘transact’ and ‘transform’ phases right now.
The first phase, ‘inform’, is akin to a display of multiple static web pages. Imagine that you are a student seeking admission to a US university. In the ‘inform’ phase we could only see web pages containing lists of courses offered, or names of professors, or pictures of the campus etc. However if we wanted to actually apply, the best we could do was to print out a blank application form visible on the screen. We could then fill out the form manually and then either fax or mail back to the university.
It would have been so much easier to fill the form online and immediately add it to the college database … but that required a technology upgrade which permitted the web page’s markup language HTML to communicate with the querying language (SQL) of databases. It took a while for that to happen (e.g., the emergence of Java was a great help) and that’s when e-Governance entered the ‘interact’ phase.
The ‘interact’ phase enabled two-way communication for the first time and that was a significant step forward. But clearly this wasn’t enough. After all, governance isn’t as simple as ‘you-ask-I-answer’. Governance requires decision-making at various levels. Imagine, for example, that we are applying for a bank loan. While the ‘interact’ phase would allow us to fill out a form online, and allow the bank to confirm its receipt, many bank officials would have to consider our application before reaching a final verdict. The e-Governance equivalent would therefore require our application to electronically move from desk-to-desk while also providing the information inputs and security assurance needed at every desk. This requires the creation of a secure electronic workflow process. In e-Governance parlance this is the ‘transact’ phase.
While the ‘transact’ step really takes e-Governance forward, it isn’t the ultimate panacea. It largely resolves governance concerns within an organization or department, but doesn’t do so well between organizations or departments. If we return to the US university admission example, ‘transact’ would allow the university to efficiently process the student’s admission request, and confirm his selection, but it wouldn’t let the student pay his admission fee. That would require a seamless interaction between the student, university, banks and perhaps a funding agency. This is the ideal that the ‘transform’ phase hopes to achieve: a single window that would allow the student to complete his entire admission process!
Why are we so excited by e-Governance? What are all those new opportunities that e-Governance can open up?
Let me list six opportunities: e-Governance empowers the citizen more, it allows businesses to be more profitable, it creates greater efficiency, it allows more flexibility, it helps us fight corruption better, and it naturally creates and enriches digital repositories.
The era before e-Governance was characterized by the ubiquitous application form — that was always in short supply, and impossibly hard to fill. There were well-defined hours to accept applications, but, during these hours, the concerned official was frequently absent, or had ‘disappeared’ after a leisurely lunch break. And even if one official was present, the next official in the process was likely to be absent! In plain terms, things were pretty bad.
A lot can now change with e-Governance: forms can be downloaded free, online tutorials can tell us how to fill up the form (we now have tutorials on even how to pass security in an airport!), and the form can be submitted instantly without having to worry about working hours or weekends!
Information now also has a wider reach via web portals. As a student in Calcutta I remember envying Delhi (and especially JNU) students. With all embassies and government departments around, only they had access to opportunities to study abroad or benefit from government goodies. By the time such information filtered down to smaller cities or distant states, the opportunity was already gone! Today everyone can be informed; the world is now a more level playing field.
With e-Governance things can happen much faster, and therefore businesses can become much more profitable. Processes can also be streamlined, trimmed or better ‘aligned’ to resources or opportunities. Many of the facilitators — or middlemen — who add to the overheads can also be eliminated.
e-Governance also opened up the lucrative opportunity of offshoring and outsourcing. I still recall how deeply puzzled I was when Texas Instruments offshored software development to India towards the end of the 1980s. Those days I used to work in National Aerospace Laboratories that had two campuses 5 km apart; aligning operations 5 km apart seemed impossibly hard, so how was it possible to seamlessly align work 5000 miles apart?
Some months ago, while driving into the IT park where I work, my car tyres encountered sharp objects on either side of a checkpost. I suddenly had two flat tyres, and faced the prospect of reaching an important meeting late. Even as I wondered what to do, a friendly man drove in on his scooter and reassured me that he would fix my tyres … he even drove me on his scooter to my meeting venue.
How did he find me? “Oh, I have boys around the park who alert me on phone every time they see a flat tyre. This is a big park; we have 3-4 flat tyres every morning!”
This was innovative use of mobile telephony. An even more innovative use of mobile telephony was when fishermen at sea in Kerala kept in touch with their ground personnel at different locations. Based on their feedback, they chose to go to the location offering the highest price for their catch at that point of time.
We see even more innovation in banking. There was a time when I found myself in my bank every other week: I had to withdraw cash, deposit cheques, apply for cheque books or demand drafts, convert currency etc., etc. My banking transactions have now grown multi-fold, but I now I go to my bank exactly once a year: to physically sign my ‘life certificate’ and thereby reassure the bank that they should continue to credit my pension. At all other times, I use the vastly more efficient and effective NetBanking … which of course is just another example of e-Governance.
The much-hyped Aadhaar ‘identification tag’ is another example of how e-Governance is set to deeply penetrate our lives. We’ve had identification cards before: ration card, voter card etc. but the ‘master data’ to validate these identities were in some long and fat government ledger. Instead, Aadhaar uses electronic databases, and the idea of using Aadhaar to make direct payments to citizens with no intermediary is an example of the ‘transform’ phase of e-Governance.
One unhappy fallout of e-Governance is that signatures, whether on cheques or in autograph books, are doomed to disappear.This saddens an old-timer like me, although I have to admit that authentication using encrypted digital signatures is many times more reliable.
As I write this, there’s another Bharat Bandh going on. But work in the company I work for is happening smoothly! Realizing that public transport may be affected, we advised our employees to “work from home” using laptops and network connectivity. Just the thought that one could ‘work’ without travelling to an office was unthinkable 20 years ago.
That’s the sort of flexibility that e-Governance is poised to provide in the future. This flexibility has been very significantly heightened by the appearance of wireless connectivity. I often used to wonder what was ‘smart’ about a smartphone. Now it is easy to see that the smart move was to marry computers to communications in a wireless environment. Things are poised to get even smarter when robots join this smart team. But that might take a few more years.
Most corruption happens on the sly. The process to award a lucrative defence contract is surreptitiously subverted. The same piece of land is sold over and over again by concealing the original ownership papers. Ballot boxes are stuffed with ballot papers favouring a particular candidate. Some bids for a high-value contract mysteriously disappear. Appointments are made without following the prescribed process etc., etc.
e-Governance can help in at least two ways. First, it ensures that things become more transparent. For example, citizens can actually view the life cycle of a purchase or appointment process, the digital recording of a court hearing, the evaluation of an exam answer script, or the outcome of an election vote. Second, e-Governance technologies can strongly facilitate e-advocacy. If citizens think that something is going wrong and want to expose such wrongdoing, they have many electronic avenues to achieve their objective. Consider for instance the role that TV now plays in exposing or correcting malafide deals; live event coverage, multimedia animations of accidents, clever use of digital signal processing … all these are the real contributors to exposing corruption and unearthing the truth.
Even as e-Governance keeps happening and doing its designated business, the real magic it leaves behind is a wealth of digital information! Digital data is so much easier to store and crunch, and then analyze and infer. Look around … the real difference between yesterday and today is digital content! Yesterday we only had pictures of clouds; today we can accurate predict the trajectory of a cyclone. Yesterday we took photos on film rolls, printed them on paper and asked the postman to deliver it by hand; today live pictures vividly trace the curvature of Saeed Ajmal’s spinning delivery even as it is being bowled … why even DRS — whether you like it or hate it — is e-Governance in action! Facebook was unthinkable before e-Governance came along … and today our police force arrests citizens for their likes and dislikes on Facebook.
Big data will one day change the way we look at the world, and e-Governance will one day change the way we rule this world. That day isn’t very far away.