-- Overview --
A few years ago the Government of India took an important decision instructing all its arms to invest three per cent of their budget in building information and communication technology capacities. That is an investment of several thousand crore rupees in ICT every year, a level of resources that could have created a useful ICT infrastructure by now. However, what we have on ground today are a multitude of experimental applications, pilots and demonstrations. These are neither an efficient nor scalable basis for the integrated transparent governance structure needed by the citizens of our country
Too many experiments and pilots: Currently there are a large number of initiatives across the nation to use the power of ICTs to transform the citizen-government interface. These have been started at various levels of governance - in districts by enthusiastic collectors, at departmental levels by interested officers, at the state levels by chief ministers and at the central government by some progressive ministers. These developments have been sporadic and uncoordinated, nurtured by a learning-by-doing culture, have lacked a strategic sense or defining leadership, have not been supported by the requisite experience base and have resulted in a large number of experiments that duplicate and remain at a prototype level accomplishing less than may have been possible with a well defined strategic framework. The large number of experiments being carried out has created an impression that we are well on our path to using ICTs for modern governance, much ahead of other developing countries. International awards and recognition have added to this feeling.
Uncoordinated developments: Development of ICTs in the industrial countries shows that pioneering experiments are an important part of the learning process. They also show that the value of the benefits is commensurate with the level of investments, time and care taken to design and test the systems and the attention devoted to metrics developed to measuring and achieving success. This needs clear roadmaps, organizational structures and an understanding of how these will evolve as the technology changes.
Scattered experience: These experiments have their merits and need to be encouraged and allowed to go on at the individual and pilot levels. They show-case successes and bring the developers of similar applications together to learn from each other and can help create some innovative solutions from time to time. However, it also needs to be recognized that existing experiments and their size and stage of development may not be able to add much value because these are linked at best and not adequately linked to organizational structures capable of translating them into something concrete.
Consolidate: What is needed is to create a national framework to consolidate the gains of these initiatives and to develop a national strategy for e-governance followed by a roadmap to reach the goals agreed in an acceptable time frame. This process of developing the national strategy and its follow up should be carried out in parallel with all other experiments going on in the country. Adequate funds will have to be made available to make these happen and to strengthen institutional mechanisms to carry the process forward.
Setting standards: Currently, the e-governance framework in the country includes multiple bodies at various levels with few standards, procedures, guidelines etc to analyze, plan, prioritize, develop, operate and maintain the infrastructure. The Central Department of Information Technology is complemented by the National Informatics Centre and the Department of Telecom and various state level Departments of IT. However, there is no coordinating body that can have a unified view of what e-governance is or should be, what should be our strategy to connect the citizen and the state in the various interactions the citizen has from cradle to grave. Without that unified view it is unlikely that an efficient organizational and investment structure can be created that can evaluate and monitor the initiatives, measure the benefits thereof and take the country forward to a transparent, low transaction cost delivery of services to the citizens and further strengthen the foundations of governance and democracy.
Justification is easy: There are several reasons for embracing ICTs for governance. However, just one, viz. lowering the transaction cost of governance, can alone more than justify any reasonable investment in ICT. It has been demonstrated that even in a rather sub-optimal setting using computerized processes on top of the existing archaic process can reduce the overall transaction cost for the government as well as for the citizen by an order of magnitude. An example frequently cited is delivery of a certificate that is mandated by the state to a citizen using computerized means. Full mechanization of e-governance processes would yield even greater savings.
Comparing the comparable: It is generally believed that India can develop information systems at a fraction of the cost of developing them in the industrial economies. There is no reliable data to show that that is indeed the case. The comparisons are usually not valid as the two systems may have entirely different capabilities, robustness, scalability, operability, standards etc. Just as the difference between the price of a product that is satisfactory and the one that is best in any segment is an order of magnitude, the same is generally the case with ICT based solutions. In fact it is the normal rule that what the rest of the world can do after moving up the learning curve may not always be replicable in our environment for any less. If we cannot make cheaper products in any other modern sector, there is no valid reason to believe that we will be able to do so in the area of ICTs. It can be argued that the industrial economies can lower their cost of development, operations and maintenance of ICT based systems. However, that is not quite the same for developing economies as much of the efficiency reside in moving up the experience curve.
Scaling for a billion: In a nation of more than a billion people we need to create more than a billion records. Given that from cradle to grave a citizen may have over two hundred points of interface with the state and it may increase with our capacity to look after our citizens better, we need to create a governance infrastructure that can capture more than 200 data types for each citizen. It must also allow for that data to be used at various levels of governance. The same data may be accessible at the village level or the block, sub-division, district, division and the state levels and may be available at the centre for planning as well. In other words, we need to avoid of cost of duplication of data, generally a very high cost, cost of integration across levels and systems, simplify the systems and deliver what is needed.
Unified data, multiple applications: In other words, there will be one data structure that is common to all. There will be various applications that draw on the same data. They reside in multiple places as mirrored but as a single unified structure. And these run on the hybrid but unified platform of operating systems and networks. Then the result is available much like a utility where the end-users draw per their need at a given price.
Learning from infrastructure sector: While it sounds simple and is eminently doable, it requires a different way of thinking about the issue. Consider that the nation has invested close to a $100 billion dollar in utilities, the replacement cost of our railways infrastructure is about similar, we do not have comparable roads but simply connecting a fraction of the country by expressways is slated to cost over $10 billion and connecting every village by any kind of motorable road will raise it by an order of magnitude. Comparing internationally, investments in utility, telecom, roads and railways to reach every citizen costs nearly in similar order. And these countries have learnt to invest in ICT as well to the same tune. Considering that simply creating a biometric ID system for all travelers and citizens in the US has been allocated a budget of US$ 10 billion should open us to appreciate that managing information has its costs and its only by recognizing that we can achieve the quality that we consider acceptable.
Rs 500 per citizen can do IT: Learning from the experience of very large systems that transact several million data per day and store more than 100 million pieces of data with more than 50 entity types in the system, it is reasonable to assume that in very large systems one should plan to invest at the rate of $10 per record of 100 data points and above for creating the application and supporting technology infrastructure. These investments are required over a five year period and will normally incur a maintenance cost at the rate of 15 percent of investments to remain useable in the ways originally intended along with the increasing number of data, technology updation, enhanced security requirements over a period of time.
In other words, with a planned investment of approximately USD 10 billion dollar over a five year period and a maintenance budget for the times to follow the government can be ready to move to empowering the citizens. The beginning though must be made with creating a national strategy for utilizing the power of ICT to cut the cost of governance, include every citizen in the governance process, make the system transparent and responsive and strengthen the development infrastructure and decision making process.
An information management and e-governance specialist, Satish is a former Editor of The Times of India Group and was the Head, Global Information Systems for the Vitamins Division of Hoffmann-La Roche at its headquarters at Basel, Switzerland. He founded James Martin Consulting in India in 1993, chaired Meta Group India (1995-'99), with Ashok Khosla founded Tarahaat in 1999 and co-founded Baramati Conference with Sharad Pawar of Baramati and M Kusakabe of The World Bank in 2001. He established Digital Partners India, an NGO in the field of ICT for Development in 2001 and has supported a couple dozen ICT projects nurturing Social Entrepreneurship. He chairs Digital Partners India, ehealth-care foundation and is a Special Advisor to Kofi Annan Centre for Excellence in ICTs. MA in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University and an MBA from Institute Theseus in France he studied International Development at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, management of technology at The Kennedy School of Government, Political Economy at The Institute of Social Studies, The Hague and the US Foreign Policy Making at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. He is actively interested in using information technologies for process reengineering, productivity gains, transparency, reforms and improving citizen-state interface.
Special Advisor, Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICTs
Chairman, Digital Partners India; www.dpindia.org
CMD, James Martin Consulting; www.jamesmartin.co.in
Chairman, ehealth-care foundation, www.ehealth-care.net