Taking a cue from the corporate world

Modern governments should look toward the corporate world to take inspiration and learn best practices in e-governance

Shyamanuja Das | March 2, 2015




Governments worldwide are becoming more like businesses, stressing on efficiency of execution, measurability and trying to create value for the citizens the same way corporations have done for their stakeholders. Quite interestingly, businesses, of late, are trying to bring in what has traditionally been the goal of modern governance – transparency. In fact, ‘governance’ is arguably the single most dominant word in corporate boardrooms today.
As the two become similar – especially when it comes to bringing in operational efficiency – it is not a bad idea for modern governments to look towards the corporate world for inspiration and best practices.

There’s hardly a better area than technology to start with. Technology, especially ICT, has played a transformational role in businesses worldwide. It is now beginning to play the same role in governance, making a positive impact on lives of citizens.

Even before we look at technology implementation best practices, it is probably apt to look at the big questions and challenges that accompany the tech journey. In fact, what prompted me to pen down this piece is an article titled ‘Citizens First!’, which appeared in the February, 1-15 2015 issue of Governance Now. The author raised a very pertinent question: “amidst all this brouhaha over technology’s power to transform, are we mistaking technology to be the goal in itself, rather than a means or a tool to achieve basic governance goals?”

This is a question business houses in developed economies asked themselves some time back. In emerging markets, many businesses are still grappling with the issue. The reason the question – and the fears and concerns around it – resonated so well with me is that as a reporter covering and analysing global outsourcing in the middle of last decade, I found this question being explicitly raised by senior business executives in American and British corporations. This was also the time the offshoring wave to India was becoming mainstream in those markets. 

But there’s an important difference. The business organisations in the West realised the danger of technology overshadowing their objectives much later in the adoption cycle, leading to large-scale adjustments in corporate IT strategy, which resulted in drastic changes, including many older outsourcing contracts being cancelled around this time (2005-07). In short, they learned the hard way.

Fortunately, we have begun to raise these questions at a much earlier stage, when the journey is still fairly nascent and this (new) government is still in the basic policy formulation stage. We can surely learn from some of their mistakes and hope to avoid the eventuality – of the whole agenda getting distracted. While one can understand the fear – given the mix of general excitement over technology (fuelled by constant marketing blitzkrieg of technology suppliers) and this government’s penchant for buzzwords and slogans – the very fact that we have started asking the right questions at the right time makes me hopeful.

So, how do we ensure that we do not dilute the excitement, yet ensure not to get distracted by the buzzwords?
Some of the answers that the businesses eventually found look astoundingly simple today, of course, in hindsight. Before we get into specifics in the context of governance in India, it is probably apt to list some of them. One, there is a need to clearly link technology to business value creation. Two, the demand side and supply side of technology functions within an organisation needs to be separated. Three, creating better sourcing strategies and even sourcing organisations within the corporations. Lastly, organisations need to create measurable business outcomes.
All this actually led to the big change that all of us are familiar with today – the role of chief information officer (CIO) changing from a technology role to primarily a business role.

Building the new ‘system’ for governance
It is a good idea to learn from others; it is better to look for best practices. But this must be judiciously mixed with ground realities to ensure that the system becomes effective.
What I put here are broad but specific structural changes, while staying away from policy issues. In other words, these recommendations deal with changes in processes and the structures that support and facilitate those processes, without getting into the actual goals.

Lesson 1: Restructuring government IT organisation
Separate roles: It is high time the government takes a strategic decision to separate the demand and supply functions of IT. Ironically, while a lot of IT implementation has already been outsourced (thus separating it from the user or demand side) under what, in the government parlance, is called public-private partnership or PPP, rarely has it been done in order to derive better value. Most of the times, it has been tactical, even ad-hoc, because the government does not have internal resources. The external workforce has been used to augment internal capability.

National informatics centre (NIC), the principal IT arm of the government, is responsible for creating blueprints, advising government departments, choosing technology, implementing IT mandate, selecting vendors and even evaluating and awarding good efforts of states and ministries. What’s more, it is under the department of electronics and information technology (DeitY), which is responsible for policy making.

As a result, the thinking about technology-based plans originates from an IT outfit. That often results in technology becoming the goal in itself. A separation of roles will automatically address this issue.

Redefine NIC’s role: NIC’s restructuring calls for a separate discussion by itself, but without getting into the specifics, here are some of the main imperatives and principles on which the restructuring could be based.

NIC has played an important role in what was called computerisation traditionally, and the continuing move to e-governance of late. But for all its track record, it has been a centralised outfit; it started its journey as a unit of the planning commission,  to facilitate move from centralised planning to more empowered states working with centre as equal partners. It has a centralised hierarchical structure, even though it works closely with the states and ministries. That needs to change, for sure. The implementation arm of NIC can be separated and spun off as a company.

As stated earlier, the global business organisations had to change their IT organisations from implementing agencies to strong sourcing and governance organisations. No one is better placed than NIC to play that role for the government. While the demand articulation can be at the functional/departmental level, a centralised procurement has many advantages, including pricing.  Also, as India goes for complex projects, minimum filtering (technical qualification) and lowest price (L1) cannot be the basis for vendor selection; it requires ability to do complex value/capability analysis; drafting of effective SLAs and monitoring. It is difficult to expect that this can be done at actual user level in the government. This requires a strong and centralised outfit.

And finally, NIC can continue to do consulting and training for governments. It can help the government in creating blueprints as well.

Lesson 2: Empowering the user
Tech being built into decision making: This follows directly from the earlier change. Today, in most good business organisations – including companies like ICICI Bank – the functional departments clearly articulate their demand, taking into account the possibilities of what technology can do. This has been made possible by having technology experts in the business units who work with the business managers to help them think of the new solutions. While a group deliberates on a business strategy, someone with a clear understanding of what technology can do is also part of that group.
On the face of it, in the government too this has been in place. NIC has people in states and central ministries and departments. But they are part of NIC organisation and report to their seniors at NIC, even though we hear that the feedback is taken from the users. This fails the objective. In a good business organisation, these people report only to the business owner (functional manager).
In government, on the other hand, either the decision is taken in an isolated manner and then given for implementation, or some big bang technology goals are announced first to hog the limelight and only then are the functional departments handed down a to-do list. Both defeat the purpose.
It is imperative – if the users were to articulate their own demand – that users should have technology capability, in terms of realising its potential, if not in terms of implementing it. A group that plans the policies, goals and targets should have enough technology awareness to envisage what is possible. One of the ways of doing that is to periodically train and update selected executives in technology or to induct specialised people.

Lesson 3: Digital culture
Percolation of digital culture deep down: While a couple of tech gurus-in-residence can most positively contribute to the planning process, the full value of this will not be realised till most users are comfortable and convinced about the value that this change would bring in.
Like it or not, a thumb rule for that to succeed is to show value to the individuals as employees, rather than value to citizens only. The success of railways reservation automation – which first met with stiff resistance – is a perfect example of this approach.

Lesson 4: Measuring
Measurability at every stage: From the time he was the CM of Gujarat, PM Modi has stressed the need to turn every government programme into a mission with participation of people, to make them successful. That means sloganeering is a stated strategy.

To be fair to him, he often accompanies the announcements with stated end-objectives. In a by-and-large efficient state like Gujarat – with a predominant business culture – this intent announcement constituted a large part of the overall effort. Not so with India as a whole.
For a programme to succeed, it requires clearly defined measures at every stage, every process, even if it is not a bad idea to start with the end objective and work backwards. This is something that applies to all government programmes and not just technology-based programmes.

Lesson 5: Collaborating
Solutions, not just ideas: The current government also started the mygov initiative which encourages people to post ideas and suggestions. It is then considered by government to formulate policies. A very good initiative and has seen some early success too. The name of the financial inclusion programme, Jan Dhan Yojana, apparently came this way. But this is just a two-way communication; not collaboration. A true collaborative approach would aim at collaborative problem solving, much like the support forums of large tech companies such as Microsoft, BlackBerry and Google/Android. Ideas can be shared and enhanced as well as real citizen issues can be raised and solved. With enough policy people and techies, even solution approaches can evolve from these platforms.

Finally, it is time to debate if the government needs a CIO. But that itself is a big topic. Let us leave that for another day.

Das is director and head of business research at JuxtConsult. He tracks and comments on the forces shaping digital economy.

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