Man in the times of technology

Technology is there to increase productivity and efficiency but it is also equally important for those working in the system to deliver quality services


Dr. GD Gautama | October 17, 2014

In the good old days, it used to be the pigeon which used to be the carrier of information followed by foot soldiers and then the branch of a tree, which used to be the medium of expressing thoughts, followed by the ink pen and the holder pen (G-nib), with blotting paper to soak the excess ink, which was followed by ball pen (I recall, when I switched from ink pen to ball pen, my father used to scold me by saying that one should not write with a ball pen as handwriting may go bad), followed by emails and now SMSs, Twitter, Whatsapp, etc.

It only underlines the speed with which this world is changing in terms of carrying information. The information shared is much faster than at any point of time in the past, yet there is no correlation in terms of improvement in the quality of life of people and also in terms of delivery of service to citizens (it can be debated though).

So where does it takes us? Technology is there to increase productivity and efficiency in the system and it is equally important to improve the delivery and quality of services to the people. However, e-governance is preceded by good governance and good governance is preceded by just governance. It is not a mere coincidence that the first three letters of the word e-governance is "ego". It is very much visible in the governmental systems.

I vividly recall the opposition to the computerisation (as it used to be known during those days) by the unions and associations, of course their concern was that the machine is going to replace them and once the computers are in place, they will be on the streets. The machines were expensive too and it suited the bureaucrats, as they were also required to adapt and adopt the changed dispensation which needed some effort.

I remember as chairman of West Bengal State Electricity Board (WBSEB) in 2000, there were personal computers available with my personal assistants (PA), and in fact two of them yet none of them were put to use and my PAs were quite comfortable with the electronic typewriters. I asked them why the computers are not being used, to which the reply was, what if the electricity goes off (in the chairman SEB's office).

One day, I was so disgusted that I picked up the two electronic typewriters and threw them from the seventh floor building.

After that incident, my PAs started using the computers with good results and were happy as they were not required to type the notes again and again which needed periodic reporting. It is all in the mind!

The man behind the machine continues to be important, both in terms of adaptability and giving a push. It is not Twitter or Yahoo or iPad that is delivering better and different services, but the thought process which is behind bringing about a change and differential contribution to the society. In the government offices, whereas we are talking of accountability and transparency, most of the times exactly the opposite is professed and guarded. I as a government servant am important so long as I am not parting with information.

Information is "power". It is bizarre that after close to 58 years of independence, government of India has to bring our right to information Act in 2005.

In a government of the people, for the people and by the people, it is presumed that the right is inbuilt in the constitution and delivered to the people by the government, which in this context means bureaucracy.

However, the governmental systems are opaque and we thrive on keeping information away from people by not sharing it with people. In the Acts, we keep expressions such as "whereas", "notwithstanding", "however ", which makes things even more unclear.

These are the very big challenges which the government today is facing. No machine can change this. It is only the will and the commitment on the part of the government which would enable citizens to get what they rightfully deserve. A machine can do the job of ten people but no machine can do the job of a single extraordinary person. Machine does what it is told to do by this extraordinary person who in this context is the person representing the government and has got this opportunity to serve the society. There are individuals and governmental organisations which have imbibed this philosophy and are doing a good job in terms of deliverables, unfortunately this number is small and can be counted almost on fingers.

What are the reasons? There is a concept of self audit. Long back, I read an interview of Shahrukh Khan when he used to act in TV serials Fauji and Circus. A correspondent asked him, "What would you like to become eventually," to which he replied I would act in Bollywood. The correspondent laughed and said you are doing such a small role in these serials and you are dreaming of acting in Bollywood, how are you going to compete with those stalwarts who are in the acting business?

To which Shahrukh replied, “I am competing only with myself and with none. I will raise my level to such an extent that it will automatically fit into the requirement of Bollywood” and that is precisely same happened. It was his conviction and self-belief which took him there competing only with himself.

Self appraisal is very important as we are all competing only with ourselves and so is the requirement of continuously updating and upgrading our skills. Other day, I met a guy during the pujas whom I met after a long time and I asked him where are you posted now, to which he replied saying that my boss got annoyed with me and dumped me to the audit section. Yet another chap I met and asked the same question during the vacations, he said (curiously) the same thing, the boss got annoyed with me and made me in charge of the training. It is bizarre that in the governmental set up audit and capacity building are looked upon as punishment postings, while as they should be the ones who should be promoted and nurtured.

Audit tells us as to where we drifted and why we drifted, will enable us to correct the distortions and put the right systems in place by learning lessons from the audit observations. Skill development and capacity building are keys for the success of any organisation and more so the government, it is just not about introducing computers in the government offices but more importantly is to bring about a change in the mindset of the government officials, as to why it is important to deliver on time. People are not suffering because of the computer but because of the man sitting in front of the computer.

On July 24, 1991, government of India brought out a path breaking change in the industrial policy, wherein the licenses were done away in one stroke. It was a big blow to the bureaucracy as lot of power was taken away. I recall, four to five states which undertook a training program of officials right from the chief secretary to peons, as it was necessary for the governmental staff to know their new role for promotion as opposed to licensing/ regulation. Licensing used to mean power and with power the authority. It is not easy to digest losing the power and these states were very keen that the governmental staff should be trained for their new role of promotion.

In the olden days, government used to do everything, money order, sending it via train, airplanes etc. Most of the jobs were in and around the governmental organisations. With the rise in population and not commensurate financial resources, the role of private enterprise became more and more important in terms of creation of jobs and employment, and thereby the crying need of sensitising/training the governmental officials in terms of their new role in speedy services.

Also, today the pie is so big that the competition amongst the states is relevant only up to a point. Just the fiscal incentives cannot be the criteria of attracting the investments, more important is the environment and the role of government as a facilitator in terms of providing hassle free services to the enterprise and business. It is not a 22/7 pie but 24/7 pie, round the clock 365 days a year -- provided you provide a good and conducive business environment.

Passing shot
In 1989, I had been to New York for a conference on free trade zones (held in the World Trade Center, ground 0 now). Over a weekend, I went to a shop to buy a toy for my daughter. The toy was worth 4$ and 55 cent. I gave a 5$ note to the girl at the counter, and as she is keying in the cost of the toy, there was a small glitch in the machine. As it was taking time, I told the girl to return me the 45 cents, as I finished saying this, the machine flashed 45 cents. The girl was shocked and in excitement said, "Sir, you are absolutely right," and I recall from her expression, if she was in some authority she would have given me a Nobel Prize for subtracting 55 from 100 and telling instantaneously. While, as the machine is important for improving our productivity and efficiency (the man and sorry, the girl) are more important and will continue to be so. Nevertheless, notwithstanding, whereas will continue to give us enough space to negate the things we do not want to do, unless there is a self belief  coupled with a desire and commitment to compete only with ourselves!



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