Department of electronics and information technology plans to narrow down the scope of work of the informatics centre. Does it make sense?
Pratap Vikram Singh | September 15, 2014
A rejig of the national informatics centre (NIC) is on the anvil. Under the '1,00,000 crore Digital India programme, which was approved by the cabinet in August, the department of electronics and IT (DeitY) has proposed to take away code writing from the organisation and said it is “not equipped for a fraction of this task”. Currently the government spends thousands of crore on software development and system integration annually.
Speaking to Governance Now on the sidelines of a conference in August, RS Sharma, secretary, department of electronics and information technology (DeitY), had said that there will be induction of talented, experienced people from the IT industry directly at senior levels in the informatics centre. Apparently, the department has approved recruitment of 1,400 personnel for the centre. “Now they (NIC personnel) will be given full exposure to build their capacity in relevant areas,” Sharma said.
“For NIC to be strengthened it is necessary for DeitY to draw a clear framework on digital governance, and formulate specific roles and responsibilities for the NIC,”
BK Gairola, Mission Director, e-governance, DeitY
DeitY has already changed the reporting structure of the NIC – earlier NIC officials reported to the DG, now they are reporting to their respective line departments in states and centre.
The plan to revamp NIC was proposed by a committee on human resource for e-governance headed by Nandan Nilekani in 2013. The committee observed the implementation of e-governance has increased expectations from NIC. Hence, the committee proposed that NIC should be repositioned as a technology advisor and help in retaining strategic control of e-governance systems, while leveraging the private sector to address capacity gaps.
Though experts and officials welcome the enhancing of the capacity of NIC officials, they are not convinced about giving the solution development role to private sector companies. “The impact of NIC renouncing the solution development may hit the user departments as the understanding about government processes is unsatisfactory in the private sector,” said Rajiv Chawla, principal secretary, horticulture and sericulture department, Karnataka. Chawla is an e-governance champion who successfully streamlined the process of issuance of land records in Karnataka eliminating corruption.
“The implementation of e-governance has increased expectations from NIC. The NIC should be repositioned as a technology advisor and help in retaining strategic control of e-governance systems, while leveraging the private sector to address capacity gaps,” proposed a committee on human resource for e-governance headed by Nandan Nilekani in 2013.
Applications including Bhoomi, the land records project driven by Chawla, and PDS in Chhattisgarh have been developed by NIC and have received national awards. They have also been widely replicated in other states. The NIC is also seen to deliver the project at a more reasonable cost. Take the examples of implementation of immigration visa foreigner registration and tracking (IVFRT), e-procurement, and Bhoomi. The estimated project cost of automating and networking all immigration check post and foreigner registration offices was close to '1,100 crore. “The NIC completed more than two-third of the project with only '150 crore. The total cost will not exceed '200 crore,” said BN Shetty, DDG, NIC.
A senior administrative service official, who has previously worked in Odisha, said that NIC had developed state-wide applications for e-procurement in PMGSY and electronic accounting system for panchayats. The same applications are being used by several states without having to spend for it. The e-procurement solution was developed in less than '5 crore.
But states that got the application developed by private vendors had to shell out at least three times more.
The NIC also developed the recently launched MyGov, a platform for seeking feedback from citizens on matters related to public interest. NIC manages over 7,000 websites of various department and agencies of central and state governments, and some 20 lakh email accounts. With a workforce of 3,500 regular and over 10,000 contractual staff, the informatics centre has its footprint in every district, at state headquarters of the line departments and line ministries of the central government.
“The impact of NIC renouncing solution development may hit the user departments as the understanding about government processes is unsatisfactory in the private sector.”
Rajiv Chawla, principal secretary, horticulture and sericulture department, Karnataka
Nonetheless, NIC has some severe limitations in terms of capability and leadership. These need to be addressed if the government is serious about its revamp. The agency, founded in 1977 to provide IT solutions and support to ministries and departments, has failed to catch up with advancement in technologies in communications and application domain. For example, it does not have required expertise in mobile applications. For research and development, the DeitY created a separate body – the centre for development of advanced computing (C-DAC). It didn’t invest in NIC.
There has been no major recruitment in the last two decades. In 2011, in a review, the centre figured out that it needs at least 355 experts only for the cyber security team. No such recruitment has taken place yet. Owing to a weak and understaffed security team, digital infrastructure managed by NIC – including PMO and the ministry of external affairs – has become a low-hanging fruit for hackers. Recently, hackers broke into the servers of NIC and issued fake digital certificates. Apparently, the application which was generating certificates for servers was not updated. The centre didn’t have a single person to look after the certifying authority work.
Lack of proper training is another major challenge facing the NIC. “It hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. It is like a bullock cart,” said BK Gairola, mission director, e-governance, DeitY, and former DG of NIC. He said it is not the NIC which has to be blamed. According to Gairola, e-governance projects are way too complex to be handled by DeitY and NIC. “There is a need for an evolved framework which should clearly outline the role of NIC,” he said. “There is a need to put one NIC person in each block. Besides, the NIC team at district level should be strengthened.”
NIC employees’ appeal to minister
The employee association of NIC has taken a strong view of the observations made by RS Sharma, secretary, DeitY, to prime minister Narendra Modi that the informatics centre is not equipped to handle even a fraction of the Digital India work. Recently, the DeitY appointed a joint secretary level official as the DG. This has infuriated senior NIC officials as they expected a senior official to be made DG of NIC, which already has 50 joint secretary-level scientists working with the centre. Besides, the DeitY hasn’t approved promotion and hike in pay due for past four years on antedating basis.
Agitated, the association wrote to Ravi Shankar Prasad, communications and IT minister, in the last week of August, protesting against the secretary’s statement. In the letter, reviewed by Governance Now, BN Shetty, president of the association, said, “There has been a shock within the organisation to see that the image of NIC projected to the prime minister is unfair and untrue,” wrote Shetty. “The presentation to PM gives neither substantiation nor an alternative solution.”
Some of the key concerns highlighted include: no promotion for last four years, uncertainty about career growth of 2,700 employees; no regular DG in NIC for last two years; a vacuum in major decision making both in technology and administration; implementation of CAT and the high court order on promotion based on antedating and creation of posts of chief technology officers in NIC to position them in each ministry and departments. The scientists have urged the minister to provide an opportunity to meet and apprise him about the technical capability of NIC to handle Digital India.
The team of NIC in states and districts do not report to the state government; they report to the DG of NIC. Owing to this practice, data sharing has become a major hurdle in states.
Rajesh Aggarwal, secretary, IT, Maharashtra cited an example of online system to check IMR and MMR. When the IT department asked NIC to share the data, the latter refused. “It was our data which they were feeding in the application. But they didn’t share,” he said. Aggarwal added that though NIC has executed projects like land records and e-office quite well, in other projects there have been issues of meeting the service-level agreements. “There are a few good experts in NIC teams of the states, but the number of experts needs to be increased through recruitment from the industry,” he said.
Sanjay Malhotra, secretary, IT, Rajasthan, said getting things done in a timely and efficient manner and SLAs are a major issue with NIC.
Some vendors and experts alleged that NIC-SI, a sister organisation of NIC set up as an interface between departments and vendors, doesn’t follow a fair process of empanelment. “Once a vendor is empanelled, departments can directly place an order bypassing the tendering route. The empanelment is highly subjective and a major source of corruption,” a former DeitY official said. According to NIC-SI’s article of association the empanelment body can only be manned by NIC officials. “The discretion exercised by its sister concern has greatly tarnished the image of NIC,” the official added.
What needs to be done
Gairola is hopeful about the interest at the seniormost levels in the government about the Digital India programme. “For NIC to be strengthened it is necessary for DeitY to draw a clear framework on digital governance, and formulate specific roles and responsibilities for the NIC,” he said. The Nilekani committee has recommended that appropriate SLAs shall be developed and documentation levels enhanced in keeping with the industry benchmarks. “DeitY will facilitate monitoring of SLAs and appropriate and timely corrective action by developing a suitable mechanism. Delivering projects based on SLA could enhance the brand image of the NIC,” the committee said.
According to Malhotra, NIC should also (and not only) play the role of strategic advisors and participate in decision-making. He said the salaries need to be revised as per industry standard. Rajiv Chawla said that large database projects should be managed by the NIC. “NIC should be developed and enhanced as an efficient government system integrator,” he said. “Informatics centre should get into development of enterprise-level applications that can be rolled out across country and not just confined to one or two states,” the administrative service official said.
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