Real-time data analytics and intelligence can ensure that 'more governance and less government' does not get reduced to just another catchphrase
R Swaminathan | June 16, 2014
When prime minister Narendra Modi ribbed the bureaucracy’s penchant for moving at a snail’s pace at a recent book release function, all the faces in the auditorium were creased with a knowing smile. Though the message was delivered in a humorous way, its import was clear. Modi’s mantra of speed, skill and scale applied as much to India’s creaking steel frame, as it did to the animal spirits of the economy. Modi used China not only as a metaphor, but also as a concrete reference point in terms of policy vision and implementation.
In the two weeks that he has been the prime minister, Modi has displayed a rare sense of urgency and single-mindedness that’s more a characteristic of the corporate sector than a government. He’s clearly stated four things: no file should pass through more than four filters, project monitoring group (PMG), a UPA government brainchild, to be made into a nodal interface for fast-tracking implementation of critical projects, departments and ministries with commonalities to be resized and integrated, and all citizen interfaces to be simplified. Cabinet secretary Ajit Seth has already issued a directive to all departments to cut down at least 10 redundant rules and compress all forms to a single page. The basic ingredient of Modi’s concoction is governance.
There is no doubting Modi’s intent and vision. But what could be a matter of concern is the prescription given by the prime minister himself, which is to shift the infrastructure focus from highways to ‘i-ways’ and optical fibre networks. Simply put, good governance can be defined as a self-sustaining system where processes are easy, procedures are transparent, deliveries are time-bound and services are citizen-centric. It might sound clichéd but good governance is actually for the people and by the people. We often forget that bureaucrats are people too. There is a real danger that Modi’s solution will end up throwing more hardware at the problem, when the need of the hour is intelligent software that has the ability to connect the two sets of people at either end of the governance system. It’s here that Modi and his team have to think beyond, and in many cases take forward, the fundamental thought process of the UPA that revolved primarily around investing heavily in hardware.
Infrastructure is no doubt required, and so is broadband connectivity in every single corner of India. But the danger, as is being seen all too frequently, is to exclusively equate electronic governance with computerisation, digitisation of documentation and processes and creation of web and mobile interfaces. In this oversimplification, creating digital islands of procedures and best practices are seen as both the means and ends of governance. Electronic governance is as much about the simplification of procedures and interfaces as it is about data analysis. Modi has to now look at decisively breaking the mould and bring in a new mindset for electronic governance; a completely new thought process that puts a premium on analytics over hardware. It’s time for governance analytics (GA) and governance intelligence (GI) to make their debut.
Data in itself is practically useless. It’s just a piece of information or a number. Data acquires the gift of insight and direction only when different points are connected together to draw a larger picture. GA and GI, much like their cousins business analytics (BA) and business intelligence (BI), begin with an underlying understanding that data is nuanced and contextual.
There are three key components of any integrated analytics and intelligence solution. The first is the collecting, storing, analysing and bringing together of multiple data points on a real-time basis. The second is one or more specific set/s of data to be compared and contrasted over a period of time. In the language of analytics professionals, it’s called historicity of data. The third is patterns, trends, usage statistics and the like to allow decision makers and leaders to make quick calls to resolve bottlenecks and any other issue that might crop up.
What’s needed to be done if the Indian governance system has to move away from islands of digital procedures, silos in their own ways, to structures of real-time analytics and intelligence? There are four steps that need to be taken in parallel.
The first is to ensure that electronic governance initiatives take an integrated approach of platforms and applications, rather than software programmes and systems. What it means in plain terms is for governance systems to become a Google rather than a Microsoft. It means that electronic governance should be a value neutral, code neutral and technology neutral platform that should be able to host all sorts of smart applications. Simply put, the landscape of digital governance should be a mall rather than a branded shop.
The second is to clearly identify common data points across the central ministries, state departments and the district, block and panchayat level administration. A corollary to this process is also to identity data points that would be applicable only to certain departments and ministries. Common data points are necessary for any kind of cross-tabulation and a system of checks and balances. So, for instance, the data points of a person applying for a passport have to match similar points in criminal, referential, identification and tax systems. The closest business example is the Akamai network hub where every single byte of data, each different, transmitted through over 30,000 Akamai servers across the world is constantly mixed and matched on a real-time basis to identity and resolve inconsistencies.
The third is to create different levels of access to different categories of decision makers depending on their specific roles and responsibilities. So the PM, for instance, can have access to all levels of national, regional, state and district data analytics, from the summary dashboard to deep drill down data for each file or project, while a district level official can have a similar dashboard, but restricted only to matters falling within the jurisdiction of a district. This requires an overall nationwide process of re-engineering, and will need a collective effort to move away from the department-level process re-engineering in operation.
This nationwide process will have to necessarily tackle workflows, roles, responsibilities, and of course, redundancies. A file monitoring system based on barcodes, for example, is not very different from the retail management systems used so successfully by companies all across the world to manage complicated logistical operations. Every single piece of soap or comb that is sold by the retail chains is tracked from its point of origin to its point of sale.
The fourth is to create an integrated and transparent management information system (MIS) that generates real-time reports in public domain. The open government data (OGD) platform is a start, but what is required is ensuring that every single department’s data sets are available in formats that are easily accessed and used by the public at large. Those who have worked with business analytics and business intelligence systems, especially Google Analytics, will understand how data needs to be visually represented and analysed. The OGD’s visualisation gallery and its applications leave a lot to be desired.
To convert Modi’s vision of more governance and less government into a quantifiable experience requires a change in the prevailing mindset of electronic governance as an exclusive issue of hardware and connectivity. The approach has to be reoriented towards intelligence, analytics, real-time data points, interlinked cross-tabulation and smart solutions. An integrated system of governance analytics and governance intelligence can provide a list of immediate, near-term, short-term, medium-term and long-term deliverables to the core leaders of the bureaucracy and the prime minister’s office (PMO). It will also help in monitoring progress in projects, identifying bottlenecks and in resolving them quickly without fear or favour. India needs a new model of governance. Intelligent data is the way forward.
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