e-Gov needs strong and extensive industry participation

samirsachdeva

Samir Sachdeva | June 15, 2010




R Chandrasekhar, IAS officer of Andhra Pradesh cadre (1975), is credited with establishing India’s first department of information technology (DIT), in his home state. The architect of the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), he is also regarded as the father of e-governance in India and has won the prime minister’s award for public services.
He joined the central government as joint secretary (e-governance) and became secretary (information technology) in June, 2009. Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview with Samir Sachdeva:

It has been eight years since you joined the DIT. How has the use of technology evolved over time?
Starting from a few isolated examples of the use of technology which produced tangible benefits for citizens, we now have a situation where there is a well-articulated plan for e-governance across the country, across departments, and one in which specific roles of multiple players and organisations have been spelt out. Goals have also been defined so as to make sense to people outside the government.  

What is the progress on the NeGP and the various Mission Mode projects?
There are two major ingredients of the NeGP. The first is the creation of a digital service delivery platform which provides the base on which digital services ride and a lot of this is shared across departments. That part is largely ready. We have almost 20 states where the statewide area network is moving out to the blocks. We have 70 to 75 percent of the 100,000 CSCs (common service centres) on the ground. And we expect the data centres to start operations over the next one year. Most states have either set up state e-services or e-gateways, or are in the process of setting up their state portals. These constitute the basic building blocks. The second is the actual services themselves. E-governance is more about transformation in the government and not about just the use of technology. Rajasthan and Maharashtra, for example, have started proactively driving the services, notifying the list of services, notifying the dates by which the services must be made available, making it mandatory for the services to be provided electronically. These are signs that the acceleration is happening.

Why did the CSC, passport seva and e-biz projects get delayed?
Most delays haven’t been caused by technology per se. If a project is somewhat delayed but remains on track, it may be a cause for concern but not undue alarm.

Is there an issue with the PPP model? 3i Infotech and Comat Technologies have withdrawn from the CSC project, for example.
I don’t think the PPP model is the issue. The fact that 3i and Comat moved out of this business indicates that either they were not fully prepared or they misread the market. In PPP, there is a certain business risk and each company and each organisation has to make a calculated assessment of this risk. During the course of CSC bidding, players bid pretty aggressively. Perhaps they misread the business potential. But 3i and Comat account for a small fraction of the total CSCs and there are other players who can take over these CSCs and provide the support.

The parliamentary committee on IT has raised serious concerns over the delay in the passport seva project. What is the status of the project?
I am not aware of any particular issues raised by the committee and I am not really familiar with what is happening in the project on a day-to-day basis. The project had some teething problems, but these have largely been overcome. The final stages are about to be rolled out.

Why didn’t egovworld take off?

I think this project was attempted several years ago under the UNDP ICTD programme and did not make any headway. However, its goals remain valid.
 
Nasscom is planning egovreach along similar lines. Will the government partner in this project?
There is a constant dialogue and high degree of coordination between Nasscom and DIT. We can’t progress in e-governance without coordination and industry participation.

What is the status of the National Service Delivery Gateway project?

NSDG, in terms of its pilot operations, is already operational and in terms of development it is complete. Now, efforts are on to integrate it with the various service delivery projects. We are also thinking that the states can host their services on the NSDG while they await the setting up of their State Service Delivery Gateways (SSDGs).

How are the e-Governance Conformity Assessment Centres (eGCACs) doing?
As the private sector gets more involved in e-governance,  there is need for proper assessment and evaluation of the projects. Hence the need for an independent agency, other than the technical agency which is aggregating the project, for assessment. The STQC is one such organisation. The idea is to see the the applications that have been developed conform to the functional requirements laid down, that they are not performing any additional functions, that they are complying with the standards. As you may be aware, the MCA21 project, which was the first large-scale e-governance project under the PPP at the central level, was also tested by the STQC after completion.

Will assessment of the Mission Mode projects be made compulsory?
In fact, assessment has been made the mandatory part. There are two kinds of assessments; one is the technical assessment, the one done by the conformance assessment centre which is more technology centric. Of course, the conformance assessment currently is largely a black box testing, which tests whether the application is doing what it is supposed to be doing or, for that matter, more than that. But the other part is a more empirical test, measuring whether the services are actually being delivered, whether the service is being delivered faster, whether the ease of access has increased, whether the level of convenience has increased, whether the waiting period has come down, whether the corruption levels have come down etc. Such assessments are done by the independent third party assessee which is typically done through the market research agencies.

What prompted the DIT to revamp its website and make it accessible to people with disabilities?
There are already existing guidelines with regard to the government websites;  how websites are to be designed and how they should be made more accessible to the stakeholders, including people with special needs.

Any plans for a multilingual website beyond Hindi and English?
We do have a set of instructions to create multilingual websites and the national portal is in both Hindi and English. For most of the state government websites efforts are on to bring in the regional language also. This will require development of certain technology tools in the language arena. The C-DAC (Centre for Development of Advanced Computing) has done a lot of work in this area and private companies are also coming up with products such as the text-to-speech, and speech-to-text (converter). So we do see the language technology as one of the major areas of work for the private sector.

Which e-governance projects would you classify as successes, and which ones as failures?
MCA21, income tax, excise among central projects; land record computerisation, registration, e-district project, municipalities project, CSCs project and infrastructure projects among the state projects. There has been substantial use of ICT in the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme as well. As for failures, I will not classify them as such because their objectives remain valid.

Do you mean no project has failed?
You mentioned the egovworld project as an example of a project that failed. But the point I am making is that initially the effort may have failed but the project itself remains valid. We just need to find a way to achieve the objective.

DIT, IIT-Delhi, NISG and Microsoft established an e-governance innovation lab in 2007. What have been the innovations so far?
Frankly, it has not come up to our expectations in areas of process and technology innovation. The objectives still remain valid, but we need to revisit how this objective can be met.

What are your priorities for the DIT during 2010-11?
Our effort will be two-fold. One, to increase the availability of services through the established infrastructure. The second is to focus more on the security aspects of services which are being made available. Besides, we are also exploring the potential of creating a shared platform in the states using technologies like cloud computing, software as services, infrastructure as a service and so on.

What is the role of cloud computing in e-governance?
Cloud computing means so many things to so many people. But in government context it is essentially that various resources can be shared. There are some components which can be shared across various departments. The availability of government clouds in terms of data storage, conformance and other artefacts can be used in the service provisions. There is potential to speed up the delivery of services. But we need to ascertain as to how far this can be leveraged.

How is the e-Bharat project planned with the World Bank progressing?
e-Bharat is still under discussion with the World Bank. In fact, there was one major issue – whether e-Bharat would be  supported in the programme mode or at the project level. We are clear that it has to be a programme support. Secondly, the mode of implementation with the project owners needs to be decided: whether it has to be in the PPP mode and how the project should be bundled. These are operational issues to be taken up by the project sponsor which cannot be predetermined across the board.

Why did the National e-Governance Agency give way to the National e-Governance Department (NeGD)?
The view within the government in certain quarters was that the objectives and means were appropriate but it was desirable to avoid setting up a new entity, to begin with and it would be better to achieve the objectives using an existing agency as a vehicle and then hive it off as a separate entity after a few years. Accordingly, it was decided to establish it within the Media Lab Asia and see within a period of time if the necessity of a separate agency still remains.

Why did the DIT do away with the egovclub and open discussion forum? Isn’t more citizen participation desirable?
I am not aware of these being closed. In fact, there is a provision on the website for feedback. I will put it as one of the substantial areas where we need to do more in terms of building platforms where there is not only feedback from the citizens but also interactions. There is a range of networking tools available today where citizens can interact with the government with regards to e-governance projects, programmes, achievements, shortcomings, tools etc and I think it is absolutely important to have this. This is going to become even more important because so far we have largely focused on e-government, but now we will move increasingly towards e-governance. The distinction means that e-government is more about service delivery to the citizen whereas e-governance is more about citizens’ participation where citizens can give their opinions, they can interact with their representatives. IT offers a mechanism where citizens can participate in numbers and manner that is not possible in the physical world.

Do you see a role for social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter in bridging the gap between the citizen and the government?
Absolutely. These kind of technologies will have a very important role in citizen participation in governance.

A couple of your officers are on Twitter and blogs. What about you? Do you also plan a blog or tweet?
I would love to do that. In fact, I would like to have a mechanism wherein I would not only interact but also have access to multiple opinions. But, yes, so far I have not been on Facebook or Twitter for this purpose. But that certainly is an idea that is very appealing.
(Video of the full interview is available under GNTV )  


 

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