A blueprint to evaluate digital governance

Interactivity, intuitiveness, information flow and ease of transaction should be the parameters for evaluating e-governance projects

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | April 20, 2013



Baijnath Yadav was filled with hope when he heard about the kisan call centre a few years ago. The 40-something farmer had spent his entire life tilling a small piece of land in Sikandarpur Karan in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. Recently he had faced a barrage of pests that would leave much of his vegetable garden in a gooey mush. The usually trustworthy local methods made little impact. The advertisement for the kisan call centre pasted on his village panchayat’s office promised a direct connection to an agricultural scientist. Used to the ways of the mobile phone, Yadav thought it would be easy. But it was a nightmare for him. Faced with multiple automated response options in the interactive voice response system (IVRS), Yadav gave up. He wasn’t the only one. The call flow of the IVRS was a tried-and-tested one and had worked for a variety of other schemes. Something just wasn’t right this time.
Telecommunications Consultants of India Limited (TCIL) got back to the drawing board. After extensive rounds of user testing, called user acceptance test (UAT) in the digital world, across the country they figured out that there was nothing wrong with the idea. The problem was in the call flow of the IVRS, which the engineers had borrowed directly from the successful projects that they had implemented in urban areas. TCIL soon rolled out a new three-level knowledge management system (KMS), with level one consisting of local language proficient agriculture graduate, level two having subject matter specialists on crops and enterprises and level three having a management group to answer questions not resolved at the earlier levels.

Today, Yadav is an active and regular user of the KCC.

Hidden in this success story of the KCC lies the fundamental blueprint of how a good e-governance project needs to be implemented and executed at the ground level. The ‘electronic’ in governance is mostly seen as an additive; a sort of a propellant that’s going to speed up and smoothen the engine of governance and at the same time give better mileage (read efficiency). But to envisage e-governance as merely governance in an electronic or digital format is fraught with danger.

Governance in real world involves a face-to-face interaction, informal negotiations, subjective judgements and innovative solutions. There is another side to this coin. The same flexibility also allows for arbitrage opportunities leading to corruption and a higher cost of public service. In short, a successful e-governance service has to provide for the informality of a face-to-face interaction, while eliminating arbitrage opportunities. That’s why ‘electronic’, or ‘digital’, cannot just be an additive.

Marshall McLuhan’s much abused and debated statement still holds a kernel of truth. ‘The medium is the message’ — sometimes in the real world and often enough in the digital world. It’s from this over 60-year-old statement that the parameters of how to define successful e-governance initiatives emerge. E-governance is based on two fundamental pillars. The first is free flow of relevant information. The second, and a related pillar, is the capability to use that information for a seamless transaction leading to the delivery of a service. These two pillars hold up the structure of any successful digital private or public enterprise; right from searching for information on Google and picking up the best deals on Amazon to the booking of railway tickets on IRCTC’s site. India is moving, almost inexorably, towards becoming an advanced digital society. As the country transforms, digital governance will increasingly play a more critical role. In light of this looming reality, it’s time we seriously consider the parameters of successful electronic governance.
Broadly, there are four such parameters.
 
Information Architecture
The first is information architecture (IA). In the field of digital product design, the layering of information is an integral part of design. When a person visits a website, a mobile site or calls an IVR system the manner in which information is served determines the route (called navigation in the digital world) the person takes. IA is a science that identifies and understands the psychology of the target audience and tailors the information around that psychology to derive desired responses. Think of a website as a mall where the displays are structured and positioned across the vast expanse in such a manner that the customer is attracted to the specific products.

It usually isn’t an accident that customers end up making buying decisions that are intuitive to their mind, but is actually well-thought out by the mall management. A website is exactly like the mall, where a well-thought out IA will make the visitor complete his or her decision loop.

User Interface
The second is user interface (UI). It’s easy to confuse UI with the aesthetic aspect of design, but nothing could be further from the truth. A UI is the real estate of a digital property and constructing a UI is an extremely scientific process and flows from the IA. Yet again, think of UI as the vast space of a mall. The manner in which the mall is designed and demarcated ensures that every inch of the real estate is visited by the customer, leading to a buying decision. The entry and exit points, position of the signboards and benches, the design of the pathways and even location of the toilets are designed to elicit a certain behavioural response.

User Interface does the same for the digital product through the position of navigation buttons, fonts and its size, colour, space, bullets and images within the digital real estate to derive the appropriate customer response.

User Experience
The third is user experience (UX). The crux of a good UX is to ensure that the human-machine interaction is as intuitive as possible. The moment a person starts feeling lost in the digital landscape it means that the intuitive nature of the interaction has been lost and the connection between the person and machine — interface — has been disrupted. UX is also critical in refining the digital product on offer. Just as TCIL went back to the drawing board, understood its target audience better and evolved a more appropriate IA and UI, ultimately leading to a better experience for the end user. Think of the UX as the overall ambience that one encounters at a mall.

The more intuitive and integrated the ambience, the better is the experience of the customer.
 
Technology
The fourth is technology. IA, UI and UX cannot exist in isolation. An appropriate technology platform is a critical factor to a person’s overall interaction with a digital product. In the case of e-governance, technology solutions have to be open source, based on open standards, non-proprietary, scalable and robust. Appropriate data storage and retrieval infrastructure is also critical in providing ‘in-time’ service to the customers. Finally, only the right technology mix will allow for e-governance solutions to be made available across multiple digital platforms and devices. Think of technology as the logistics and distribution network of a mall, its heart. Without this network, even the most well-designed and structured mall will soon find its shelves empty and customers unhappy. Similarly, without the right technological platform, a customer cannot be served in a timely and efficient manner.

Sooner than later, India will have to start evaluating its e-governance projects. Currently the focus, and quite rightly so, is on rolling out the infrastructure, hardware and the backbone for large-scale e-governance. But in the near future, the focus will shift to the outcomes of e-governance initiatives. These four principles must, then, be used for evaluating the quality and impact of each e-governance project.

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