In conversation with R Chandrashekhar, former secretary, department of electronics and information technology
Pratap Vikram Singh | June 21, 2013
R Chandrashekhar, a 1975 batch IAS officer of the Andhra Pradesh cadre and the new head of the national technical research organisation (NTRO), has immensely contributed to the ongoing reforms in the service delivery processes in the government. He formulated the national e-governance plan (NeGP) and oversaw the implementation of its first phase. He has headed the department of electronics and information technology (DeitY) and department of telecom, government of India, and has been part of the formulation of policies on information technology, telecom, cyber security and national optical fibre network. In an exclusive interaction with Pratap Vikram Singh, Chandrashekhar looks back at the work done during his association with DeitY and the way ahead as NeGP enters its second phase.
Developed countries have eliminated the interface between the citizen and government with the help of e-government, which is still being implemented at a snail’s pace in India.
The evolution of e-governance in India has been different from the west. Attaining internal efficiency and limiting the number of personnel in government – to reduce costs – were the driving factors for adoption of IT in the western or developed countries. Availability and cost of manpower in those economies relative to computers and automation costs tilted the balance much more in favour of IT adoption.
Government offices in these developed countries had already automated their working to a significant extent. Backend automation coupled with high levels of literacy and e-literacy among their citizens helped them to quickly leverage the internet, when it came, as a tool for delivery of information and services to citizens substantially diminishing the need for a physical interface between the government and citizen.
However, in India adoption and emergence of e-governance has been driven by other factors, including the way the government’s roles and responsibilities have evolved over the years towards an increasingly aware and demanding set of citizens. Irrespective of relative costs of labour and automation, it was impossible to manage so many schemes and services for such a huge population without extensive use of modern technology.
Today, from mere use of IT for internal efficiency or data analysis, government departments have gradually started using technology for improving service delivery. The progress has been slow because while attempting to deliver services to citizens, we had to simultaneously deal with backend integration, something that the developed economies had done long ago.
The use of IT in the government dates back to the 1970s. The national informatics centre (NIC) was set up in 1976-77. From a citizen perspective, e-governance in states is more important as 90 percent of government-to-citizen services are delivered by the state governments.
The NeGP, approved in 2006, aimed at creating a unifying vision of e-governance in terms of delivery of services to citizens. It also aimed at addressing the gaps in the usage of IT by creating common and shareable infrastructure at the central and state levels.
What is your assessment of the progress of NeGP over the seven years?
In my opinion, significant progress has been made, notably in three main areas, namely, convergence on the concept of provision of efficient e-services to citizens being the central purpose of the e-governance programme, creation of common shareable infrastructure for this purpose across most states and provision of an initial set of services for delivery to the citizens, which vary from state to state. These are no mean accomplishments considering the complexity and size of the government, the readiness levels in many states and the widely divergent views prevalent on what the goals should be and how to accomplish them. Yet, there is no denying that the progress made is still limited in comparison to what needs to be accomplished across the government at all levels and across all departments.
e-District and e-Office are among the most delayed projects under NeGP. Don’t you think these projects could have been accorded equal priority vis-à-vis the core infrastructure projects and other MMPs?
e-Office was accorded the same priority as other MMPs since it was initiated right at the outset along with other MMPs. However, progress has been far from satisfactory in respect of this project. e-District was a concept which came in later after some reflection and analysis. It is fundamentally different from other projects in that it is not centred around a specific department or set of departments, but a specific geographical area. It, therefore, required harmonisation with the rest of the NeGP which is connected to the departments. Because of these factors, it was not only conceptualised later but also took some time for the project development and approval.
The difference in the progress between the infrastructure projects and these two projects is not due to lower priority being accorded to the latter but because service delivery projects take more time than infrastructure projects on account of the time taken in project conceptualisation and execution, especially process reengineering, change management and application development/ procurement. Also, it should be recognised that the e-government projects in India are not just IT projects as many people think, but government transformation projects. Such projects take time the world over because people (in the government) take time to accept, adopt and adapt to changes in the way they work.
Lack of understanding about technology and project structuring are considered to be the key challenges in implementing e-governance projects. Do you think the current capacity building programme, under NeGP, is addressing these challenges? What else could be done?
These are major challenges. The capacity building programme is addressing these issues, but only partially, because these capacities are not only deficient within the government, they are simply not available to the required extent either in quantity or quality anywhere, including the IT industry and consulting fraternity. Hence, in many cases, people who are inducted or who train others do not have all the necessary skills to begin with but acquire them over time and with experience. Given the magnitude of the task and the scale, it is necessary to introduce professional skill development programmes for e-government. Some universities/ institutions have actually introduced courses and degrees in e-government. That is a step in the right direction. Selected/ key officials in departments also need to mandatorily be sent for training in e-government. Identifying or creating a small cadre of experts who can train the trainers is also an imperative. Project structuring, process reengineering, change management, procurement, contract management, etc, are some of the key capabilities that are in short supply.
What are the key areas ‘NeGP 2.0’ should focus on?
NeGP 2.0 should focus on greater citizen participation in governance by using the social media imaginatively. Given the prevalence of mobile phones in the country, focus on m-governance is also an imperative. The effort should be to make e-government more demand-driven and use these tools to create a self-sustaining and virtuous cycle to achieve that objective. Another major area where focus is needed is on leveraging cloud technology and encouraging moves towards applications/ software as a service by encouraging product development by service providers. This is especially relevant in state sector projects where there are 30-odd variants of the same core application to cater to local variations in individual states. Such an approach would vastly speed up implementation, particularly in the less e-ready states, which can piggyback on work already done in other states. There are instances of this already, but sadly for now at least, too few. Further, an insistence on process reengineering aimed at meeting pre-defined service standards as a mandatory part of a project proposal/ design in order to qualify for funding is highly desirable. A similar provision for citizen participation/ feedback using the social media is also an idea whose time has come.
Process engineering (administrative reforms) and capacity building did not precede NeGP roll-out. Don’t you think NeGP could have yielded better results if this had happened?
I do not think that process reengineering can be effective unless it is done along with e-government. For instance, how do you change a process to allow or mandate e-processing of some applications (say IT returns or scholarship applications) without requiring e-filing? Hence process reengineering has to be undertaken as a part of an e-government project rather than before or after it. Ideally, capacity building should have preceded implementation, but because of the acute skill shortage in the country and the time lines associated with building up the army of people needed for this effort, it became necessary to start with the skills available within the government and supplement as we went along. The fact that in the government today, we have a large number of people who are technically qualified in administrative positions (this is not usually the case in most countries) and understand the government systems thoroughly, made this a pragmatic option, aimed at speeding up the implementation.
Can e-government at the highest political and bureaucratic levels be an answer to the prevalent corruption?
Policy and other decision-making at the highest levels is a complex process and involve multiple authorities, levels and stages. Bringing in e-government in these processes is not easy nor is its benefit as evident as at the transactional level. e-Government is the most effective where there are a high number of similar transactions (typically these involve citizens, for example, issue of passports or ration cards). Especially at the citizen interface, the benefits in terms of efficiency, speed, transparency, reduction/ elimination of corruption are manifest. In complex, one-of-a-kind decision-making or in policymaking, decision support systems or analytic tools may be more useful. Secondly, corruption is a deep-rooted problem. e-Government can play a major role in minimising it at the cutting-edge level, but I am doubtful about its utility in tackling high-level corruption which is a wholly different problem, except by increasing greater transparency which induces social vigil and audit.
How can telecentres (under the common services centre scheme), which are currently in a pathetic condition, be agents of change in rural India?
The difficulties of the telecentres have arisen largely because of overestimation of the availability of the e-government services, which in turn led to underbidding by agencies. Of course, there are other factors as well. In spite of these problems, more than half of them have stabilised, riding on a combination of private and government services. With some correctives based on this experience and by making them focal points for the two-way citizen interface that NeGP 2.0 would usher in through the use of the social media, I believe they could become agents of change in rural India as well as enable rural India to become a force for change in the whole of India.
What should be the parameters to judge an e-governance project?
Two very simple parameters, at least where citizen services are involved with the goal that the service should be made available online, are the following. Firstly, what is the percentage of services provided by that department which has been e-enabled? Secondly, what is the percentage of users of these services who have access to the e-services? Once these percentages become significant, then all the parameters for the quality of service like speed and transparency become automatically measurable.
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