"Unless we use data, there is no open government"

Governance Now in conversation with Subhash Bhatnagar, e-governance expert


Pratap Vikram Singh | June 7, 2013

Subhash Bhatnagar
Subhash Bhatnagar

Subhash Bhatnagar, a renowned authority on e-governance, has worked with the World Bank in Washington DC (2000 to 2006) as a consultant advisor on e-Government. Currently he is an honorary adjunct professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), where he has worked for most part of his career. He leads the team which oversees the department of electronics and information technology impact assessment programme for e-governance projects. He was a member of the steering committee for the formulation of the 13th Five Year Plan for the ICT sector and is currently a member of an empowered committee on capacity building for the national e-governance plan (NeGP). In conversation with Pratap Vikram Singh and Shivangi Narayan, on the side lines of the 13th national eGovernance Conference, he highlights the problems in the larger vision on electronic governance in India.

Edited excerpts:

Can you comment on the buzz that has been created around Aadhaar-enabled service delivery and direct benefits transfer scheme?
Unique identification (UID) number is an enabler. UID in itself is not e-governance. In India, so far, we do not have applications built around UID in most e-governance initiatives. We are still struggling to get a comprehensive coverage of the UID programme going.

First, UID needs to have reasonably good coverage and then you can think of integrating it with service delivery. It is premature to create a buzz without demonstrating the benefits that UID will deliver in sufficient number of pilots that deliver services based on UID.

When services finally start getting delivered using UID, its smooth functioning will depend on the working of handheld devices. Transactions, using handheld devices, are going to happen at a fair price shop, in panchayats and rural schools. Will the functionaries be able to use the devices, how will the devices  be maintained? We are not very sure of the answers as yet.

We are very naive in terms of technology. I wish the unique identification authority of India (UIDAI) had actually gone ahead with enrolling a complete district and then rolled out services and see what the results are. There are initiatives delivering pensions to nearly 2 million rural people in AP through bank accounts based on biometric identification . These could have been studied to understand operational problems and the kind of organizations that can manage such service delivery. UIDAI proposes to do such pilots now. They should have done this in the early stages.

Why are we so convoluted?
Given the large size of our population and the geographical spread, implementing  UID based service delivery in services where bribes are extorted and fraud is widely prevalent is a very challenging and ambitious task.

Probably, Nandan  Nilekani  who was a very successful leader in the software export industry was not prepared to deal with so many challenges that were not necessarily related to technology issues.

Perhaps, there should have been more consultations at the time of the formulation of the program with administrators who had implemented reforms in large service delivery systems at the ground level through ICT use. There were consultations on the concept of providing a unique identity, but they were not adequate to understand the problems of delivering services based on UI.

What are the issues with NeGP?
I would like to preface my comment, saying that reasonable amount of work has been done. A number of states have their data centres, wide area networks. In terms of conceptualising, DeitY has done a good job. I think the problem has been largely that DeitY needed to work through a single point of contact in the state. And that was state IT secretary. And I think for a time when they were building the infrastructure the model was fine. Infrastructure should be the responsibility of the IT department. But when it comes to actually developing applications using this infrastructure, then the IT secretary is not the right person. His writ does not work on other departments. Given the competition in the higher bureaucracy, nobody is going to listen to the IT secretary.

The implementation has been really captive with IT department, and the ownership was not taken by the line departments. There are a few states, which have proactive IT secretaries. But those are exceptions.

They had hoped to push the implementation by making the prime minister as chairman of the apex council (of NeGP). However, one needs to realise that PM is chairman of hundreds of committees. The bandwidth is not available at the PMO to handle everything.

Another thing we did not realise is that already reasonable amount of computerisation had been initiated in some states. States are at variable levels of e-readiness and e-governance. Look at PDS. Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Gujarat are at different levels of computerisation. To conceive a project for pan-India implementation is a difficult task.

Had the NeGP been a state e-governance plan, instead of a national plan, it may have worked better.

Can you comment on electronic service delivery bill?
As a nudging device for states lacking in e-governance, it is a good tool. But can somebody define what constitutes e-delivery? Applying online, submitting all documents online, paying online, or electronic delivery of the certificates and licenses? Unless we are clear about what defines electronic delivery, the Act will not have teeth. 

Fundamentally, the capability to build eGovernance  applications has to be made reasonably strong.

The World Bank had shared an early draft of the electronic service delivery bill with me to seek my comments. I had stated clearly that you have to define what constitutes e-delivery. Some of my comments were taken into account in the revised drafts by the government.

But for me, if the states do not have the capacity to conceptualize, design and find implementation partners,  the legislation will not have much positive impact. If you have passed RTE Act, it does not mean education disparity will just vanish.

The theme of the 16th NCEG conference was “open government”. Why were you critical of it?
I am critical of the way we want to quickly reach more evolved forms of eGovernance without spending adequate attention on getting our basics of delivering e-services right.  For idustrialized countries, open government means opening up data to the public. These countries had done what we are doing today in the name of eGovernance about 20 years ago. The way I got my driving licence in the US 20 years ago is the way one gets it here now from recently computerized RTOs. So my argument is, when we talk about integration across departments, open government, somewhere we have to be patient and work to achieve these goals stage by stage.

If you have implemented a new type of accounting information, in a municipality or panchayat, can department officials use the data to monitor performance first? Use of such information published on the web by citizens will come much later.

To think that citizens will engage, advise and be involved in the policymaking is a far-fetched dream at this stage.  First provide immediate relief to citizens in terms of transacting business with the government. 

Let us not get distracted with too many objectives. We have a single most primary objective —implementation of e-governance for electronic delivery of services. This should have been more or less done in the past seven years (of NeGP). Now that we are lagging behind let us concentrate on the task.

If NeGP could have facilitated implementation of e-district MMP in five years, then 60 percent of the work would have been completed.  [e-District project aims at digitising back-end of the district administration and putting key government to citizen services online.]

This should have been the first work to be implemented – the back-end computerisation.  They have put faucet but there is no water-that is the case with common services centres (CSCs).

There is no business process reengineering?
That certainly is a week area. Putting technology is easy. e-Governance is about transforming the way government works. That change has not happened in most eGovernance projects. Every basic procedure has to be reviewed and modified if need be. The service delivery procedures have become too complex over the years. They need to be simplified.

Why should the citizen care that computers have been installed or an eGovernace projects is implemented? Citizens want to get the service in reasonable time without harassment. If citizens notice that there is improvement in service, we would have achieved our NeGP objectives.

You have also talked about the impact of making information public?
Unless data is used, people will not keep the data updated. The quality of data will suffer. So usage is the key. To me, open government is successful when we see six articles in newspaper using the data published by a panchayat – demanding accountability, questioning why the government is not functioning well, the slow speed of implementation, or unnecessary government spending. Unless we use data, discuss it and bring in accountability, there is no point in claiming that we have an open government. Publishing a nice website is not the end objective. The outcome for open government has to be seen in the context of public engagement.

While living in the US, I saw people sending 150 emails to the city administration suggesting the height of the road bumps being built in their locality. They had animated discussions, met and influenced the functionaries and influenced the decisions. That to me is real open government.

Here citizens are not yet ready for civic engagement. And it is fine. We have to move slowly create an appetite in selected areas of high concern.

Is social media an answer?
When we talk about social media, we talk about yuppie class in urban areas. We should profit and exploit from it as much as possible. We saw Annaji led protest and Nirbhaya protest, it played an important role. However, it is not a significant pastime in rural areas. It is not a panacea.

The fundamental problem is that we ( government functionaries and as individuals responsible for a task) do not accept criticism easily. Can you improve if you do not accept criticism. That is the fundamental character of our society.

You are also chairing a committee on capacity building.
I am chairing a committee which is preparing a roadmap for capacity building for NeGP for the coming years. We are looking at state e-mission teams (SeMT). How effectively is it being utilised? How much have they contributed? SeMTs seem to be playing an important role. We keep talking about capacity building, but when it comes to putting trained manpower in the right position, it is disappointing. I do not see many problem with training modules and quality. But the problem is that states do not send the right people for training. They are not deployed at the right position.





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