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Digital India can be the prime mover to making a reality of this government’s promise of minimum government, maximum governance. Such a transformation requires technology to be firmly embedded into government, something that the Digital India project lists as one of its foremost objectives.
Embedding technology into governance processes will do three things: one, transform government and make it more transparent and efficient; two, transform the lives of citizens, especially those at the bottom of proverbial pyramid; three, make our economy more efficient and competitive. A 2014 McKinsey Global Institute report predicts that the large-scale adaptation of technology through Digital India positions India with the biggest opportunity yet to accelerate economic growth.
E-governance and technology in government is not a new idea. This has evolved over years from replacing typewriters with PCs and the process of ‘computerisation’ to a more complex, multi-functional, department-wide application of the concept. However, despite thousands of crores of rupees spent in the last decade in the name of e-governance and efficiency, there has been little change in government as a consequence of these investments.
This is because the process of embedding technology in government has been a bottom-up process. Individual departments and offices are undertaking this independent of each other. Thus, crores are being spent in systems and projects that are incompatible and don’t work with each other, defeating the purpose of e-governance.
Take the huge data collection exercises and databases. The Aadhaar database on biometrics has a different architecture and hardware from other similar large databases overseen by the finance and home ministries. Or the case of data servers and networks ” which have different security and architecture specifications in different departments ” leaving government agencies with differing levels of vulnerability to cyberattacks.
Further, embedding technology into limited silos makes data-driven, real-time analysis of governance and policy action impossible or, at best, inaccurate. This approach is also expensive and inefficient in terms of costs associated with procurement, obsolescence and administration. This silo-based or bottom-up approach to embedding tech also has another big failing: it doesn’t create the process reforms and efficiencies at the top-most levels of government decision-making where it is most required.
More mature democracies such as the US have beaten India in recognising the need for a chief technology officer (CTO). President Barack Obama made this appointment a centre-point of his 2007 electoral campaign. Obama conceptualised the role of the CTO to be someone that would “focus on transparency” and ensure “that each arm of the federal government makes its records open and accessible as the e-Government Act requires”. India needs to take a similar approach and use this as a precedent while rolling out Digital India.
Government is a sum of various parts. Currently, some of these parts are efficient and technology-enabled while others are sub-optimally enabled or technologically bereft. So government’s efficiency as a whole is measured by its least efficient or least responsive departments, just as governments are known by their worst ministers and not their best.
A good CTO is essential to make the government function as a unified machinery that operates with consistent standards of efficiency, transparency and responsiveness. That is key to realising maximum governance, minimum government.
The focus of the CTO should be to design an architecture that achieves three broad goals: 1) enable easy, transparent access for citizens and business to and from government, 2) enable government departments to operate transparently and efficiently, 3) connect various departments to ensure that government and policymakers operate in a seamless, transparent, responsive and data-driven manner.
For this, the CTO should re-wire the government’s existing technology investment, connectivity and access mechanisms. The CTO can then help embed layers of applications, including security measures into the ecosystem that ensures that the government applies the same standards of responsiveness, transparency and access regardless of department, hierarchy or region. Creating such a standardised architecture will also save thousands of crores in procurement and administering efficiencies.
Digital India promises to ‘transform India into a digitally-empowered society and knowledge economy’. A CTO in the Modi government’s team can help the latter achieve its stated goals of minimum government, maximum governance.
This article appeared in Economic Times on July 3, 2015