India’s largest business daily carried an article of Mr. Ramadorai, the CEO and MD of India’s largest IT company. Mr. Ramadorai is absolutely right; although I have some reservations about the 1st paragraph where he stated that there is not much ‘need to re-invent government processes and systems’.  When one goes through the article, one understands Mr. Ramadorai didn’t rule out ‘fundamental changes in the way the government’ work.

One may read another article, nothing to do with ‘e’, but to do with governance, here (Poor paid Rs. 9,000 mn in bribes for water, basic services). The sample size, as PTI reported, comprised 22,728 households in all states and Union Territories, quite significant, to draw any meaningful conclusions.

It points out the age-old truth, that the function is more important than the format. If governance is poor, e-governance would magnify the glaring gaps in governance. And when governance is good, e-governance would again magnify the quality of that good governance.

Lately (post my article e-Governance in India: a status report), I did have very limited interactions with few officials engaged in middle or senior levels of governance, and e-governance. The sample size is too small to draw any meaningful conclusion; however the findings are as diverse as Indian diversity. The trend within this diversity isn’t easy to identify.

1st, you seldom receive an e-mail response to an e-mail from most of these officials, that even includes the PMO. You may be lucky to receive a phone call from the secretary of those officials against those mails, but they have problems in responding against e-mails. Irrespective of the possibility whether the mails are checked by officials or secretaries, Indian government is famous for not responding in writing to its citizens!

2nd, you will find most of these e-governance seminars (or conferences), important to generate the much-needed awareness campaign within levels of government, to be sponsored by private firms, and held in five-star environment. Government spends hundreds of crores (10-million is one Indian crore) on e-governance; however they don’t have funds to take it to different levels of governance or to the people, in a systematic manner. And the interest of those funding the seminars, with key government figures gracing the event, can be gauged easily.

As Mr. Ramadorai’s article pointed out, the parties sponsoring these events would love to ‘sale’ some products – hardware or software, in this large e-governance project to fulfill the ‘procurement-based’ approach of the government. Products can be bought or sold, not solutions. Though Mr. Ramadorai hinted at the possibility of ‘procuring IT services’, he elaborated partnering, thereby suggesting PPP-mode of operation for technology-part of non-core government activities.

IT, as a general purpose technology (GPT) like electricity, is used by business, society, government and individuals alike. Adoption of IT helps in improving efficiency, productivity and thereby leads to even higher GDP growths. Although the plug-n-play in IT has not yet simplified to the levels of electricity, more so for complex integrated systems, many free online simple tools offer many of those stand-alone solutions that government may still be buying as ‘products’, and then not deriving the services from it. However moving against the tide demands one taking initiatives of different scale, as we see later.

3rd, as one enters rooms of key officials involved in e-governance, one notices certificates/awards by many of these common sponsors. Surprisingly, what strikes is the absence of ‘Google’ from the list of sponsors, or any certificates/awards given by Google. Google does not believe in marketing, neither has it carried any program to award certificate. Google is the bigger representation of what’s available for free in the Internet, useful and increasingly turning out to be as reliable as products available for sale. People use Google because they found it useful – no sales, marketing, and training. When one examines the visiting card of many of these government officials, one often comes across a 2nd e-mail id, like gmail or so.

Positive sign! I must say. However, remember the 1st point. They mostly don’t respond on e-mail. It probably helps in reducing the mail-bounces. Government sends a better image of itself when one does not receive a response to his/her e-mail than when the mail itself bounces.

To drive e-governance, Mr. Ramadorai identified commitment at political levels as a prerequisite. Absolutely right again. However Mr. Ramadorai would be surprised to know that out of six large nationally recognized political parties (as recognized by the Election Commission of India), one does not have a website (or as given in wikipedia does not open), one’s web-site is in construction without any contact e-mail id, and one has a website (with one IT cell!), however mail to the political party bounces. 

And I am not trying to be critical here; I am rather trying to understand why these parties don’t think a basic minimum functional website helps them. It could well be that our perception is wrong, and they are right. IT in India is still considered a medium for the classes and not for the masses. When one looks at the high-pitch Internet based campaigning for the US-presidential elections, and this plight of e-awareness by leading Indian political parties, one immediately senses this tectonic difference. And quality of e-governance mirrors that same gap!  

While discussing the topic with a bureaucrat, he pointed out that in areas of revenue for government, e-governance has worked well whereas social sector like health, education or law-and-order has not seen much progress.

It’s easy to be critical, and it’s difficult to get involved and bring change. The best example and initiative of e-governance that I have come-across yet is this CEO blog. True, it does not have interface with end-citizens and it’s more of an example on how to use IT for faster, better and effective communications within a large government set-up. No IT service partners were needed in CEO blog, no money was spent, no extra manpower probably, no hosting/maintaining/updating expenses. Many a government department can extend this model with direct interface for citizens.

Contrarily what we see, some expensive launch of procured-services where calls from citizens mostly remained unanswered. Internet is about interactivity – it’s not a static poster! There are exceptions also within e-governance projects; however we want the exceptions to be the norms! Complex IT projects, even in best working environments, historically meet significant failures, primarily in its constraints in overcoming change management hurdles. 

Mr. Ramadorai is right in his diagnosis; question is - can he help to improve the system? What can firms like TCS, Infosys, Satyam, Wipro, CTS, IBM, etc. do to ensure that they act as a catalyst of change that Mr. Ramadorai suggested? Would they continue to work as a ‘supplier’ in a ‘doomed-to-fail-e-governance’ project to satisfy their shareholders, knowing well from the beginning that chances of success of that project would be drastically reduced unless the prerequisite conditions are met and worked upon?

Or they can collectively walk-out from poorly designed e-governance projects, forcing the government to bring the much needed changes. Indian blue-chip IT firms can compete for e-governance projects; however they can also co-operate to help the government improve its understanding on most e-governance projects. These firms are globally respected for their contributions in the global IT movement; however it’s a sad reflection that India could not utilize their expertise to bring in inclusive growth through better governance, aided by right technologies.

The academic community would be too eager to play its due role to foster this much-needed change.

Ranjit is an Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, and is the author of the book Wondering Man, Money & Go(l)d.  Opinion is personal.

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