In a democracy, one of the important functions of the government is to provide a whole array of services to citizens, and to do so in an efficient, cost-effective, accountable and transparent manner. In a country like India, access to services is an additional factor. Differential access tends to heighten further the already-existing inequities in society. Universal and equitable access is, therefore, of vital importance in furthering the agenda of social justice and inclusion. Technology, through ICT, provides an almost perfect solution for addressing these issues.
It is in this broad context that the government has initiated the ambitious National e-Governance Programme (NeGP). This includes the provision of a whole range of services for citizens and corporate entities; it also provides access to these services through common services centres, which are being set up in 100,000 locations. Government spending on IT is projected to increase from Rs 150 billion in 2009 to Rs 250 billion in 2011, clearly signalling recognition of both the growing importance of IT and acknowledgement of its role in governance.
The last few years have seen many projects – at both, the Central and State levels – aimed at using IT within the government and also as a means of increasing the reach, efficiency and accountability of services being provided by the government to citizens. In this, it has also sought to capitalise on the new communication technologies to reach out to remote, interior or far-flung parts of the country with these services. Pathbreaking ICT projects, like urban services in Hyderabad and rural land-records in Karnataka, created considerable impact some years back, as did the pioneering one for railway passenger reservations, two decades ago. Each of these had scale and impact of sufficient magnitude to truly make a difference to the millions who used these services. Now, as the government looks at expanding the scope as well as reach of these services, requiring investment of hundreds of billions of rupees, cost-effectiveness becomes a pre-dominant consideration. Many factors contribute to both costs and outcomes, and it is vital to look at ways to minimise the first and maximise the second. Amongst the various ways of doing this are the following:
Too often, each application is treated separately or as a standalone one; consequently, when it has to interface with some other application, there is difficulty, requiring the development of new software and additional time and expense. Such inter-operability must be mandated at the initial (RFP) stage itself
- Look at ways of converting capital expenditures into yearly or operational expenditures. Such a reduction in upfront and large one-time expenditures is important in government projects, where budgetary limits may constrain capital expenditures and lead to postponement or delays. Such capex to opex conversion can be done by outsourcing, or getting a partner to work on a “build-operate-transfer” model, where the capital investment is made by the vendor, who is paid a yearly fee.
- Instead of purchasing software, use “software as a service” (SaaS), thereby again limiting the one-time outgo involved in buying the required software. The growing popularity and availability of SaaS makes this eminently feasible. It has the additional advantages of not necessarily getting locked into one software for years, just because it has been invested in, and of not having to worry about maintaining the software.
- Avoid re-inventing the wheel: utilise existing software and solutions, which have been developed for similar needs elsewhere. A great deal of wasteful expenditure has resulted from different States trying to ab initio develop solutions which already exist. For example, since Bhoomi in Karnataka has evolved a good and now-proven solution for computerisation of land records, there is no reason why other States cannot adopt the same. At most, it may require some adaptations, if the local requirements are marginally different. The same holds good for a vast number of services and requirements (car registration, driving licences, treasury applications, local-body accounts, employee HR records, property tax, etc.). This will not only save considerable amounts of money, but also a great deal of time in implementing such applications. It is worth noting that even the defence forces around the world now often prefer to procure “commercial off-theshelf” software, with adaptation where necessary, rather than spend a great deal of time and money on developing custom-made software.
- Ensure compatibility and interoperability amongst various applications that have the possibility of being linked. Too often, each application is treated separately or as a standalone one; consequently, when it has to interface with some other application, there is difficulty, requiring the development of new software and additional time and expense. Such inter-operability must be mandated at the initial (RFP) stage itself. Once this is done, it becomes possible to share common databases, not only saving cost but facilitating data mining and analysis. It also makes for greater user convenience, since users may not – for example – have to re-enter all personal data for each service, etc.
- Encourage or create new business models, to incentivise better and newer services. For example, pertransaction fees to the vendor can encourage the vendor to keep facilities open on holidays and for longer–and more convenient (to the user)–hours, as also to provide more efficient and innovative services. Similarly, alternative business models can help to serve the poor by finding ways in which the customer/user does not pay for the service (think free-toair TV, or Google search).
- Move service provision to the “cloud”, enabling minimisation of cost, and easy access for users. As cloud computing technology evolves, its possibilities are multiplying. Moving more and more applications to the cloud will lead to increasing benefits. The mobile phone as an access device will surely become a part of this.
- Reform and re-engineer processes before computerisation. Merely technology-enabling existing processes is often of little help. It is far better to use the introduction of IT as a lever to examine and change procedures and systems, and to redesign them so as to do away all unnecessary steps. In many other spheres, IT has played a major role in dis-intermediation; in government services too, it can easily eliminate intermediate steps or intermediary persons. This will save cost, reduce time and possibly also cut corruption. The first step, preceding introduction of any ICT solution, must therefore be a “business process” re-engineering exercise.
- Promoting competition is a good way of getting the best solution at the lowest price. This means avoiding single-source or proprietary procurement, which often results from either over-specifying needs, or tailormade RFPs (geared to a particular vendor). It is also essential to be technology-neutral, not only to ensure competition, but also to take account of rapid progress and the fastchanging technological scenario.
- Recognising internal limitations is important. Given the limited technological capability in many government organisations, it is worthwhile – if not essential – to hire a competent outside consultant. Amongst the important roles of such a consultant is a requirements definition, to be done in partnership with the government agency, and the formulation of the RFP. Small things in the RFP can make a big difference in costs; a well-crafted RFP can help bring in more competition, lower costs and ensure the best service to the end-user. The consultant can also help in the re-engineering of processes. NISG has played this “consultant” role very successfully in some projects.
- Given the lead-time involved in most government procurement processes, and the changing (generally decreasing) price scenario in many items of electronic hardware, it is inevitable that there are cases where the price of equipment in the market is at the time of placing a purchase order lower than that quoted by the chosen (lowest) bidder. This gives rise to questions and can lead to a restarting of the whole tendering/ procurement process. With this reality, it will be better for most government procurement to shift to procuring the final desired service, rather than the hardware required for the service. This will also make the procurement truly technologyneutral, with the service provider free to use whatever technology/ equipment he prefers, as long as the end service specifications are met. In this, obviously, the service level agreements have to be worked out carefully, with clearly specified metrics for reliability/down-time, quality, response time, throughput, and other relevant parameters. This change to procuring services is also useful from another point of view: it blocks off the easy path – which too many organisations were prone to follow – of “utilising” their budget by buying a lot of hardware (which is easy to do) but neglecting procurement of the associated software and services (including connectivity, training, process redesign, etc).
While most of the above are generally known and even obvious, it is a fact that these simple factors are often ignored. The result is high cost, delays, and unsatisfactory services. Efficient and effective citizen services are essential and, today, technology enables us to provide these on a scale and with a reach that was unimaginable just a few years ago. However, in using technology, it is necessary to first study and reform/reengineer basic processes, rather than hurriedly buying equipment or merely computerising existing processes. Continuous interaction with and feedback from the end-users is also essential. It is only these that can help to develop systems that meet user needs and do so in a cost-effective, transparent and userfriendly manner.
As cloud computing technology evolves, its possibilities are multiplying. Moving more and more applications to the cloud will lead to increasing benefits. The mobile phone as an access device will surely become a part of this.
New developments in cloud computing, cheaper and portable equipment, broadband wireless access, touch-screen and text-to-speech (and vice-versa) systems, open up vast new possibilities and provide access to those who need it most. Using these developments and staying technologyneutral is the best bet in an uncertain, ever-evolving technology scenario. It is also an opportunity for the country to utilise its capabilities and infrastructure in ICT to leapfrog into the next generation of governance by providing citizen services of unmatched quality, great value and exceptional transparency at the lowest cost.