From the Editor

No one will quibble with the idea that the aim should be to build a more inclusive information society, by reaping the benefits offered by new technology while avoiding the pitfalls of social exclusion. Neither will anyone dispute the fact that the social and economic benefits of digital technology can be profoundly empowering. India’s competitive edge in the global market is drawn from its knowledge economy.

01 October, 2010 Governance, Editor’s Desk
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The Idea of a Digital Nation

Sameer Kochhar

No one will quibble with the idea that the aim should be to build a more inclusive information society, by reaping the benefits offered by new technology while avoiding the pitfalls of social exclusion. Neither will anyone dispute the fact that the social and economic benefits of digital technology can be profoundly empowering. India’s competitive edge in the global market is drawn from its knowledge economy.

Increasingly, technology supports every aspect of our lives – at home, at work, in the community, in how we communicate and in the services we use. There is growing evidence that digital technology can greatly enhance both quality of service and quality of life – particularly for the most disadvantaged citizens and communities. Digital inclusion is fundamental if we are to maximise our potential for economic growth, prosperity and social cohesion.

No one then, should object to the need to adopting a holistic approach to digital inclusion.

At the heart of digital inclusion, however, lies the fundamental issue of IT accessibility. The concept is quite straight-forward: people cannot be included in something they cannot access. IT accessibility, a statement of IT capability or enablement, most commonly enables digital inclusion by addressing ability or age-related barriers that prevent a person from accessing or interacting with information or services that are delivered electronically. In addition, IT accessibility supports digital inclusion by helping remove barriers to using or benefiting from online information and services based on a person’s technical proficiency, native language, or literacy level.

Incorporating accessible technology in governmental initiatives to develop digital communities helps agencies to improve productivity in municipal services and deliver better social and community outcomes. However, the benefits have not been uniform. The reasons for this are many and lie in the complexity of the rules and procedures that have made their place in the government hierarchy. Difficulties in determining effective and appropriate governance uses for information and communication technologies (ICTs) have limited the spread of e-governance.

Also, one needs to recognise that it is either all or none. The true benefits come only if everything is digitalised or online, or what have you. The government is duty bound to provide services to all citizens. It cannot switch to a system which excludes half the population on account of literacy, accessibility, etc. Then, it has to continue with the old paper-pushing systems. Two systems are confounding, time wasting and eventually more costly.

But over time, it has the potential to provide new ways to resolve problematic governance issues while retaining essential elements. A case in point is the Karnataka government’s ‘Bhoomi’ project, which led to the computerisation of the centuries-old system of handwritten rural land records. The project has been able to reduce corruption and plug systemic leakages in a significant manner.

Consider the e-Gram initiative in Gujarat. Initiated by the state government, the project was executed by a private company based on standard commercial software, with the result that all the 13,693 village panchayats in the state are now linked to each other. This computerisation at the village level itself has enabled instant processing of birth and death registration, and issuance of certificates such as agriculture, caste, income and electricity. The computerisation also includes tax collection and issuance of certain forms.

Clearly, technology isn’t the problem-it’s the use of technology that can empower or control, unite or divide. We need to recover the ideas of social justice and fairness that have been lost in the rush to make things faster and cheaper. Technology becomes relevant only when it is made affordable and available at the grassroots level for citizens to benefit from governance or government applications. The digital divide is a challenge of both access and the ability to effectively use information and communications technologies (ICTs).  ICT consists of connectivity, computer hardware and software, content, services and education. Inclusion can no longer just be seen as having a device and a connection. There are significant and untapped opportunities to use technology better on behalf of citizens and communities. These include improved service planning, design and delivery, particularly to address the needs of disadvantaged groups and individuals.

With everyone part of the information society, we can revolutionise the way we educate our citizens, deliver healthcare, and engage in productive work. The result will be increased efficiency and productivity that will lead to long-term savings of billions of rupees and an enhanced quality of life as technology expands choice and opportunity. We can begin to bring this about by expanding access to computers and making it easier to acquire digital literacy skills.

The UN Millennium Report stresses the importance of ICTs and digital inclusion to developing countries. It recognises the need for timely and relevant information as a fundamental element of human development, calling for universal access to information and communication services as agents of development – contributing to the achievement of all of the MDGs. While ICTs support development goals relating to poverty, health, education, economic empowerment, and environmental protection, if applied inappropriately, ICTs can also further marginalise the poor and unconnected. For the development potential of ICTs to be fully realised, all stakeholders – including governments, citizens, business, non- governmental and international organisations and individuals – need to work in partnership and with tangible commitment from business.

Healthcare, education and economic development are key areas of focus in the Millennium Development Goals (agreed in 2000, to be achieved by 2015), therefore digital inclusion could have an important role to play in reaching the MDGs and supporting international development.

A World Bank report, ‘Information and Communication for Development 2009: Extending Reach and Increasing Impact’ finds that a 10 per cent increase in high speed Internet connections increases economic growth by 1.3 per cent. New ICTs in particular are changing the way companies do business, transforming public service delivery and democratising innnovations. In addition, the report highlights that connectivity – whether the Internet or mobile phones – is increasingly bringing market information, financial and health services to remote areas, and is helping to change people’s lives in unprecedented ways.

Broadband is the enabling infrastructure of the knowledge economy and therefore a target of public policy in support of the diffusion of the information society in under-served areas. The broadband penetration is just 0.74 per cent when compared with teledensity of 52 per cent. One of the key factors limiting the growth of broadband in India has been the constraint on last mile access.  We need to study international best practices and policies to determine the right strategy. There is little time for experimentation and ad-hoc policies if we are to achieve our goals. A case in point here is Finland, which has made internet access a basic human right like food, shelter or clean water.

Standards are a strategic tool for industry and for the public sector as well as a key enabler for new market opportunities. Although the production and implementation of standards are voluntary, they are an important tool to support the implementation of policy actions. This would include policies and standards for information systems, data management, security and audits and enforcement of SLAs with the vendors offering services. There is also need to focus more on the security aspects of services which are being made available.

Interoperability is essential to improve collaboration between different public authorities/ ministries and to provide the citizen with a ‘one-government view’. There exists scope for an e-ordinance or legislation to mandate the digital delivery of government services to the citizen. There is need to explore the potential of creating a shared platform in the states using technologies like cloud services, software as services, infrastructure as a service, etc. Cloud services means  many things to many people. But in the government context, it essentially means that various resources can be shared. The availability of government clouds in terms of data storage, conformance and other artefacts can be used in the service provisions with the potential to speed up the delivery of services.

Any digital inclusion strategy, whether it relates to e-Government or e-Governance must mandate that the department/office concerned should undergo Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) instead of mere automation of existing manual process. BPR necessitates analysing and redesigning the workflow within an organization/department in order to achieve objectives of improved measures of performance, such as cost, quality, service and speed. Here, while the UID may improve the situation with regard to identity issues and targeting of social sector schemes, it certainly will not improve the delivery of health services or banking services unless the latter themselves get into shape.

The problem with focusing too much on providing the infrastructure to enhance access is that the public may have internet access but will not find anything useful or relevant on the net anyway. Since governments are the biggest repository of information that is important to citizens, and since information is a public good, governments’ role as a content provider is also critical.

We need to identify and focus attention on policy issues that come hand-in-hand with technology use and promoting policy-making that fosters the use of technology. Equally important is bringing people in communities into technology policy discussions. By promoting a dialogue in the communities with all stakeholders, regardless of gender, race or age, to foster understanding of the socioeconomic issues, access issues, ethical problems, standards and assessment, special needs and political implications of the widespread integration of technology in society.

As we go about drafting and finalising the 12th Plan, the idea of a digital nation should permeate its every para and every line. For only then, will we have synergy and synchronicity. Implementing a digital nation vision will greatly increase the quality of life, boost productivity and save millions of rupees. Renewed attention to building a digital nation requires ambitious and defensible benchmarks, targets and time lines to hold public officials accountable for their actions and to motivate coordinated activities across a range of institutions and organisations. It is for this reason that suitable legislation should be drafted at the earliest.

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