by February 10, 2005 0 comments

There are e-governance systems and then there are e-governance systems. What does it take to build successful e-governance systems? We have identified twelve areas that are important in making your e-governance project successful. Which one of these is more important? Depending on the scope of the project, you many be able to give more importance to some over the other, but we think that all of these are equally important. 

1. Local language support
Governance in this country is carried out at the grassroots level in the local languages and not in English. English continues to be used and understood only by a minority in the chain of governance. This is not the place to debate whether this is desirable or not. Suffice to say that for e-governance initiatives to be successful, systems have to work in the language of governance. 

Adding complexity to the situation is the fact that most states are multilingual. Let us take the example of the state of Kerala. The language most commonly spoken is Malayalam; near its southern borders with Tamil Nadu, the lingua franca changes to Tamil; along the northern borders with Karnataka, the language is Kannada, a Kannada that has a vocabulory at variance from the Kannada in the rest of Karnataka. That is three languages. Now add English and Hindi. 

Defining good governance

Before we set out to define strategies for e-governance, we need to define governance itself. Better still, the popular expectation for good governance. So, let us start by defining good governance.
India has a rich tradition of documented governance practices. Kautilya’s (Chanakya) Arthasastra, written in the fourth century BC, is one of the earliest works that defines governance. Kautilya was more concerned with the realpolitik of ruling and many of his ideas are no doubt obsolete now.
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) defines good governance as comprising eight characteristics. Good governance is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law.
IT cannot deliver these directly, but can enable these to be delivered better and faster, and more effectively.

Depending on the location, e-governance systems would have to use a changing mix of languages, and should have facilities for translation or transliteration across them, for them to be successfully adopted.

2. Easy access for users 
Creating a system that has limited access defeats the very purpose of creating that system in the first place. Given that computing and access infrastructure is still limited in deployment in this country, designers of e-governance systems should take extra care to ensure that ease of access to the system is enhanced.

This could range all the way from establishing public access kiosks where they are needed the most, to using standard access technologies, such as a browser, instead of locking the system to specially created interfaces.

Similarly, locations such as village libraries and Panchayat offices need to be evaluated for locating systems requiring public access.

3. A rich and evolving knowledge base

Most government business is governed by fairly well established procedures. The problem comes in the interpretation and practice of the same. What adds to the complexity is the non-availability of previous interpretations and resolutions to the officer or citizen searching for the same. 

So, a good e-governance system should have rules and procedures (what an enterprise system would identify as business rules) and an easily searchable knowledgebase of resolutions and practices as they happen (in enterprise parlance, this would be called “best practices”).

4. Extensibility and scalability
E-governance systems are often piloted and built without fully understanding how much they would need to be extended. This lack of understanding is because of the time-scales involved. As time goes by, a good system would need to be extended in ways and into areas that the original project owners could not even have imagined.

Therefore, it helps if the system were to be originally architected with scope for extensibility and scalability.

5. Reuse of existing public infrastructure
Wherever possible, e-governance systems should use existing public infrastructure instead of attempting to create new and proprietary ones. For example, instead of creating fresh networks, e-governance systems should use the Internet. Instead of creating fresh payment mechanisms, it should leverage existing payment collection mechanisms available with banks (or with treasury departments).

Case Study: Time
Rajeev Chawla: IAS, Secretary e-Governance and Special Secretary (Bhoomi) Revenue Department,
Government of Karnataka

"E-governance takes time to implement.
The Bhoomi project took eight years of hard work to operationalize. Even the basic data entry takes time. But you can use systems and devise methodologies that can cut into the drudgery. For example, 250 Simputers were given to village accountants in Davangare for updating crop data. Today they do not want to go back to the drudgery of the older paper based systems."

This will not only help to keep the costs of the systems down, but will also help to make them more accessible, acceptable and useable by the intended audiences.

On a similar vein, every state, instead of trying to create fresh software for every need should reuse proven applications. This will not only keep costs down, but will also make project deployment a lot faster and shorten the learning curve.

6. Standard interchange formats
E-government systems like enterprise systems in the past (and some even today) are often built as isolated silos of information. Information fed into one can often not be exported to another, nor can it import data from others. So, if the government of J&K issues smartcard based driving licenses, and if the RTO at Delhi or Kanyakumari wants to verify the same, or retrieve information from it, that would not be possible without the systems at both ends being the same, or at least being able to understand the data structures used.

As more and more government processes get e-enabled, there is an urgent need to drive the standardization required to ensure that these systems can exchange

7. Technology upgrades
Technology platforms and solutions are constantly evolving, often at a pace that traditional government processes and budgets are not used to. Suffice to say that for the long-term success of e-governance initiatives, provision must be made to provide for technology updates and renewal.

8. Self sustenance?
Ideally, any project should be able to fund itself in the long run. But many e-governance projects may not be able to generate enough revenues to sustain and update themselves.

Case Study: Speed
Vivek Kulkarni: Chairman and CEO, B2K Corporation
and former Secretary, IT, Government of Karnataka 

"IT can make processes faster. 
Take the case of teachers’ salary disbursement in Karnataka. Previously, teachers had to fill in a complex salary bill and come to the taluk headquarters. The money had to be withdrawn and physically disbursed. All this took up at least a week of the teachers’ time every month. A computerized system was created in 1985 that helped make the payments directly into the bank accounts of the teachers. In 1996 the project stabilized and in 2000 it was Web enabled.
Today, teachers do not have to make the monthly trek to collect salaries. They can spend that time doing what they are supposed to be doing-teaching."

Over time newer ways of costing and revenue realization have to be evolved for e-governance systems. And in doing so, we need to keep in mind that it is an alternative enabling of the process of governance -replacing paper with electronic mechanisms. 

Expecting all IT enabled governance projects to pay for themselves would be akin to expecting the paper systems also to pay for themselves. If the paper-based systems were not paying for themselves in the first place, it would be futile to expect their IT replacements to do so.

9. Documentation
Detailed user, administrator and developer documentation (including process documentation) is a must for any IT implementation. The need for explicit and elaborate documentation only gets more acute in the case of governance systems that are to evolve and serve out over many, many years. Any e-governance system will undergo substantial modification over time and it would be futile to expect this to be possible without good documentation. 
Good documentation is not a one-time process, but a continuing one. 

10. Continued training
E-governance and IT implementations are fairly new with Indian governments. So, there is an urgent need to train more and more government officers and even the user public in using technology products and e-governance systems. Till such time as IT becomes commonplace, provision needs to be made in government budgets for continued user and administrator training. And traditional training courses should also include modules on IT and e-governance systems.

11. Endurance 
Government systems, what ever is the media of delivery, are to be built to endure. Information stored in those systems has to be available for generations, if not for centuries. For example, take the case of land records. Land ownership and mutation records are already available for more than a century in most states and will have to be recorded for possibly many more. 

"A good system is the result of initiatives taken by different officers. Each one adds a little more value to the system. This maxim is true of e-governance initiatives as well. Vivek Kulkarni"

This flies at the face of the evolution of technology, where technolgy systems undergo a complete change in methods, tools and infrastructure requirements at very short intervals. Government systems need to endure through technolgy changes. Special care needs to be taken during technology upgrades to ensure that the existing data is preserved and is accessible by the newer systems.

12. Flexibility
The endurance required of e-governance implementations also means that they have to be flexible. The rules and requirements of governance are not written in stone and evolve with time. As society evolves, new demands would be placed on existing systems of governance. E-governance systems require more flexibility and should be more accommodating of change than traditional enterprise systems.

Krishna Kumar

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