'Corruption' slowing India's e-govt growth

Politicians' concerns of losing control and the lack of service targets have hindered e-government initiatives in India, say industry players.
Written by Swati Prasad, Contributor

INDIA--It will take only a thorough change in mindset and approach from the Indian government to ensure e-government initiatives will lead to good governance in India, according to industry players.

"Corruption is the biggest enemy of e-government," Tanmoy Chakrabarty, vice president of government industry solutions at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview.

"There are vested interests everywhere," Chakrabarty said. "Politicians fear that they will lose control with e-government, and this is coming in the way of successful implementation of e-government projects in India."

Nilaya Varma, associate director of performance improvement at PricewaterhouseCoopers, concurred.

"Both the central and state governments have followed a silo approach to e-government. Some implementation has taken place, but it has tended to be piecemeal and disjointed, thereby, having little impact."
-- Tanmoy Chakrabarty
Tata Consultancy Services

"E-government helps simplify processes and makes the government faceless. It's not possible to achieve that without a strong leadership. Vested interests are certainly delaying the process," Varma said in a phone interview.

TCS implemented MCA21, a Mission Mode Project (MMP) under the Indian government's National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), which comprises 27 MMPs and 10 components. Unveiled in May 2006, the NeGP seeks to make all government services accessible to the common man through common service delivery outlets. It aims to ensure efficiency, transparency and reliability of government services, at affordable costs.

The outlay for the NeGP, spanning 2006 to 2011, is expected to be US$5.47 billion (23,000 crores).

MCA21 resulted in a significant transformation for India's Ministry of Corporate Affairs, which primary functions include administrating the country's Companies Act and other associated regulations involving the corporate sector.

Implemented in 78 weeks, the MCA21 program helped move over 90 percent of its stakeholders to e-filing--way above its initial target of 25 percent. TCS is now implementing the e-passport program of the Indian government.

Not a technology problem
In the United Nations 2008 E-Government Readiness Index, India fell 26 notches to 113th position, compared to 87th in 2005.

Chakrabarty said: "Both the central and state governments have followed a silo approach to e-government. Some implementation has taken place, but it has tended to be piecemeal and disjointed, thereby, having little impact."

He urged the government to evaluate the long-term outcome of IT, instead of simply looking at its procurement needs. "The whole system needs to be overhauled," he said.

Yugal Sharma, country manager of India-SAARC at Polycom, said in an e-mail interview: "The biggest challenge before e-government is not technology, but change management."

According to Sharma, change management is important not only in terms of cultural change, but also in terms of adjusting to operational and process modifications that the new automated environment will introduce.

A global player in unified collaborative communications, Polycom is involved in the deployment of State Wide Area Networks (SWANs) across various Indian states. SWANs propose to extend connectivity to the block level, and once implemented, will link all government offices and agencies electronically. It promises to streamline information flow, speed up processes and reduce costs.

According to Varma, unlike other nations, India has not set targets to improve its e-governance readiness rank.

"We have done considerable work on e-government for countries like Bahrain," he said, noting that Bahrain and other countries in the Middle East have stated goals of improving their ranking on the U.N. E-Government Readiness Index and are working to achieve these targets.

"India, on the other hand, has set no such targets," Varma said.

In fact, India has been missing deadlines for its NeGP projects.

Chakrabarty said: "Out of the 27 projects under the NEGP, only one (the MCA21 program) has been completed. There is tremendous gap between conceptualization and implementation."

He noted that irony in how Indian IT companies are involved in helping other countries with their e-government initiatives, but have been unable to do much in their home nation.

"We have successfully implemented plenty of e-government programs across the world and have worked with numerous governments the world over. But in India, the government still doesn't want to lose control," he said.

According to Chakrabarty, the government's five-year timelines are too utopian. He noted that most e-government projects can be implemented far more quickly if the government enters the right kind of public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Varma added: "India also needs to measure the outcome of e-government [initiatives]. It is one thing to fix service levels and state that we are spending so much money on e-government, but quite another thing to measure outcomes."

He noted that India should set targets that go beyond service levels.

"For instance, India could set a target that the government will have 300 services online by 2010. After that, we should set up a proper mechanism to monitor the process," Varma added.

According to a Springboard Research, while IT spending in the public sector is growing across Asia, there is still a wide gulf between the more mature and emerging countries in the region.

Countries such as New Zealand and Australia, spend close to US$200 per capita on IT in the public sector, while countries such as India and Indonesia spend as little as US$ 1 per capita.

The study also determined that spending on hardware accounted for at 60 percent of the public sector's overall IT expenditure, followed by IT services at 23 percent, and software at 17percent.

Chakrabarty explained: "The government must not own the hardware. Technology changes so fast that governments would do best to outsource their hardware needs by entering into the right kind of PPPs."

However, Sharma still believes India's e-government future is bright.

"Governments are increasingly adopting technology and escalating their spend on IT, thereby, ensuring faster and robust flow of information, more efficient processes, and reliable and cost-effective services."

According to Sharma, the first phase of the SWANs project is nearly complete. "The implementation of SWANs will bring about a tectonic shift since every state will turn to a wide area network," he said.

Another Springboard study estimated that the Indian government's IT spending is forecast to grow at an average 19.6 percent from US$1.4 billion in 2005 to US$2.9 billion in 2009. This growth rate will outpace China, which public sector IT expenditure will grow 14.6 percent during the same period.

Sharma said: "Since India's per capita public sector IT spend is very low at US$1.29, there is tremendous potential for e-government to benefit citizens exponentially, and for [central and local] governments to maximize returns on their investments.

"In the past, the government's spends on e-government [initiatives] have been recovered in less than a year," he said.

Swati Prasad is a freelance IT writer based in India.

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