1. Why India needs an IT service

Why India needs an IT service

Lack of progress on e-governance will make it difficult to deliver on the promise of achhe din

Published: December 1, 2014 3:34 AM

The government should contemplate the establishment of an Indian information technology service. The raison d’etre is the prime minister’s vision of a digital India. The service should not be cadre-based a la the other all-India services, but similar to the short service commission of officers into the armed forces. Recruitment should be competitive and limited to recent graduates from technical institutes. The tenure of office should be limited to between, say, two to five years. Further, the PM should appoint a national technology advisor (like the national security advisor) to oversee and coordinate the progress of e-governance.

The government has long recognised the criticality of technology to improve the systems and processes of governance. Sam Pitroda was an early technology czar under Rajiv Gandhi, and Nandan Nilekani wore that hat during the UPA regime. Both made stellar contributions to e-governance. In addition, the UPA government had instituted a national e-governance plan in May 2006, and that umbrella housed 31 different technology missions. There is also the Department of Information Technology and Electronics, headed by a secretary to the government of India, the National Informatics Council, and the National institute for Smart Government (NISG), each of which has the mandate to modernise governance. Also, several departments have their own IT policies, infrastructure and applications. For instance, the Indian Railways is the world’s largest e-commerce retailer and the two revenue boards, the CBDT and CBEC, have sophisticated IT systems supported by their own technical cadre.

Still, the culture of governance has not changed. Systems are not transparent. The time lags in the flows of information are long; there are continual turf battles between government departments; and the approval process remains cumbersome and subject to discretion. The reasons are several but seen through the lens of IT, they relate to the multiplicity of IT infrastructures and applications; the inability of government technocrats to keep pace with technological change and human resource systems that do not have the flexibility to attract relevant talent. If nothing else, this lack of progress on the modernisation of governance will make it difficult to deliver on the promise of “achhe din”.

The prime minister has pronounced in various capitals his government’s intent to improve “the ease of doing business” in India. His words have had some impact. The multinationals that had shelved plans related to India are dusting them off. The finance minister has also announced his intent to bring in a slew of “second-generation reforms”. The land acquisition bill will be simplified; labour laws will be reviewed; the GST will be implemented; the insurance amendment bill will be passed and natural resources will be allocated on a transparent and fair basis. He has also assured investors of contract and fiscal stability. These statements have had a markedly positive impact on business sentiment.

They have not, however, altered ground realities. Or so point out individual businessmen. They say that the red carpet has been rolled out but the red tape has not been touched. That PMO bureaucrats are more focused on streamlining the rules related to “attracting business” than on those impacting the “operation of business”.

These may be unfair complaints. For, this government has been in office only a short period of time and inherited a huge backlog of uncleared projects. The official Project Monitoring Group (PMG) has itself reported that there are 371 projects involving investments of R18,47,266 crore that remain stuck because of regulatory, legal and land issues. Whether fair or not, though, these complaints do emphasise the need to expeditiously integrate IT into the interstices of government and modernise the culture of governance.

There are, of course, hardware limitations. India is ranked 100 out of 189 countries in terms of digital infrastructure. Eight hundred million people have mobile subscriptions but only 60 million have access to broadband. I recently read that the average spectrum holdings in India are but 10% of what overseas operators hold and that investment in fibre optics, towers and network security will have to be quadrupled if broadband is become nationally accessible. The evidence suggests, however, that these infrastructural constraints have not held back the public’s adoption of technology. The rate of growth of mobile banking (m-pesa), for instance, is an indicator of this trend. Rama Bijapurkar, in her fascinating book, A Never-Before World, has written that while “the bottom 40% of consumer India … may not qualify as owning gadgets that can access the internet directly, but they are digitally connected and e-enabled nevertheless”. The point is that in typical “jugadu” style, the public is finding ways to make the most of technology. The public will not be unresponsive to e-governance.

Lack of hardware is a constraint and needs to be addressed. But over and above that, there is the issue of talent and silo-ism. Government recruitment processes are too rigid and hierarchical to attract talent. Matters get bogged down over rank and relative pay, and “babudom” is a dampener. Everyone looks at issues through their own narrow departmental prism.

My suggestion that the government establish an IT service staffed by graduates who have not yet embarked on their career is aimed at overcoming the obstacle of talent. I assume that young people will be motivated to join government out of a sense of public service and the opportunity to gain valuable experience. Also, they will know that it will strengthen their CVs. The government would benefit from access to affordable talent and the dynamism and innovation of creative youth. Further, it would not need to upset the bureaucratic apple-cart and could implement this proposal quickly. The suggestion that the PM appoint a national technology advisor is influenced by my view that that the mission of e-governance must be given top priority, and specifically that there needs to be a technology czar who has the power to oversee the convergence of technology infrastructure, application and policy across all levels of government.

By Vikram S Mehta
The author is executive chairman, Brookings India, and senior fellow, Brookings Institution

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