New era in digital governance: Synergy between government and private data is needed

November 22, 2018 3:06 AM

Consider the life of an elderly widow in rural India or a migrant construction worker living in an urban area.

digital era, automation, AI, IoT, digital skillsA relevant example is the futuristic Horizon Scanning Programme (HSC) team in the UK.

By Anurag Dua

Consider the life of an elderly widow in rural India or a migrant construction worker living in an urban area. Living on the margins of society, both invariably depend on the government’s social welfare schemes for survival. Juxtaposed against these is the burgeoning middle class that also has an interface with the government in the form of entitlements, including demand for scholarships, loans, identity proof and financial security. Despite this divergence in their demographic, socio-economic and geographic profiles, every citizen has a unique interface with the government. This makes good governance both necessary and desirable.

Good governance has been the hallmark of the present government’s development agenda. With rapidly advancing technology, concepts of smart and connected governance have crept into the daily lexicon. However, in an era of catch-phrases and jargons, the underlying meaning and intent of words often get diffused. While de-mystifying each of these would serve little purpose, they do represent a range of good governance enablers that are leveraged by governments globally.

The effort of governments in India so far has been to a great extent a departmental approach to transform the public service delivery model to ensure dignity, ease, transparency and effective grievance redressal. The next generation of reforms ought to build on existing data, knowledge and experience, and start looking at more connected, personalised and proactive forms of governance.

It is clear that data forms the bedrock of the superstructure that needs to be created in the country’s existing setup. This would fuel a new form of governance, leveraging new-age concepts of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, etc. If the inevitability and necessity of leveraging emerging technology in governance is beyond doubt, the pace of its growth warrants urgent action.

Both the Central and state governments are already using such emerging concepts or are experimenting with such ideas in some form or another. Use cases of advanced analytics, AI, machine learning, Block chain, etc., are finding relevance across the length and breadth of the government ecosystem in the fields of taxation, education, healthcare and agriculture.

In view of India’s diversity, an evidence-based policy design is a potent tool to deliver on the promise of inclusive growth and development in the country. Initiatives such as NITI Aayog’s Aspirational Districts highlight the impetus given to these areas. Another example is the Chattisgarh government’s Jan Samvad initiative, which has initiated a direct dialogue with the beneficiaries. As a monitoring framework, it allows the state government to evaluate the performance of schemes through use of data.

Take a case where, based on an analysis of the responses collected from beneficiaries, specific implementation-related challenges are identified and the government develops desired solutions. Implemented across multiple schemes and levels of governance, this provides a comprehensive view to the government and creates a dynamic environment that provides insights and enables flexibility in formulation and implementation of policies.

However, there are challenges. One, the legacy databases maintained in silos by ministries, departments, state governments and district administrations pose a challenge relating to technical and functional interoperability. Within the existing databases, the next question that arises is about the quality of data.

Therefore, when a state government uses data analytics to identify disease trends and fund management under its health insurance scheme, the veracity and accuracy of data entered by the functionaries becomes very important. Similar challenges for health data exist at the central level. This requires training of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA )and Auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) workers. Along with the quality of data, its privacy and security also needs to be safeguarded. The Personal Data Protection Bill, Metadata and Data Standards, etc., are welcome initiatives in this area.

Efforts are under way to put in place infrastructure, policies and processes that can help to catapult India into the next era of digital-driven governance-related reforms. The Unified Payments Interface, DBT systems, Open Government Data Platform, investments in Cyber Physical Systems, setting up of the Centre of Excellence for Data Analytics (CEDA) are some such initiatives.

Going forward, a citizen-centric approach should be adopted for effective delivery of public services, which ideally cut across departmental boundaries. For example, a single window system can be envisaged for a farmer as a system that is contextually relevant and proactive, which connects the ecosystem and enables transactions, while using emerging technological concepts at the back end. Moreover, it is transparent to users.

While digitisation and data may be the thrust of this new reality, the role played by formulation and regulation of policies cannot be over-emphasised. Whether it is an AI policy, guidelines for drone permits or the rechristening of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to the Digital Communications Regulatory Authority of India, they all represent the efforts being made by the government to create a robust digital governance ecosystem.

A relevant example is the futuristic Horizon Scanning Programme (HSC) team in the UK. Tasked with inter- and intra-government coordination, the HSC seeks to identify future challenges and ensure that the policies formulated are resilient to the uncertainties of the future. In India, such a structured approach, which focuses on technology, may help in resolution of challenges posed by the multiplicity of agencies and jurisdictions in the country and its federal structure, and may enable a deliberative platform on which the government and the industry can plan for the future.

While the advent of data analytics in governance is inexorable, so is the need for synergy between government and private data to create a single robust ecosystem that is connected, interoperable and secure. Today, while the government may have germane citizen-related data in the form of details pertaining to their eligibility, Aadhaar and other proof of identity, giants such as a Facebook, Twitter and Amazon house data about people’s preferences as well as their social and financial behaviour.

Today, many social media platforms are used as tools of governance, and the future may see even greater convergence. So it is clear that in this new era of digital governance, collaboration and mutual compatibility ensure acceptability and adaptability.

The writer is Partner – Government and Public Sector, PwC India. Views expressed are personal

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