The computer’s sheer speed and convenience often fool us into thinking it to be an autonomous force and a panacea

E-governance is the most prestigious of government’s efforts to make it more citizen-friendly through modernising its processes. Its ‘successes’ have been much publicised. Has it really made a difference to citizens’ overall perception of governance quality?

A computer facilitates and considerably speeds up the storage, retrieval and the processing of data. It will, therefore, be effective if governance suffers because one or more of these operations is presently slow, tedious and/or, voluminous by eliminating employees’ drudgery and minimising citizens’ transaction and travel time. If the computerised information is publicly accessible, it will also improve transparency. A computer is simply an extension of the human arm. Its sheer speed and convenience often fool us into thinking it to be an autonomous force and a panacea.

Initially, access to e-governance services is bound to be limited to the urban and semi-urban areas and the relatively more educated and affluent. This, however, cannot be held against the idea itself as it takes time for any technology-based practice to get diffused.

The following examples would show some of the inadequacies noticed in e-governance: E-governance has not made any dent on the pervasive evil of corruption. Computerised Sub-Registrars’ and RTOs’ offices are still teeming with touts.

Theoretically, instead of spending Rs. 500 and two days in visiting the district headquarters to meet the Collector and present a petition for widow pension, a widow in a village could now go to the nearest computer kiosk and send an e-petition to the Collector. But widows who have met the Collector and personally handed over a petition are waiting for ages to get their pension!

According to a former Vice-Chancellor, even universities and IITs which use computers for teaching computer courses rarely use them for upgrading their internal academic and administrative processes.

Some other defects in e-governance in the public sector are:

*software already in use in some similar sectors is again developed independently.

*Many existing outdated and cumbersome procedures are being computerised. If an application is unnecessarily required to be made in quintuplicate, the solution is not to make the copies fast electronically but to change the rule.

*Computerisation has three components: the front office where interaction with the citizen takes place, the back office where his request is processed and decisions taken; and the infrastructure (hardware and software) which connects the two. The infrastructure is designed by the back office often without taking into account the requirements of the citizen and considering only the convenience of the systems designer and the back office staff.

E-governance has produced visible benefits to citizens mainly in transactions like booking of railway tickets, payment of government dues or filing of returns which are spot transactions involving no discretionary decision-making. Corruption is a major, pervasive evil in public governance. E-governance can impact this evil only if it builds in transparency at all stages of processing and empowers citizens to move higher officers to intervene. Even after e-governance, frequent face-to-face interaction between citizens and senior officers is essential. Otherwise, there is the danger of e-governance at the cutting edge distancing senior officers from citizens.

Quality of governance has many aspects to be managed — people, systems, procedures, resources, responsiveness, transparency, accountability and, above all, work culture. (Many officers do not operate the computer themselves and even personal e-mail messages addressed to them have to be printed out by a clerk and placed in a conventional file pad to be seen by them like any other file. When a Chief Minister wanted to use computerisation to eliminate citizens’ direct contact with the government staff, the latter threatened to go on strike claiming that meeting citizens was their fundamental right!) . Unless these are managed simultaneously, e-governance will produce mere sizzle without the steak.

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