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July 12, 1999


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Govt will break its own rules: N Vittal predicts information technology will force officers to reengineer processes. First impressions can be misleading. If I utter the word "government" most of you will think of huge size, inefficiency, waste of money, bureaucratic red tape, delay and consequent corruption, heartlessness and impersonal approach and essentially an inhuman large leviathan. At the same time, it is a necessary evil. Government may be bad. Lack of government will be anarchy.

Email this story to a friend. If I utter the words "information technology" you will immediately think of speed, smartness and ever exploding breakthroughs. IT is a meta-resource. There is no area of economy, be it manufacturing goods or services where you cannot apply IT and achieve success. It is the technology of the future. The steam engine and the railroad dominated the 19th century. The automobile and highways dominated the 20th century. IT and information highways are going to shape the 21st century.

It therefore looks like a paradox that IT can be used in government. You may think the task is hopeless like starting a farm for breeding vegetarian tigers.

A moment's reflection will show, however, that government and IT are not adversaries or antipodal but made for each other. After all government is a vast organisation involving a large number of people. All that government does is handling, collecting, processing, analysing and acting on the basis of the information.

Government, in other words, is a large information-processing machine. If IT is the technology for processing information it is obvious that it can be used in government extensively and who knows, even change the work culture there.

The processing of information by the government depends upon the technology available with the government. For many years, even centuries, the only resource available to the government for processing information was paper. Just as the army marches on its stomach, government marches on paper.

The people who are concerned with IT talk about a paperless office but as we know it government becomes paperless only under two conditions. The first is when the budget for buying stationery runs out. The second is when the file or the paper is misplaced.

The manner in which paper is handled in government also decides the work culture of the government. Government has to be fair and objective. This means that it must not only be fair but also appear to be fair.

Hence the tremendous importance to have rules and regulations and adherence to procedures. Now these very rules and regulations lead to delays. Delay due to red tape is a breeding ground for corruption.

The handling of information can be transparent or opaque. Many governments have been obsessed with secrecy and the venerable Official Secrets Act. Only recently have we been talking about a Freedom of Information Act.

In short, the manner in which the government functions leads to the common features noticed about the government functioning namely delays, procedures, excessive veneration of files and negative results like corruption and lack of transparency.

It is here that IT, the synthesis of computers and communication, offers a new opportunity to rethink government functioning and in fact change substantially government culture.

Delay, for instance, has been one of the well-known characteristics of government. But delay occurs because of the time taken in processing of papers which in turn call for adherence to rules, access to precedents and so on.

The very advantage of IT, especially computers, is that access to processing of information is faster. To that extent, application of computer systems should help in speeding up the process.

We have seen this happen in the computerised passenger railway reservation system in Indian Railways. Today the reservation related workload has doubled but railways have been able to manage the work with the same staff.

So, we have proof of the importance of computerisation and its impact on productivity. Citizens stand to gain tremendously by the benefits of computerisation.

On the other hand, lack of computerisation can be a source for corruption. The famous Harshad Mehta scam took place in 1992 because the Public Debt Office of the Reserve Bank of India was not computerised. The manual system provided a 15-day float, which was exploited by the unscrupulous elements.

About 65,000 branches of the various banks are in operation today in India and hardly 5, 000 of them have been computerised.

As the chief vigilance commissioner of India, I was exploring the possibility for reducing the scope of corruption in the banks.

One possible area of corruption is in the reconciliation of accounts and also the lack of communication among different banks about defaulting parties.

We are examining the proposal whether we can make it mandatory that all bank branches should be computerised say by 1.1.2000.

This could be given as a direction by the CVC as a statutory authority so that the resistance to computerisation by the bank unions can be overcome and we can take a step towards rethinking our financial sector.

The control over corruption is very necessary as the experience of the Southeast Asian nations that are experiencing a currency crisis shows that a major reason for the crisis could be traced to corrupt practices like crony capitalism in the financial sector.

One can no longer think of corruption only as a police activity, completely separated from economic activity. In the modern context, if we want healthy economic development, we must have a corruption-free governmental and public system.

For this IT is vital.

When we think of systems and procedures using computers, the challenge before us is whether we are going to use computers to do the same things which were done manually, which will amount to paving the cow paths or whether we are going to take advantage of the new dimensions, opportunities and horizons that IT offers.

We have already seen the advantage of computers in the area of speedy processing and random access. But much more can be possible with the capacity of the computers to process much more data in a short time.

We should therefore rethink the processes or to use the cliché, go for business process reengineering of governmental systems when we introduce computers in governmental systems.

But this will call for a strategy firstly to win over the people within the governmental systems who are accustomed to the paper culture, to the computer culture.

We need champions. I chaired in 1997 a group on IT in government. One point that came up was that while the National Informatics Centre has done a commendable job in trying to provide services what is lacking is the clarity on the part of the consuming departments to communicate to NIC their real needs.

The first step in rethinking government systems through application of IT is to make government organisations sensitive to the potential of IT.

They should realise what their problems are and see how IT can be of use not only in doing whatever is being done today in a faster mode and transparent manner but also overcome their problems.

The resistance to computerisation can be traced to techno phobia, the lack of confidence on the part of the seniors that they are not familiar with IT and above all, the corrupt elements who may find that their scope for exploiting the situation may be reduced. I have already referred to the possibility of how computerisation in the banking sector can help in bringing down corruption.

In fact one of the standard methods to avoid detection of corruption cases is to destroy or remove telltale papers. Here again, IT can help. Scanning of key documents is one method to ensure that vital documents are not maimed, destroyed or tampered with.

Fortunately, today the government is becoming increasingly sensitive about he potential of IT. The National Task Force on IT has already given its recommendations that will let us bring down substantially the cost of the hardware.

We can improve the hardware presence, especially computers, establish a network, and build the National Information Infrastructure to include information kiosks and community Internet centre.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is showing a way out, particularly for the state governments and the central government in general, on how IT can be introduced to monitor the performance of the electricity boards or the conditions of roads.

When it comes to interface with the public, concepts like information kiosks and counters in Hyderabad, where payments to government like taxes are made easier and hassle free and simultaneously facilities like the procuring of birth certificate, SC/ST certificate becomes easier.

The whole idea of networking the whole state and having information kiosks is a very healthy concept. The Tamil Nadu government is also fast catching up and has signed a memorandum with WorldTel to bring in community Internet centres.

Ultimately we can use IT for bringing in a new style of government. For instance, in Gujarat, at least, there is some talk about putting a computer and a telephone with ISDN connectivity in primary health centres so that doctors in district civil hospitals can treat patient in the primary health centres. Telemedicine is a possibility.

There are cynics who say that we have a two-thirds democracy. Government of the people and by the people but not for the people. Above all, there is an increasing realisation that if we have to think of democracy in our country as government of the people, by the people and for the people, we have to have greater transparency.

The government is already working on a Freedom of Information Act. The Andhra Pradesh government has already taken the lead in putting their rules and regulations in a machine-readable form in the computers.

Once the networking is done and the information kiosks are put in place, it will be possible for the citizens to access government orders and other relevant information from the Web sites.

More important than this would be the service to the citizen in terms of standard facilities like ration cards or identity cards for elections but also individual cases.

In short, IT can play an important role in bringing the government and people closer and make government services more effective.

That is the significance of rethinking government for effective governance by using IT.

Applying IT across the entire spectrum of government functions will call for a massive investment in computer hardware and other IT systems.

Government is perennially short of funds. I would therefore suggest that government must not buy computers. It must go for leasing as a matter of rule. The government already on ITTF's recommendations provided for 60 per cent depreciation in the first year itself for any investment in IT.

This must make leasing an attractive option. Further, government has accepted the concept that at least 2-3 per cent of every department's budget must be used for introducing IT. In short, today no finance department or expert can use the perennial argument of lack of funds to block the introduction of IT.

Another incidental advantage of IT is that government can always have the latest IT systems. No more problems of deciding on file to scrap old stock, inviting tenders and then disposing the obsolete stock.

N Vittal is the chief vigilance commissioner of India. Prior to this he was the chairman of the Public Enterprises Selection Board. But he is best known as the biggest evangelist for deployment of information technology in government. In an earlier tenure as the secretary of the Telecom Commission he won his credentials by introducing many revolutionary policies.

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