The future of e-governance in India depends on the availabilityof shared nationwide infrastructure. R. Chandrasekhar, JointSecretary, e-governance, Ministry of IT, sees the Nationale-governance Plan steering India’s IT needs to fulfillment.

CIO: Is a consolidated approach to e-governance the way togo?

R. Chandrasekhar: The focus of e-governance in a developingcountry like India is to enable a great number of its citizens. Itis also extremely useful in gauging how citizens perceive thegovernment. When you look at e-governance from a citizen’spoint-of-view, you sense a need for a common framework andapproach. It may not be a grand holistic blueprint for the entirecountry, but it should be a foundation on which governments anddepartments can provide citizen services.

What are some of the short-term goals of this blueprint?

There are both physical and conceptual aspects that variousplayers in the framework have in common and these require to betied in. For example, it is sub-optimal for every department to owna datacenter. It is also not feasible for them to create individualnetworks. Apart from being expensive, numerous networks could leadto myriad technical snags, which would lead to inefficient servicedelivery. It is advisable to have common infrastructure thatdepartments and states can draw from.

Second, we need to build capacity. It is evident that there is aserious shortage of capacity to implement e-governance projects.While it’s great to propose a confluence of business, technologyand financial know-how, it is also true that there is much to bedesired in the build-up. People with the required skills, forexample, need to be developed. We need to work towards building acommon pool of resources across the country.

Third, it is essential to separate the back-end of a projectfrom its front-end. A common back-end can be cared for separately,leaving the front-end in the hands of those at the state anddepartment level.

If e-governance is to be made all-pervasive in India, it’snecessary to start work on a national framework that would bringtogether common physical infrastructure, policies, and standards.This is what the National e-governance Plan (NeGP) is about.

Can you clarify what you mean by separating the back-end fromthe front-end?

One of the goals of the national plan is to deliver servicesthrough shared assisted-service centers. We plan to constructalmost 100,000 centers under a public-private partnership so thatstate governments don’t have to deal with the technology andinfrastructure hassles associated with the back-end. Evidently, wewill need to separate the two ends. There are gateways andmiddleware to enable this.

What is the status of the NeGP?

The framework has been in place for over a year. We are in theprocess of getting approval to put it in operation. It is alearning process. Conceiving a network, casting it in stone, onlyto discover its limitations is not the best approach. It’s betterto evolve a framework that is approved by a majority. Once we havegrasped all the imperatives, we can come up with a compositeplan.

This will mean a delay. Is it justifiable?

I don’t think it should be looked at as a delay. It is merely aprocess of evolution. The process of governance in India is verycomplex, but there is a broadening and a deeper penetration ofe-governance applications, which indicates the success of ourapproach. Individual projects are much more a part of thee-governance plan than they are IT achievements of the departmentof IT. It is not meaningful to look at the delivery timeline of theprogram as a whole.

Was benchmarking the projects harder when you drew up thenational plan?

We are a multilingual and multicultural society. India is atypical example of a multilayer federal structure that doesn’t havemany parallels in the world. More relevantly, we are a developingcountry whose computerization and back-end integration happenedmuch before the mass penetration phenomena of the Internet.

With the advent of the Internet, developed countries only had toworry about connecting their disparate computer systems to enabletheir citizens to access new services. In India, we didn’t haveextensive computerization or deep telecom penetration.

Our level of IT literacy requires assisted services at thispoint, and this means that we have to plan systems that aremultilingual. These are complexities that are typical to India. Theonly cue that we can take from developed countries is toconsolidate our back-end, making integration with variousfront-ends easier. This will enable more citizens to accessservices immaterial of where they are.

We have also consulted with national and international agenciesfor different aspects of the national e-governance plan, althoughthere is no one umbrella consultant. To a large extent, we have hadto stitch our own quilt.

While building the plan from ground up, which were the areas yousought to concentrate on?

The NeGP admittedly doesn’t cover the entire spectrum ofgovernance. It is rather a statement to create efficient systems inhigh priority areas. There have been strong voices concerned withfocusing on areas that affect large groups of people, likeagriculture, health, and education, which have been put on toppriority.

Is there a level of denial from government employees?

The plan represents a transition from a totally manual to ane-enabled outlook and change brings anxiety. Acceptance — bothinside and outside government — saw initial apprehensions. Therewas a belief that only young people could implement and use IT andemployees feared losing their jobs. This hasn’t come true. Today,the people who plan and implement these projects feel secure.Governments across the board accept that the plan is a priority.Assisted services are a huge success as a concept and if there hasbeen a failure, it has been in making these services available in areliable and consistent manner. We can achieve this only when wehave a strong and shared back-end, which the NeGP addresses.

So far, have people taken to the assisted centers?

Where the services are of a reasonable quality, the centers havenot needed selling. Experience has shown that despite a nominalfee, citizens prefer to use the services. But, to make centersall-pervasive we need to improve service-oriented architecture.

How will the NeGP finance itself to ensure continuity?

The cost of delivering any service under the NeGP is the sum ofthree parts: Back-end systems and processes, front-end and themiddle-ware including gateways, datacenters, networks, security,etc. On the other end, there are a range of prices that depend onthe kind of service. Some services have recovered their costs,which has enabled a swifter spread because they are not dependenton budgetary allocations. In some cases, however, the price may bedifferent from the cost. Pricing is a matter of governmentpolicy.

How much has been allocated in the past years?

Current spending on e-governance is in the tune of Rs 2,000(US$446 million) to 3,000 crore a year. NeGP budget and spend willnot be differ significantly from the past years. At best it mayrequire about Rs 20,000 crore over the next five years, which isnot very different from the current spending pattern. It also hasthe government’s willingness to allocate and spend money becausethe project has very high priority. The real issue before us isimplementation. And implementing means doing it all: Changingtechnologies, changing processes, building capacities, managingtransition, ensuring both the delivery of services and that peopleto use them.

Is there a formula for quicker implementation?

We are already seeing changes. There is no magic wand to enablethis transition overnight. We are progressing fast. In a country,as complex as India, when something becomes a movement, it developsvery fast. We are seeing the beginning of that movement. We havealready seen e-governance go from being supply-driven todemand-driven.

How then do you explain the success of only 15 percent ofprojects?

We see the harsh reality of that figure. The question before usis how to deal with it. First, we have to do away with both holdingsomeone responsible for failure and with it the fear of failure. Weare in an experimental stage — we are bound to see some failures.What a 15 percent success rate tells me is that the problems werefar more complicated than were anticipated. NeGP will deal withsome of these issues.

Fifty percent of the failures are typically small pilotprojects, which gives us room to make a call on dumping them orstarting afresh. Of the 35 percent that were partial successesthere is a litmus test. Has it given value for money? If it has,then irrespective of its part success, we should strive to scale itup. We have to keep in mind that successes involve a change inmindset.

This has been a teaching exercise. Some of the lessons we havetaken away include the need to invest in people who have skills.Second, failures should only occur at the lower levels. Therefore,our approach is to start small and scale up fast. NeGP is a giantproject, but this doesn’t mean that we should go the whole hog in asingle shot.

What happens to failed projects?

There are several cases of failed projects that other statescarved success from. There are many projects around common servicedelivery models that succeeded but even greater number of suchprojects that failed. Each of these failed projects has driven adifferent set of people to make them a success.

How transparent are e-governance projects?

As far as procedures are concerned, they are all laid out. It isa public process. Transparency is an area in which we have takenbest practices from across the world. In this respect allgovernments have the same kind of issues.

Simultaneously, one must recognize that in the knowledge domainthere are many services whose deliverables cannot be tacked down toour grid. Those that pose a difficulty include consultancy andadvisory services. Their processes are not conducive to evaluation.Therefore, we sometimes look at them through the lens that isapplied to a different space. In this paradigm, cost is not theonly variable to consider. One of our challenges is to deviceevaluation methods that are not only consistent to governmentprocedures but also cost effective — though not necessarily thecheapest solution.

Are there mechanisms to audit these projects?

This is one area we are looking at. Under the NeGP, there is aclause called ‘assessment and awareness’. Assessment forms part ofwhat we know as an audit, although it is not restricted to afinancial point-of-view.

What is the concept behind e-champions?

Part of the NeGP is to build capacities on a large-scale,including capable people — or champions. These include CIOs andCTOs, though they don’t have to be IAS officers. In fact, mostofficers will come from government domains. They will drive theoverall vision of a project, and not be bogged down with itsday-to-day functioning.

The program will train people already working on projects andthose who have shown an inclination for e-governance. They will bepositioned for specific projects and will have fixed tenures.However, a project will only be funded if a person agrees to beaccountable for it.

What’s your advice to younger government IT leaders who want todrive successful projects?

First, it’s important for them to define an e-governanceproject. They have to look at the outcome of project and evaluatehow it benefits citizens. If they cannot spot a social benefit,then it is merely an IT project.

Second, to be able to achieve results, they must keep in mindtwo mantras: They must work as a team and there is no shortcut tosuccess in e-governance projects.

What can we expect to see in 2006-07?

In 2006-07, we will see extremely exciting developments in thee-governance space. This is the period during which commoninfrastructure for service delivery across the nation will be putup, including the State Wide Area Networks (SWANs), datacenters anddelivery centers. Capacity building will happen simultaneously.Various departments involved in these projects will be ready todeliver services within the next two years.

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