Sanjiv Mital, CEO, National Institute of Smart Government (NISG), talks to Deepa Mani, Assistant Professor of Information Systems at the Indian School of Business (ISB) about the critical success factors and challenges for e-governance initiatives.
Deepa Mani: Please tell us a little bit about how NISG got started
Sanjiv Mital: It all started seven to eight years ago when the government was looking at e-governance projects. They realised that they don’t have the right talent within the government to figure out how to implement these projects. They also realised that it is going to be very difficult to hire people laterally in the government sector and make sure that they have enough skills and knowledge on e-governance. So they decided to start a new organisation – the NISG. In order to ensure that NISG can hire the best talent without getting bogged down with government processes and policies, they decided to make it a private-public partnership. Rather than choosing a private sector company, they decided on neutral bodies like NASSCOM.
For a successful e-governance venture, the fi rst point is identifying who your customer is and what problems you are trying to solve. If you don’t defi ne the problem clearly, you just end up taking an existing system and computerising it.
You spoke about consulting, conceptualisation and business process re-engineering being important for the success of e-governance initiatives. In our work on this subject, we feel that there are two sets of factors – one on the demand side, in the sense that there are certain cultures, certain individual level behaviours, which exist at the consumer’s end and affect success. Then there are a set of factors on the supply side like what the government does right in terms of political leadership, and the structures and processes in place. What factors do you think affect the success of e-governance initiatives?
The government realizes the need for e-governance, that going forward they cannot operate the way they are doing today with no proper maintenance of records. The challenge is how to go about doing it, which is where sometimes we reach a very critical role in advising them, guiding them and handholding them through this process.
Government projects tend to be individual centric – somebody will take the initiative, start a project, will be very involved, but when the person moves out and a new person comes in, the project is delayed. I think continuity of the person is a very critical factor. We have seen that projects are far more successful when a person is there from the beginning to the end because he is committed. It could be a joint secretary or a commissioner-level person who has taken the onus of implementing and driving a project.
Another challenge is resistance from stakeholders, specifically the employees. There could be questions about interests getting compromised, about what will happen, will their jobs be at stake, will computers come and replace them, will the private sector come in etc. It is important to keep the employees in mind because if you don’t do that it might lead to all non-cooperation.
Getting all stakeholders together, getting their commitment and having the right committees involved is essential in making sure that the project goes well.
Could you tell us a little bit about some of the newer successful e-governance programmes that you have advised on and what were the critical success factors in these initiatives? What do you think was unique about these particular initiatives that helped them be successful?
I think a fairly successful project was the Ministry of Company Affairs’ MCA 21 project. Earlier, registering of a company or its quarterly or annual result had to be filed and there was no way to extract all that information. It has now been computerised.
I think the first point is identifying who your customer is and what problems you are trying to solve. If you don’t define the problem clearly, you end up taking an existing system and computerising it. I think it is important to define your problem sequence very clearly and then measure if you have solved the problem – does it benefit the government more in terms of having less paper work or easier access to information? Or is it more for the citizens, making service friendlier and more accessible? Often, a public-private partnership is formed because the government doesn’t want to add more people to their rolls for these activities. How to bring in the private sector effectively and make them stakeholders is a very important element. Another important element is getting all the stakeholders together – because governments are fairly complex organisations as not just and multiple departments are involved. There are very few projects where just one department or one ministry is involved. For example, in case of passports, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the police, and other units will all be involved. So there are multiple stakeholders – somebody is conceptualising the project, somebody has to execute it and somebody else is the beneficiary. Getting all stakeholders together, getting their commitment and having the right committees involved is essential in making sure that the project goes well.
You talked about some of the challenges in terms of resistance from stakeholders, continuity of leadership etc. Can you elaborate? What do you think are some of the challenges unique to the implementation of e-governance initiatives in India?
I am not sure that these are unique to India. They are the same kinds of challenges e-governance projects face anywhere in the world. But in the developed world they may have gone through all that learning much earlier; we are going through that phase now. I was talking to the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the UK Government and we have a lot of issues in common. But he said that they addressed these issues six to 10 years ago and now they know how to deal with them. For example, when you have the private sector coming in, how do you ensure that strategic control of the project remains with you and you don’t get totally dependent on that vendor?
How do you do that? That is an interesting point that you bring up.
There is no easy way. In fact, one of the studies which we are doing is trying to figure out how to bring in strategic control. We are trying to figure out what have been the best practices in the industry, both in the private sector as well as the government sector, across the world. That is one of the issues we are grappling with at this point in time.
We face the same kinds of challenges e-governance projects face anywhere in the world. In the developed world, they may have gone through all that learning much earlier; we are going through that learning phase now.
Do you think there are certain citizen services that are more suited to e-governance initiatives than others? If so, what are some of these services?
There are certain citizen-centric services which are targeted towards a more urban and IT-savvy clientele. And then there are those targeting the rural and below poverty line clientele. You may have a public distribution system where the end-user may be very remote or may not be very IT-savvy so the challenges are of a different nature. Of course, the need is much more in those kinds of services because if you can help the poor people, I think it has much more of an impact. The government is also very keen on that. But the challenges are of a different nature – connectivity, language, IT know-how, and what kind of a end-user device you are working with. IT is at the heart of any e-governance project. I think these are some of the challenges.
The Central Government and Department of Information Technology (DIT) are trying to invest a lot in infrastructure, in setting up state data centres and state wide-area networks etc. Their thought process especially that of the DIT, is that if you build the highways and the roads, then traffic will come. Capacity building is another challenge. The government is trying to ensure that there are enough talented people available.