Why effective e-governance at the local level is a challenge for Indian states
The development of ‘E-Governance Index’ by Indian states will go a long way in assessing the impact of India’s digital initiatives down to the district level in each state.
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Local bodies, whether rural or urban, are the first point of citizen-government interface. Thus, their role in the successful implementation of any policy initiative is crucial. The idea of 'e-governance', which is one of the pillars of the ‘Digital India’ initiative, is no exception in this regard. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India and Nielsen report 2019, there are 504 million active internet users in India aged five and above. To provide effective and efficient e-governance to this ‘digital dividend’, work needs to be done at the local level.
This means a strict focus on developing district-level e-governance index, building public trust regarding digital initiatives, and providing reliable internet connectivity. This can be achieved by an increased digital penetration down to the local level and subsequent centre-state cooperation for timely implementation of digital policy initiatives.
The National E-Governance Service Delivery Assessment (NeSDA) report published in 2019 measured the depth and effectiveness of service delivery mechanisms from the citizen’s perspective in the Indian states. This shows the noble intent of the government, in compliance with Digital India’s third vision area — ‘Digital empowerment of citizens’. This effort is commendable. However, India’s 100th rank out of 193 countries in UN E-Government Development Index 2020 and its 83rd rank out of 85 countries (ranked in terms of speed and stability of internet connection) in ‘Digital Quality of Life Index 2020’ shows that there still is a long road ahead.
The development of ‘E-Governance Index’ by the Indian states will go a long way in assessing the impact of India’s digital initiatives down to the district level in each state. (Representative photo: Twitter)
The low-ranking states in the NeSDA report reflect that their districts performed poorly on the parameters of ‘accessibility’, ‘ease of use’ and ‘end service delivery’ among others. District-level assessment becomes paramount for the better performance of states on these parameters. It will play a major role in improving India’s overall performance in the UN E-Government Development Index because there is an intricate connection between local, state and national development. India’s improvement in the rankings of international e-government indices depends on the improvement of the states’ performances, which thereby depends on the performances of individual districts.
The quasi-federal system in an Indian democratic setup expects certain development and welfare roles on the part of state governments as well. The development of ‘E-Governance Index’ by the Indian states will go a long way in assessing the impact of India’s digital initiatives down to the district level in each state. It will help the states in assessing their own performances related to digitalisation and its efficacy for delivering services to the people.
The United Nations E-Government Survey has outlined participation as the cornerstone of governance, fundamental in increasing government’s accountability and making public services more responsive. Without participation, the idea of ‘citizen empowerment’ seems murky and diluted. Since the local bodies are in close proximity to the people as compared to the state or central governments, the perception formed by the citizens based on their experience with the processes of public service delivery by these bodies cannot be ignored. Thus, the district-level e-governance index should include indicators related to the impact of e-participation on the quality of online public services and timely redressal of grievances to comprehend and address citizen participation perspectives.
Since public trust-building is critical to ensure e-participation; the central government needs to expedite the legislation regarding ‘Personal Data Protection’. This legislation, when enacted, will go a long way in building public trust regarding digital initiatives, thus facilitating e-participation. Additionally, the government will benefit from consecutively improving digital literacy among the citizens.
Slow internet speed is another issue that mars the delivery of effective and efficient e-governance. It creates short-term problems in the delivery of online services to the people which results in wastage of time and eventual frustration in the minds of the citizens. In the long term, it may hinder the whole public service delivery mechanism affecting both the service provider in terms of public trust as well as cost-effectiveness and the recipients in terms of benefits.
Even after efforts to improve 4G coverage and provide faster internet access, India ranks a dismal 131 in the latest Ookla Speedtest for the mobile network. Hence, close cooperation is required between the centre and the states for improving the internet infrastructure in general, and for successful completion of BharatNet in particular, whose aim is to provide stable internet connectivity to all gram panchayats in India. This initiative when completed at the earliest will bring India one step closer to realising the goal of e-governance through ‘Digital India’.
For the development of the district-level index, India does not need to look towards the West. One of its own northern states in the Himalayas, Himachal Pradesh, has taken an initiative with an index on the state of governance in its districts named ‘Himachal Pradesh District Governance Index’.
However, this index developed by the Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore and commissioned by the state government of Himachal Pradesh takes into account the indicators related to the supply side alone (in the form of Number of Services provided under e-Governance plan). Although this initiative is commendable, it could be developed further or as a separate index with more indicators related to e-governance and citizen participation.
It will also help the state governments in targeting those districts where the ‘Digital India’ project has not produced desired results in terms of digital literacy and e-participation. Moreover, the data related to these indices could also serve as evidence for future policy regarding e-governance or digitalisation to achieve the vision of the incumbent Indian government, ie. “minimum government and maximum governance”.
Co-author: Amit Kumar, Young Professional at Financial Resource Division, NITI Aayog, Government of India