Digital Governance: The MyGov Initiative

Digital Governance: The MyGov Initiative

One distinguishing feature of the BJP-led government at the Centre has been its stress on the use of technology to improve governance.

After initial misgivings, the government has whole-heartedly embraced the Aadhaar identification system as an effective means for targeted delivery of subsidies and other services directly to intended beneficiaries. Government ministries now use social media for their outreach, and also to seek suggestions and feedback on their performance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself uses Twitter and Facebook to connect directly, not just to citizens, but also to a wider global audience. However, perhaps the most ambitious digital initiative of the government has been the launch of MyGov.in, a portal aimed at ensuring citizens’ participation in governance.

Launched in July 2014, the portal describes itself as a platform that ‘brings the government closer to the common man by… creating an interface for healthy exchange of ideas and views involving the common citizen and experts with the ultimate goal to contribute to the social and economic transformation of India’.

Through discussion groups, task forums and blogs the portal solicits suggestions directly from citizens on a variety of topics with the objective of using them as inputs for both policy formulation and policy implementation.

The portal also seeks suggestions from the public on draft legislation, and provides a platform for citizens to contribute ideas for meeting the ‘grand challenges’ that the government has identified, such as the Swach Bharath Abhiyan.

The Prime Minister’s recent ‘townhall’ meeting where he interacted with some of those who had provided suggestions on the MyGov platform provided a glimpse of its potential.

Participation and empowerment
Encouraging citizens to participate directly in their governance is not a new concept. It has been tried out earlier in many countries, including India.

The ‘Participatory Budget’ policy implemented by the Workers Party in the Brazilian state of Puetro Alegro in 1989, involved public discussion forums where people debated, discussed and contributed to decisions on how local-government capital budgets would be spent.

Closer home, the ‘Peoples’ Plan’ initiative launched in Kerala in 1996 aimed to decentralise power over utilisation of devolved resources directly to the people so that they could use it to address local development needs and priorities.  However, the MyGov initiative is much more ambitious in scope, aiming to involve citizens nation-wide in finding solutions to problems, both national and local. 

Studies of such initiatives have pointed out some clear benefits. It enhances public engagement with the government and generates a sense of empowerment in those who participate. In democracies, where electorates are disenchanted with democratic processes, because their elected representatives often represent narrow sectional interests rather than broader societal concerns, such initiatives can get citizens to re-engage with governance processes. However, there are the inevitable pitfalls as well.

Three challenges
Successful design of online initiatives is a complex process that needs constant redesign to keep up with changing expectations and fast-paced technological change. It also needs to address the three most critical challenges facing such initiatives — recognition, implementation, and inclusion.

Once citizens contribute ideas and solutions they expect to see the most innovative and feasible ones being recognised and implemented. However, ministries and departments that have failed to provide solutions in the past are usually incapable of identifying innovative ideas or implementing solutions. Failures of public systems are often attributable to entrenched political and bureaucratic elites who have built up their power and privileges over many decades.

They are usually hostile to ideas that ensure effective utilisation of resources since it undermines their ability to earn private profit from public funds. Unless such power structures are broken, bright and innovative ideas will remain mere ideas, and those who contribute will soon become disenchanted and disengage from the process. 

The problem is compounded by the fact that many of the areas where innovative ideas and effective implementation can have the most visible impact on peoples’ lives — clean cities, rural roads, better public health services, better schools —are not controlled directly by the Centre, but by state and local governments, not all of whom have embraced such initiatives. More traditional mechanism to ensure better governance, such as citizens movements to ensure greater transparency in government functioning, social audits of implementation of government programmes, and initiatives by social welfare organisations, NGOs and private trusts to supplement government welfare efforts are likely to remain relevant for a long time to come.

There are two facets to the third challenge that the initiative faces, the challenge of inclusion. The first is overcoming the digital divide. While the dramatic expansion of mobile networks has indeed connected the nation to an extent unimaginable even a decade ago, digital inclusion is still very much ‘work in progress’.  Digital initiatives resonate with the urban middle-classes, but have limited appeal in rural communities.

The digital divide means that platforms such as MyGov appeal to only a small section of the population. Ideas for change and suggestions for improvement from those who are digitally excluded will still have to come through more traditional grass-root political processes. 

The second aspect of the problem is that of getting those who have the requisite technical and managerial expertise to actively engage in online discussions. Current issues on which the government is seeking suggestions include improving the quality of mobile telephone services and for enhancing efficiency of coal distribution.

A quick look through some of the suggestions made on the portal indicate that many see this as a forum for lodging complaints or for stating the obvious. There are numerous complaints about call drops and poor network coverage in the forum on mobile phone services. The section on improving coal transportation has suggestions to reduce coal use, shift to renewable energy and to improve the calorific value of coal. There are some technical suggestions as well and many of these might actually contain the seeds of bright and innovative ideas which deserve recognition and implementation. Moderated online discussions which enable more focussed interactions might be more efficient at generating ideas than completely open forums.  

Grand challenges to grand prizes
While the problems of solving ‘grand challenges’ such as ensuring a Swach Bharat or a ‘Zero Call-Drop National Network’ through such online platforms are evident, there is another section of the website that can ensure more limited, but perhaps more creative and effective popular participation. Contests hosted on the website include those for ‘Composition of an Inspiring Youth Anthem’ and ‘Designing an E-Greeting Card for Raksha Bandhan’.

 It is likely that such national competitions hosted on the MyGov platform will capture the imagination of creative individuals, just like the competition to design the symbol for the Indian rupee did in 2009.
 
While the prize money for such competitions is not huge, the prospect of national recognition will undoubtedly help nurture creative individuals.

Such ‘grand prizes’ have much greater appeal and ensure better quality participation because they focus creative energies on a single achievable goal. The problem with grand challenges is that there are no quick solutions, however creative they are.

Modern technology will have to be adopted to complement more traditional political, social and bureaucratic processes to solve them. This is not going to be an easy task, even for the current government.

(The author is Professor of Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. Views expressed are his own and not those of IIM Calcutta)

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