A people-centric ‘Digital India’

A people-centric ‘Digital India’

In Perspective

Governance is a societal function; technology can empower stakeholders, but its adoption will still be mediated by existing social structures. Technology should account for stakeholders and social structures by design.

It is time to examine the promise of ‘Digital India’. The focus on digital services seen in states like Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar and cities like Chennai suggest that governance of the future will be built on extensive use of technology and the internet. As these plans take off, and the basic digital infrastructure for urban governance is put in place, it is critical to evaluate the ways in which these initiatives encounter social structures, so that these are incorporated in design.

Digitally-enabled public grievance redressal systems (PGRs) show great promise for delivering a more responsive, accessible and citizen-centric form of urban governance. As with any new tool or technique, though, they need to fit into existing social contexts. Societies will shape, and are shaped by, the technologies they employ; it is crucial to guide this process to ensure that their benefits are realised in a truly universal and inclusive manner. Technology is an enabler for the changes sought by society, not the other way around. India’s past attempts at digitizing key governance services have had issues, with some attempts inadvertently excluding those stakeholders who might need them the most.

Even in today’s digital era, in many Indian cities, the only way to register a complaint is to visit a physical office, where the complaint is recorded in writing. Someone in the government office is responsible for ensuring that all details — such as a recognisable address — are recorded; someone compiles all these complaints, and then assigns them to the departments concerned: electricity, water and sewage, road maintenance, and so on.

This process is opaque to the citizen: at best, they might call or visit that office again to ask what action has been taken, perhaps citing the complaint number and hope to receive an update. Nor are they likely to be formally asked for feedback on the work done. Even the review of complaints received and addressed by senior officials is a tedious process and is preceded by staff in the urban local body (ULB) administration frantically tallying up data from various sources.

This is an inefficient and cumbersome set-up — yet that is not how most citizens experience it. Unofficial and semi-official intermediaries inevitably emerge to make navigating it smoother. Every neighbourhood has at least one such person: someone well-connected with local authorities, who can aggregate complaints and follow up to ensure the work is done.

Even in cities where the system has been digitised, intermediaries remain ubiquitous. They have advantages that a platform does not: relationships with citizens and government; knowledge of systems, processes, and contexts; and most importantly, the reputations and trust built up over time. Indeed, if the software provides a digital infrastructure for governance, then these intermediate layers form a social architecture around it. Intermediaries are one kind of human layer around technology. Frontline staff and workers are another critical layer.

The promise of PGR platforms is to make issue resolution in an urban context simpler, quicker, more transparent, and easier to monitor. In its most basic form, a modern grievance redressal system consists of four elements: a digital interface for citizens to report complaints — garbage that needs cleaning, an overflowing drain, streetlights on the blink, etc; a system that directs such complaints to the relevant officer in the local government, and enables the officer to log when the issue has been fixed; a channel of communication that lets citizens review the response — or send in a reminder if no response has resulted; and a system that provides an overview of the entire process for senior officials and/or the public (dashboards).

Bringing out the potential of the technology, however, will always be a function of the people and the processes that prevail in a given city government: technology can enable, but it is societies that evolve and make claims on the State for changes.

PGR and similar governance platforms that understand societal conditions can achieve their promise of inclusivity, access and participation. This will need directed research on the interface between the digital infrastructure and the social architecture and any corresponding points of breakdown. This kind of inquiry can be a critical input in the design of e-governance programs. For instance, understanding the role and presence of intermediaries can lead to the solution of having multiple channels of input to enable wider access.

In short, the key to effective urban e-governance is understanding how the urban governance system works — and equally to seeing where its gaps and failures arise — to understand the interaction between the digital infrastructure and social architecture. Then, technology can enable and empower the existing social architecture, to deliver ease of living for all citizens.

(The writers are with the policy team at eGovernments Foundation)

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