For the last several years there has been plenty of debate in India on e-governance. In fact, the term has been bandied about so much that e-governance is now touted as a mantra for forcing shoddy regional and local bureaucracies into more open, responsive administrations. Hundreds of crores of rupees are being spent in various states, with some states receiving assistance from the central government as well. (1 crore = 10 millions)

But is governance itself improving? We are too large a country to expect a uniform indicator to tell us whether governance has improved since - and because - information technology became mainstream. Citizen surveys in regions where e-initiatives have been in place for some years now could provide answers. But in the absence of detailed studies, journalism on government projects can provide some measure of the lessons being learned.

Administration or governance?

The most compelling observation to be made is that there is substantial overload on the term 'e-governance' itself, making it some overarching metaphor for magical reform. Plenty of e-administration initiatives - even long overdue citizen conveniences like public utility bill e-payments - are being passed off as e-governance, as if there is no difference between the two. It is important to remember that e-governance is governance first and electronics next.

Where electronic communications and processes between citizens and government departments lead to citizens having a greater say in decision making on local affairs, at least, is where one could claim e-governance has arrived. Currently much government decision making is non-participatory and discourages citizen inputs, so passing off service delivery improvements alone as governance is misplaced.

Still, local administrations in the country have been computerising their records and form-processing work so that public services such as issuing birth and death certificates, driving licenses, etc., can become speedier, and perhaps also involve less graft. A lot of this is welcome and long overdue. But even here haphazard computerisation (mixing up old registers with new electronic records) is causing perverse initial outcomes like presenting overdue notices to citizens who've already paid their bills.

Operational challenges

Even the more modest goal of good e-administration often stumbles over operational challenges within government departments. Most experts believe the manner in which government officials work must itself be redesigned - a step called process reengineering - because mere computerisation won't do. Computerisation that eliminates needless physical intermediaries within government departments can reduce the public's experience of corruption, but reforming work processes is necessary to give this a better chance of happening. Tactical design of workflow can help. A common example of this is the 'First-In-First-Out' requirement of some systems. This requires applications from the public to be serviced in the order they were received, narrowing the window during which bribes can be sought by administrators.

There are still other challenges that deserve a mention. One is scaling, where good results are harder to come by. Successful pilot computerisation programs in a few hundred villages, when they succeed for one service (say accounting), need to be scaled quickly across the state and in the number of services offered (say health care and education), using the same computer systems; duplicating infrastructure is expensive. Another sometimes crippling factor is the manner of tendering. The overly prescriptive approaches of our governments end up constraining vendors and prevent the deployment of more wholistic long-term solutions. There is recognition of this in civil society, because some organizations are offering free or very low cost products to governments to avoid becoming trapped within the tendering process itself.

The risk of affirming privileges

Technology has many pluses, but also an important downside - it is more easily adopted by and steered towards purposes that are of interest to the privileged few who can access it first. In a highly unequal society, e-administration is fraught with the potential to worsen - and ossify - the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Computerising land records might seem efficient to clear title-holders, for example, but where titles are disputed or never registered (even on paper), computerisation has the potential to more strongly affirm the claims of some and dispossess others. In some villages and among tribals, it is community recognition of ancestral ownership that allows some people to claim access to and use of lands, especially common lands. Incomplete and ill-conceived computerisation can easily disaggregate such community-based standards, by steering the whole society towards individual-focused governance only.

This points to an even deeper risk, at the design and policy-making levels themselves. In most serious interventions, talented people and purposeful organizations from the citizenry have to work with administrators - since there is simply not enough competency widely available within our governments - to craft the changes in workflow and sometimes even in local rules or laws. And inevitably, those with the talent to put technology to new uses are able to engage governments and urge changes. Technology companies, especially, have a deep interest in advocating e-administration; after all, they stand to see crores of rupees in hardware and software sales. But for advocates, acting sometimes from narrow perspectives runs the risk of ignoring a wider cross-section of views, and there must be constant alertness to this.

An urban traffic planning and decision-making software tool, for example, could be designed to treat traffic as merely a problem of flow on roads. It can also be designed to consider the reality of how roads are actually used in India - by hawkers, the homeless, as storage and parking for commercial establishments, and so on. Any solution offered by planners, has the potential to legitimise or delegitimise some realities, and this has much broader implications than the definite purpose that is more easily identified.

The public as partners

Improved governance through direct citizen interventions will perhaps be the direct check and balance over runaway claims on what electronic processes might in themselves accomplish.
 •  Egov experiences spotty, ongoing
 •  Revamping municipal delivery
As with governance, so with e-governance; nothing works like concerted public pressure for change and accountability. Experts themselves admit to this. The Parivartan example in New Delhi has shown that if state government food departments really wanted to streamline distribution of rations and check corruption in the archaic Public Distribution System, they could simply make inspectors work to accomplish that goal. For the Delhi government to reform internally and police the entire state's dealer network to stop pilferage may be a humungous task, but the fact that local public pressure has worked to bring in transparency in select areas is evidence enough.

Improved governance through direct citizen interventions will perhaps be the direct check and balance over runaway claims on what electronic processes might in themselves accomplish. The fact that a plethora of different engagements are ongoing - from criticism seminars to campaigns to technology partnerships for new software solutions - is a better scenario than otherwise. As our governments continue to need specialised help, vigilance and regular public inputs (perhaps even consultations) are going to be necessary to balance the risk of e-government simply affirming privilege.

Clearly, the 'e' in e-government is here to stay. And quite likely even increase in importance, given new technology's advantage over manual systems which break down when used to service large and regionally diverse populations. But getting to better governance itself is a problem of many dimensions, one that must be tackled with more than electronics and computing.