The digital revolution in governance

India has much to learn from the revolutionary initiatives in United Kingdom and New York.

The last half decade in India has arguably seen the worst breakdown in governance– its key symptom being the breakdown in communication between the custodians and the citizens of the largest democracy. Be it the economy, inflation affecting every household, crime, the response to crime, on almost every front, there has been an ever-yawning chasm between citizens and their government. Paradoxically, this half-decade has also seen Indians embrace the internet. Indians are set to become the second largest population on the internet and given the urgency to court this population, every service provider has rolled out cheap access options. This access – thankfully, provides a significant opportunity, one that the government of the day must seize.

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Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former Brazilian President has opined “While society has entered the digital era politics has remained analog. If democratic institutions used the new communication technologies as instruments of dialogue, and not for mere propaganda, they would breathe fresh air into their operations.” To be sure, change in India will not come about by social media or mere communication. Our challenges are deep, our issues fundamental and our infrastructure primitive. The desperate need is for bold initiatives, implemented with passion and transparency. Luckily, there are two live examples to learn from. The first, launched by David Cameron’s UK Government in 2012, is a massive re-engineering of the entire government machinery. The second, limited to New York, was the brainchild of outgoing Mayor Bloomberg, is no less ambitious. What can India learn from them?

The UK has focused on crafting a nationwide Digital by Default strategy. The idea behind this initiative is for government services to go digital and to enhance their appeal, such that citizens would prefer to transact thus with the government. Apart from the savings, projected to be over 1.7 Billion GBP annually, this is a fundamental re-imagination of the way governance might work in the 21st Century. For example, doing away with paper as a requirement of the legal system, rescues courts from drowning in paper; allowing police officers to provide evidence via video saves time and keeps their focus on maintaining law & order and providing real time access to documents within the court makes the system streamlined.

The Government Digital Services is leading the charge, benchmarking government services with private sector players, using the same service quality that people might expect of a bank or an airline. The 25 most transacted exemplar services, which affect people, have been chosen to be fast-tracked. And in tracking the progress of these services on an aggressive time frame, the GDS is making transparent governance a reality. Putting the citizen at the heart of the endeavour has been the game-changer, something Tim O’Reilly, (who coined the term Government 2.0) applauds as a revolution in governance— using principles that belong in Silicon Valley to upend how states might behave in the 21st Century. Giving citizens control of their data and letting go of the centripetal tendency of bureaucrats to amass information, has multiple benefits; one of them is catalysing knowledge-based industries based on access to data. Bringing a private sector ethos to the Government is the most remarkable part of the UK initiative. One tends to think of this as the Aadhar model on steroids.

Across the Atlantic, New York has embarked upon another way to deliver the benefits of technology to better the lives of its citizens. Inspired by ex-Mayor Bloomberg, who created a global technology driven empire in financial information, New York’s NYC Digital initiative is perhaps wider ranging than the UK’s. Its five pillars embrace today and seize tomorrow: by providing access and provisioning services as well as creating capacity and business linkages to make the most of New York’s unique gifts. Like in the UK, New York too publicised its strategy, laid out imperatives and formulated a roadmap for action. It is about maintaining the competitiveness of New York as a city, about maximising its advantage as the financial capital of the world, about enhancing its appeal as a place for technology companies to thrive, while bridging the socio-economic divide and inviting all citizens to better their tomorrows through education and training.

Fiorello La Guardia, three times mayor of New York said, “there is no Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer”. Perhaps drawing inspiration from this, are initiatives like the daily pothole which crowd identifies problem areas in New York roads and cites action taken. There is tremendous merit in telling people that their government is responsive, their problems are being tackled and the people who toiled to solve them deserve applause. Transforming abandoned pay phone booths into free wi-fi zones is another idea with potential for deep impact that the NYC Digital has been testing. Crime and vandalism aside, think of the potential to transform relatively secure public areas– school, colleges or railway stations.

The crown jewel in the NYC Digital initiative is how the industry has been energised to come to volunteer time and talent to the city. Whether via hackathons to put the mobile at the centre of the service arm of the city government, to the Open Data Initiative where entrepreneurs and businesses are encouraged to play with over 1100 APIs to create apps and services, public participation in NYC goes beyond complaints and consumption of services. In using the creative energy of its citizens, NYC Digital strengthens the bond with the city. Criticisms do exist, vocal ones at that, about how useful these tech showcases chase the cool while missing the utility that citizens seek.

India has much to learn from both these revolutionary initiatives. Both are creative challenges to the status quo. Both live the spirit of partnership with citizens that modern governments need to adhere to. Both tackle the problems of the digital divide, in it a proxy for socio-economic fault lines, by making things easier, by using tools that citizens currently use in their daily lives. The New York approach, at least in urban India, seems far more attractive and doable. Urban India is in bad shape. Yet, they are magnets for commerce and industry, hubs of education and have semblances of local government. Being ecosystems in their own right helps in creating positive feedback loops when action is taken. This example from Boston, Citizens Connect, for example, is easily adopted.

Our polity and politics are becoming inherently local. The ongoing battles are those of implementation rather than grand ideas. Implementation is primarily about capacity and capability, which our governance lacks. Paradoxically, the capacity and capability, available at scale, attracts global businesses to India. The India story is a story of Indians. India can only rely upon Indians to change its lot. The capacity to create exists. What is missing is a fertile ground to create change. It is time we maximise the “by the people” part of Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy.

 Photo: timsnell