R.Chandrashekhar, Additional Secretary e-Governance, Government of India
In an exclusive interview to Vikas Kanungo of mGovWorld, Mr. Chandrashekhar, Additional Secretary -e-Governance, Government of India commented on the potential of mobile government in relation to National e-Governance plan of India detailing the opportunities for government agencies and the industry. (October 2007)
m-GovWorld: The National e-Governance Program (NeGP) has been there for quite some time. What comments you would like to make on the progress of various Mission Mode Projects (MMPs) being pursued by the government under the plan?
R. Chandrashekhar : Well, under the NeGP, there are basically two large buckets ; one is the creation of infrastructure for delivery of services which is well underway and we expect that in most of the states, this infrastructure will be in place by March 2008 and would enable the states to deliver these services. There are also couple of key projects in the states which go alongside infrastructure and will play a major role. But the second major bucket is the various individual Mission Mode Projects which actually cover and enable the services that will be delivered using this platform as the platform by itself does not deliver the services. It would be through the MMPs that the services will be enabled. As far as the MMPs are concerned, around less than half the MMPs are in the implementation mode and progressing well. And for rest of the MMPs; they are at various levels of project development because the key differentiator of MMPs as compared to the past efforts is a more holistic view of the projects. We look at the projects in MMPs from the point of governance, service levels and delivery of services. This implies that the project development has to be done over extended periods, multiple stakeholders have to be consulted and their views factored in, and therefore the project development phase becomes longer. The better that is done; the better would be the service outcome. Therefore the relatively new projects in NeGP where not much has happened in the past and no computerization has happened, the development will take a longer time. As far as NeGP as a whole is concerned, a lot of traction is on the ground. There is now a very clear understanding of the broader goals and objectives of the service delivery along with a clear understanding of the unified platform that is being created. Getting this kind of mindshare across the centre, states and local government levels has been very encouraging and is now widely accepted.
m-GovWorld: What are the various provisions in Mission Mode Projects for making the services accessible to various sections of the society given the internet and computer penetration levels?
R. Chandrashekhar: Currently as you are aware, the platform consists of Data Centers, the Wide Area Networks through SWANs and the service access infrastructure i.e. the Common Service Centers. In that sense, it is largely a network or internet access based delivery system along with a facilitation of assisted services through Kiosks or Common Service Centers. This platform will prove to be very efficient for certain set of services and also for a lot of information services. We do have in mind probably sooner than later to bring in the concept of Call Centers. Some states already have made a beginning in this direction. Ministry of Agriculture has already set up the Krishi Call Centers. Though some beginnings have already made but it has not got into a systematic Mission Mode type of environment. I am sure that will evolve after we have got the basic infrastructure and the information in place. We still have to do the basic ground work of setting the MMPs in order and setting up the Data Centers because without this support a call center would be ineffective.
m-GovWorld: Would these call centers are planned to be placed alongside the State Data Centers or would they be setup independently?
R. Chandrashekhar: In fact we did consider whether the call centers be made part of the data Centers proposal or could be taken as an independent proposal at a later date. The agreed position was that this activity should be should be handled independently as the skill sets, the type of infrastructure and the type of people required for each activity is different. Of course there is some correlation between the two in the sense that till you actually have all the data collated and you have something which is accessible to the people sitting in the call center, the call center would not be very effective. The Call centers will therefore are being planned as an independent activity that will ride on the Data centers and the various MMPs that would be put in place.
m-GovWorld: Out of all the Mission Mode Projects in NeGP, would you like to mention one MMP that will greatly enhance the take-up of e-Government services by the citizens?
R. Chandrashekhar : There are couple of MMPs that I referred to while talking about the digital services delivery platform which form a pivot that will provide some of the core data and high volume services. These two MMPs are the Unique ID Project which aims to create a database of all the residents of country and assign them a unique ID. This will enable relatively easy and convenient verification of identify of individuals. The applications are now under implementation and some services would get operational during the financial year 2007-2008. This will form a very useful and important core database for each state. Second is the e-District project which focuses on high volume services provided at the district level that are not covered under any of the other MMPs at the moment. The project may also extend to provide interface to some other MMPs. These two projects will probably lead to a culture of higher utilization and uptake of e-Government services in the rural areas. In urban areas in any case there is fairly high awareness.
m-GovWorld: India was recently awarded during a GSMA Summit for having the best telecom policies and for adding more than 6 million subscribers / month overtaking China. How do you see that impacting the delivery models of services under NeGP?
R. Chandrashekhar: Obviously this is going to have a huge impact. We know that from a stage where the mobile just crossed the landlines a few years ago today there is a 4:1 ratio between mobiles and land lines. The second thing is that because of a variety of reasons we have seen an explosion of services being made available through mobiles. We are also seeing that a lot of e-Government services which were to be delivered through the internet and on a network basis are now getting merged with the mobile telephony and there are lots of different kinds services which are in many ways almost indistinguishable from the internet based services that were availed in the past. That is the direction in which the technology is moving. So clearly it is going to be absolutely essential for us to plan for that kind of delivery because the number of mobile telephones is already well over 150 million whereas the CSCs that are community based are only 100,000. Obviously the mobile telephone is not going to be a substitute for CSCs nor the CSCs going to be the substitute for mobiles. But there would be a subset of services that would be delivered through the CSCs, which could actually get delivered through the mobiles as well, which may be more convenient for the bulk of the citizens. We will be keenly observing how that stratification emerges in near future.
m-GovWorld: Given the fact that we have planned 100,000 CSCs for 600,000 villages, Do you see the role of mobile phones/devices in enhancing the reach of CSCs to larger areas?
R. Chandrashekhar: In some ways yes, but in some ways they will continue to have an independent purpose of their own because at the end of the day there will be many government services, which would require fixed physical setup for creation and issuance of certificates, receiving applications forms and accompanying documents and kind of semi-official machinery essential for such tasks because at the tail end some of this will still be in paper. So the need for such a physical front-end will remain there for quite sometime. The mobiles on the other hand would serve an independent purpose and would cover a lot of services which do not require that kind of infrastructure - for example the information services, two way queries between the government and the citizens etc. Additionally there could even be the information being conveyed for services that can be printed at the user end and does not require authentication. We have the technologies available today where the mobile itself can be used to do such tasks. There are a lot of payment transactions for which the mobile is fast becoming the most convenient device. It is therefore not difficult to foresee that a lot of services that require payment transactions would actually migrate into that mode very quickly. So I think we will see a differentiation of services. If you take govt. services as 100 %, my guess is that about 1-5 % will still require people to come to government services, about 30-40% will require a visit to CSCs and around 50-60% may actually be available through the mobile devices. I feel that this type of stratification of services will happen and each service will find its own outlet in terms of the most convenient device from the point of view of the citizens.
m-GovWorld: We would like your comments on the role of mobiles in integration with CSC network to enhance the reach of the centers and making the services at CSCs more convenient. For example, a citizen can submit the key documents at CSC and then is intimated through the SMS regarding the status of application or asked to pick up his certificate once it is ready.
R. Chandrashekhar: Absolutely. I am not at all implying that there is no connection between the two. But once the mobile becomes the device for conveying the information, then whether it’s from CSC or the Data center or government, all of them will land at the individual’s mobile phone. In that sense the mobile can be referred as both ; a parallel medium of service delivery as well as the extension of the CSCs.
m-GovWorld: What difference you see it will make once the 3G devices are rolled out which would have computing capabilities in addition to the communication capabilities.
R. Chandrashekhar: Any service which ends up with convening information or delivering a document to the end user which does not require physical production of the document or authentication will end up at these devices. But there are also large numbers of services that require physical presence or the authenticated documents e.g .a driving license would require the citizens to take a driving test, land records would require physical verification at the field level and so on. Barring the services that require physical infrastructure and presence, other services can conveniently be provisioned in many cases through the mobile devices also.
m-GovWorld: What is your comment on the role mobile devices can play in the coordination activities between the government employees responsible for providing services especially in situations like disaster management etc.?
R. Chandrashekhar: Generally speaking inter and intra government communication is of two types. One is the interim communication which is in the nature of either conveying information or putting some intermediate steps in place. We have seen that in such cases the email communication is fairly useful and is widely used. Definitely in such cases the mobile can be another convenient tool. Then there are also a lot of other transactions within the government that are of more formal and official in nature where the accountability is of prime importance. Effectiveness and efficiency can not be achieved by compromising of accountability. Of course we have digital signatures etc. but we still have to evolve to a point where such communications would need to be recognizable and will carry the level of authority and accountability that is required. That will increase the percentage of activity which can migrated into that mode , but certain operations will still require the conventional ways of handling based upon the accountability mechanisms laid out. But a large bulk of those that are of interim nature would migrate to internet and mobile platforms.
m-GovWorld: What role do you see of the mobiles can play in marketing and awareness generation regarding electronic public services?
R. Chandrashekhar: I think the moment people realize that the services are available on mobile devices there would be a huge demand and use. The challenge is to make sure that the services are available. I don’t see very big problem in the off take not being there but at some point of time people have to be made aware. Once this reaches a critical mass then everybody will come to know about it. Take the case of examination results.
I would like to emphasize on a very different role which is very exciting. That is the reverse flow of information. And especially with mobile telephony and 3G, the flow of information from the grassroots to the government can be facilitated. The efficiency of the whole chain will dramatically change and improve once this happens. So it is not only government providing services to the citizens as that amounts to looking at the whole issue from a unidirectional point of view. But event more important is the reverse flow because the governance is a data intensive activity; not computation intensive. All IT applications in the government are data intensive. When the data is not captured digitally at the point of origin then there are huge inefficiency , inaccuracy and uncertainty that comes into the system which in general is not solvable. So therefore the mobile devices especially with the advancements that we are seeing have a great potential of becoming the instrument for originating data digitally with huge impact on the way the government business is conducted in the villages as well as in urban areas.
"If one considers government services to be 100%, my guess is that 1-5% will still require a visit to the Government office, around 30-40% will be available through the CSC or government service delivery centers and 50-60% could be provisioned on the mobile devices."