India’s rapid economic growth in the last two decades has been accompanied by increased levels of urbanisation. Our cities, which are engines of economic growth, are under great strain to meet the growing demands and aspirations of its citizens. India’s urban population has grown from the 290 million reported in the 2001 Census to an estimated 340 million in 2008, and is projected to soar further to 590 million by 2030. This urban expansion will happen at a speed quite unlike anything India has seen before. It took nearly 40 years (between 1971 and 2008) for India’s urban population to rise by 230 million. It could take only half that time to add the next 250 million. By 2030, it is estimated that urban areas will generate 70% of India’s GDP.
As impressive as that is and even as the urban economy is expected to provide 85% of the total tax revenue, the cities today are in dire need for improvement on various fronts. Worsening urban decay and gridlock and a declining quality of life for citizens threaten to jeopardise the anticipated growth rates risking high unemployment and a disenchanted citizenry.
The rising urban population has also given rise to an increase in the urban poor. As per 2001 estimates, the slum population is estimated to be in excess of 60 million. The ever increasing number of slum dwellers causes tremendous pressure on urban basic services and infrastructure.
It is against this backdrop that the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) was launched by the Hon’ble Prime Minister in December 2005. The Mission aims to create economically productive, efficient, equitable and responsive cities in an integrated framework with focus on economic and social infrastructure, to provide basic services to the urban poor, facilitate urban sector reforms and strengthen the Municipal Governments and their functioning. One of these parameters — urban sector reforms — has become a key pre-requisite for funding under JNNURM. It is recognised that urban governance needs drastic improvement. Why is this important? So that urban local bodies and para-statal agencies can become financially sound with enhanced credit rating and an ability to access market capital for undertaking new programmes and expansion of services.
India’s governance of cities is ineffective at best. Large cities are still governed by bureaucrats who can be transferred at short notice. Empowered mayors with long tenure and clear accountability for the city’s performance are essential. With cities growing beyond municipal boundaries, having fully formed metropolitan authorities with clearly defined roles is absolutely essential for the successful management of large cities. These authorities must then rethink how they deliver services to their citizens. Currently, citizens receive services through archaic and bureaucratic departments. Tapping into private sector expertise through public-private partnerships represents an opportunity to improve services and increase transparency in delivery.
So what are urban sector reforms and how can they be effected? Eight of the basic services typically provided by ULBs are:
- Registration and Issue of Births/Deaths Certificate
- Payment of Property Tax, Utility Bills and Management of Utilities that come under the ULBs
- Citizen Grievances and Suggestions
- Building Plan Approvals
- Procurement and monitoring of projects
- Health Programs
- Accounting System
- Personal Information System
Examples of reforms are:
- Reform of property tax so that it becomes a major source of revenue for ULBs
- Adoption of modern accrual-based double entry system of accounting in ULBs
- Provision of basic services to urban poor including improved housing, water supply, sanitation and other services
- Levy of reasonable user charges by ULBs with the objective that full cost of operation and maintenance or recurring cost is collected within a reasonable time frame
- Introduction of e-governance using IT applications like GIS and MIS for various services
Since local government is a first interface between the citizens and the government, introduction of e-governance in municipalities can assist municipal bodies to improve the service delivery mechanism, achieve better information management and transparency and ensure utmost citizens’ involvement in governance.
So, how can e-governance enable the process of urban sector reforms?
- Focus on clearly identified list of citizen services that would be covered with clearly laid down service levels and outcomes that would be achieved
- Improve efficiency and effectiveness in interaction between local government and its citizens and other stakeholders (i.e., NGOs, community based organisations, residents welfare associations, and the private sector)
- Improve quality of internal local government operations to support and stimulate good governance
- Bring about transparency and accountability in the governance of ULBs
- Enhance the interface between ULBs and citizens; and
- Help improve the delivery of services to citizens
Let us examine the role of e-governance service levels. Table 1 is an illustrative definition of the service levels that could be defined and are achievable through effective deployment of e-governance.
Let us consider the Birth and Death Certificates. Registration of Births and Deaths has been made mandatory under the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969 and is one of the major functions of a Municipality. However, it has been observed that many of the births/deaths go unregistered. Municipal Corporations/ Councils should develop a citizen pro-mechanism to facilitate and encourage the citizens to register all births/deaths in the accessed area. Similarly, when applying online for a birth certificate, the service level says that it should be generated within 15 minutes. What will it take to achieve this service level? It will require that a citizen is able to apply online, be able to submit the required documents online and digitally sign the application. This is the only way to meet the service level. Alternately, when applying for the same certificate in person by visiting a facility centre, the certificate should be generated within five working days. This will require for the appropriate workflow processing that can ensure this service level. For all of this to work to the desired service level, digitally signed certificates will need to be incorporated, the individual will need to be given the facility to establish his identity online, documents will need to be able to be submitted online, the software application will need to accommodate the workflow required to meet the requisite service level (for online and in-person submissions). Not to mention the requirement that a pool of hospitals be registered in the integrated system to allow issue of birth and death certificates. A simple definition of a required service level causes a complete re-engineering of processes and technology.
With the adoption of such standards and benchmarks, it is expected that there would be a general consistency in the service levels across the country in terms of uniform measurements and reporting systems which will be of immense help to the management of the e-Governance service. It would also address the issues of catering for the incremental populations, since any increase in breach of service levels would imply that the present infrastructure is not adequate, and would be a signal to take corrective action in a timely manner. It shall also be of great help in shifting the focus from infrastructure to service delivery.
An excellent example of e-Governance transforming service delivery to the urban population is the e-Seva project in Andhra Pradesh. What were the critical factors in enabling it to be a huge success? To begin with, there were clearly defined objectives. It was decided that the goal was to provide one-stop services to the citizens through a chain of integrated citizen service centres. Integrated meant bringing together the services of several government agencies and offering them to the citizen across the same counter. It did not envisage providing cross-agency services in an integrated way. This enhanced the accessibility of information to citizens. The citizen could walk in to any service center and experience the same quality of service.
It was decided that citizens should not be required to travel more than two kilometres to reach the e-Seva centre from their home. The service time was defined to be below three minutes per transaction and the total time spent by a citizen including the time spent on waiting for one’s turn was defined as within 15 minutes. Further, it was determined that all the services be available at the centres for 12 hours a day and selected services, especially those that did not involve an inspection or attestation, be available 24 hours over the internet.
Other objectives addressed the citizen experience. Citizens should not stand in queues. The need for citizens to go to government offices was to be minimised over a period of time. This would lead to the cost of transacting with government being reduced. Finally, the business model needed to be such that the operations were sustainable over a long period of time.
The list of services offered by e-Seva broadly includes:
- Payment of utility bills — electricity, water and sewerage, telephone
- Tax related — filing of sales taxes returns, property tax, filing of IT returns of salaried class
- Collection of examination fee, affiliation fee and recognition fee of Intermediate Board
- Certificates — birth, death
- Permits/Licenses — renewal of trade licenses, registration of new trade licenses, quarterly payments of autos, lifetime tax payment of new vehicles
- Reservation — reservation of bus tickets, requisition for supply of water by tankers
- Other services — sale of passport application forms, filing of passport applications, sale of non-judicial stamps, examination results of various educational agencies, payment of 50 different types of fines and fees charged by police for granting permissions and licenses etc
Citizens of one locality in Hyderabad were the target intended beneficiaries, in the initial pilot stage of the project. The resounding success of the e-Seva project in Hyderabad city led to its expansion in 117 cities and towns throughout the state. The state was divided in to six zones with implementing partners in each zone. Suffice it to say that e-Seva has created a very positive impact among the citizens. It has empowered the citizen in the manner in which he/she interacts with Government and provided a mechanism for service delivery that has transformed the Government to citizen interface. Not to mention the reduction in trips made to Government offices and the corresponding impact on traffic, petrol consumption and the like.
It is worthwhile noting that when e-Seva was initially launched, there were only a limited set of services on offer. With the acceptance of the model, the list of services has been growing steadily. Initially, it had been difficult to convince the government agencies to join the project. Now that the idea of one-stop-shop has caught on, the departments themselves approach e-Seva to add their services.
One principle that e-Seva has maintained throughout — and which has been proved right — is to admit a service in its fold only if it can be offered through a browser, along with all other applications at all the counters. In other words, there should be no counters earmarked for a particular service. This principle observed rigidly has helped e-Seva to preserve its USP of ‘any counter, any service’.
What are the lessons to be learnt? What the project has done is to allow e-governance to break down obsolete structures and the “silo” thinking that has long characterised the way government operates (departments working independently to meet their own goals instead of together to coordinate customer interfaces and services). In the process the Government aimed to reward its customers with better services and itself with lower costs — doing more, and better, for less. Ultimately, the goal should be that urban government bodies completely eliminate face-to-face interaction with its citizen, to the extent possible by increasing the value of customer self-service and the two-way flow of information so that people will come to enjoy interacting with Government.
In the United Nations Millennium Report it is emphasised that “better governance means greater participation, coupled with accountability”. What are the key issues and challenges in realising good governance?
Inadequate accountability and transparency: A lack of transparency in the functioning of the government agencies can make it easy for the perpetrators to cover their tracks, and consequently very difficult to unearth corruption. For example, numerous websites created by government departments are ineffective because they tend to focus on the single objective of providing electronic access to information. Not enough effort is made to ensure that transparency and accountability are increased.
Avenues for corruption: A high level of discretion is given to government officials and opportunities for arbitrary action in dealing with citizens can lead to corruption. At the same time, due to the complex and cumbersome process, many users find it difficult to deal with government systems that are ambiguous and complex, preferring instead to use agents to get their work done.
Paying of bribes: In the property registration and transport projects, by some estimates, nearly 20 to 50% of all transactions involve the paying of bribes by users.
Use of agents: It is estimated that nearly 50% of users in all states engage agents in order to obtain service.
E-governance can lead to greater transparency in our cities in governance procedures, accountability of government officials, and reduction in corruption. There is an implicit sequence on which e-Governance application must focus to reach the objectives.
Access — increase citizens’ access to information
Transparency — ensure that rules are transparent and applied to all citizens in a uniform and unbiased manner
Accountability — increase accountability by building the ability to monitor, track and hold individual government officials liable for their decisions and actions
As an example, the one-line grievance redressal system implemented by the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and an NGO, allows users to file their complaints online, and check on the status of the complaints at any time through a tracking number. Complaints are first sent to a complaints officer (over 400 are being received daily). If the officer fails to resolve the complaint within a stipulated period (a maximum of three days), the complaint automatically escalates to a higher office and finally to an Additional Municipal Commissioner. The NGO and BMC follow up on unresolved issues.
An officer in Karnataka recounted an interesting phenomenon they experienced after the introduction of computerisation in one of their domains. Citizen applications previously were routinely pushed aside to accommodate the processing of “those with connections”. In the other words, the “first in, first out” principle was difficult to implement in practice. Computerisation of this process forced a “first in first out” principle since the computer would only allow the next application to be processed that had been waiting the longest. Thus, what is happening today, is that if a politician’s family member’s application is 12th in the queue and he brings to bear his authority to have it processed immediately, the only way to do it in the computer is to necessarily process the first 11 so as to enable his application to be processed. This clearly benefits the “first 11” and expedites their processing.
Our cities today face many challenges. As the never-ending migration to cities continues, the pressure on urban government bodies to keep pace and provide essential services to citizens is ever-increasing. E-governance is not the panacea to all the challenges, but it can play a big role in empowering the urban citizen to interact with government bodies in a way that has huge benefits to both. That in itself must make it one of the focus areas both within and outside JNNURM.
(Srinath Chakravarthy is a Vice-President with National Institute for Smart Government (NISG). NISG is a semi-Government organisation and is set up as a Centre of Excellence in the area of e-Government. It provides consulting services in Strategic Planning, Project Development and Management and Capacity Building. NISG has been assisting several Ministries of the GOI and the State Governments in designing and implementing e-Governance projects. Srinath has recently joined NISG after a career spanning more than twenty years in Public Sector consulting — for the U.S government (state, federal & city/county) and in the Asia-Pacific region. His experience has included conceptualising and delivering transformational projects, and has spanned multiple domains in the public sector including health and social services, tax and revenue, and governance for local bodies.
The views expressed in the write-up are personal and do not re?ect the official policy or position of the organization.)