These days there is a new buzz around “Digital India” in governance – the use of technologies like the Internet broadband and smart phones coupled with programs like “Aadhaar” to improve the reach of people to Government services and the reach of Government support to those who need it most.
“Digital India” is a laudable goal, no doubt. But the movement towards using technology to improve access to services for the common man is by no means new in India. It has been happening for the past several decades. Many of us in our own life time have seen train reservations move dramatically from serpentine queues to a few mouse clicks.
However great such achievements are for us, there is still a long way to go in better leverage of technology and people. I saw this scope for improvement in a few experiences as an end user of Government services. These experiences made me think about my own expectations and raised a few questions. While I would try and find answers to my questions, I thought I would share my experience and get reactions and possible answers from IT professionals like you.
Scene: Sub-registrar’s office in Jayanagar, Bangalore
I had been to the Jayanagar Sub Registrar’s office in 1996 for a house purchase and recalled that there was little or no automation then. We had a lawyer who conducted us through the procedures and signatories. We had a long wait for the main official to show up. He landed up after lunch and believe it or not fell asleep while in the middle of signing. Our lawyer made some comment in a loud voice and the held-up signing was awakened and completed! I am not making this up!
Here I was in 2015 going back to the same office. While I remembered the past, I also had expectations for a better experience. After all, property records in Bangalore city were now in digital form. Surely, one could expect an improvement in service culture as well, I felt. The transaction I was going for was a property gift transfer – a simple one as it was within the family with no actual sale/purchase – a “piece of cake”, I thought.
The first surprise was the discovery that as in 1996, a lawyer (middleman) was still needed for this. It meant that procedures were still cumbersome necessitating a middleman and “negotiation” would be needed to ease the passage.
When we landed up at the sub-registrar’s office on the appointed day at 10 am, the scene panned out like this:
· We were greeted with the three dreaded words in the automated world: “server is down”
· None of the folks in the office had any clue about how long it would take for the server to come back up. They could not say how long we should wait
· There was no assurance from the officials that the server would be up and running the next day
· There was no public announcement on status from any official – every member of the crowd had to go and ask the same questions to the same harried staff. Different answers floated around depending on who you spoke to! The crowd of people including women and children were just milling around not sure of what to do. People gave up at various stages and left
At some point close to lunch, we (and most of the crowd) decided to leave and come back the next day. The next day brought cheer – the server was up and running. We made the payment via the lawyer in cash and the transaction was concluded.
But there was a last mile glitch – documents for the completed transaction had to be scanned and the scanner was broken! Our document was in a thick pile waiting to be scanned. There was no knowing how long we would have to wait. As usual, people kept asking officials and staring at the recalcitrant scanner to forecast time! One official sagely said that the scanner, unlike the server, was a minor piece of equipment and the delay would not be like the previous day! Again, we took a break for lunch and decided to try again in the afternoon. Fortunately, by around 3:30 pm, the scanner was fixed and we managed to get the document through the maze of officials and technology! It had taken almost two full days for what was considered a “piece of cake”.
At the end, no official asked us for our opinion or feedback on the experience! Would they dare/care?
While sitting in the sub-registrar’s office for many idle hours, I was thinking of the following:
· Can user expectations not be set by publishing the typical time taken for different types of transactions? I have seen this in some banks several years ago
· Equipment failures are bound to occur. Is there not a backup server or scanner and a backup procedure? Who is ultimately accountable for equipment uptime? Do they have the skills and motivation for their job?
· In situations of equipment downtime, why can’t a forecast of repair time be displayed to customers and updated periodically?
· Are the officials in the Jayanagar sub-registrar office equipped to provide the necessary governance for their systems? Are they not monitoring things like trends and causes for service disruption and customer feedback?
· How is the performance of such systems across states? Do states like Gujarat perform better on service parameters? Are states leveraging each other’s systems and processes? Is such coordination & repurposing being enabled by a central authority (such as National Informatics Centre) across states as part of “Digital India”?
I guess the moral of the story is that it is not enough to just deploy systems like for the sub-registrar’s office without considering the impact in various “what if” situations. Reasonable alternatives need to be provided in case of contingencies and customer expectations better managed. Users (officials in the sub-registrar office) should be up to speed in ongoing governance aspects and taking proactive actions in contingent situations – foreseen and unforeseen. What we saw among the officials was only helplessness and passive acceptance.
A few days later, I had a very contrasting experience with renewal of passport (a service from the Government of India). Perhaps, my expectations were set lower after the previous experience! The entire transaction took less than 90 minutes in a Passport Sewa Kendra. The facility was clean and resembled an airport lounge rather than a typical Government office. The process was streamlined and queue control was excellent. The new passport was delivered in two days flat! And we were kept abreast of the application progress at every step via SMS. I plan to share that experience in another blog.
So, may be service quality varies a lot – from state to state, state versus central Government and even within departments in the same state.
If you have comments and experiences to share on how better IT Governance can improve e-governance citizen services, we would love to hear from you.
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