Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Can we see a quantum leap in India Gov 2.0?

Last week the news trending across Gov 2.0 was the proposed phenomenal cut by the U.S. Government in its data.gov has been a proven historic repository of metadata. If the U.S. is seen as dithering over open data, can India traverse the politics-riddled path to building a next-generation open democracy?

Albeit, India has witnessed some remarkable innovations in democratic governance in recent times, they have been sporadic incidents at best, largely experimental efforts of local governance or administration. The best example is the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Dehi) page on Facebook that began with contaminant monitoring and moved on to a drive helping clean up Delhi city with citizen participation. Of late there has also been a spurt of citizen opinion polls undertaken by Government Departments.

However, even such episodic social media governance initiatives are applaudable for a nation that has a history of broken promises of transparency. Committees are formed and accountability assured, each time a political party totters to retain control, to be forgotten soon in the aftermath. Project information and datasets are for internal or Government use only. Scams and undercover deals are thus common as transparency and citizen involvement is rare.

Yet, the Indian Government adopted e-governance and acknowledged the right of the citizen to information sometime ago. Of this, only the latter has delivered till date.

The six year old Right to Information Act has proved a success and not just a cat’s paw in the general scheme of things the Indian polity is given to indulge in. Although, this has been the only tool of citizen policing in a nation known for historical apathy towards corruption at all levels and a brazen stance towards inefficient governance, it has brought to the fore the necessity of Govt. accountability and citizen participation.

The spate of WikiLeaks information revealing corruption at high levels in Indian administration, have however energised the hitherto laid-back e-governance policies. The slumberous NeGP that was devised to handle national e-governance has galvanised into action. Portals like e-Governance Standards and Gov 2.0 India are leveraging Web 2.0 in the delivery of governance, calling out to all stakeholders in the government mechanism –the government, civil s ociety, private sector and the citizens and become a community which will support the use of Web 2.0 for better governance”.

Empowered by technology and digital platforms, e-governance is suddenly on a roll.

So are we finally witnessing Gov 2.0 in India?

While e-governance may have become the buzzword in many Govt corridors, it has still a long way to go in India. What is lacking even now is the front-end integration of public, needed to strengthen e-governance. Structured public surveillance, standardised datasets for enhanced productivity, crowdsourced information, community mapping, participatory management and data feeds, that are proven tools of e-governance are not applied systemically, if at all. What we have today are isolated pools of database and participatory information collated by NGOs, research organisations and some random zealous Govt officials who function in fits and starts in accordance with ongoing geo-politics.

So despite the fact that Gujarat State Govt. leads in Gov 2.0 applications providing citizen access to data and prompt redressals, while the ecologically fragile State of Sikkim has an extensive environmental database with participatory management of specific natural resources, these States too lack two-way flow of communication and bi-directional data access. Other States fall way behind in almost all aspects of government database and public information feeds.

The key areas of Gov 2.0 application - emergency response, disaster management health care networks continue to be mere static extensions of State Departments with no enhanced data models or tools of citizen surveillance. Take for instance the West Bengal State Department of Disaster Management that cannot even boast of its own dedicated web portal. When a disaster like the cyclone Aila strikes the coasts, the Dept. goes through the clich├ęd stages of being non-communicable to media, touting apathy of Central Govt. towards West Bengal or complaining of insufficient funds for tackling the disaster, even as NGOs and community groups are engaged in base level disaster response. The story is nearly the same throughout the nation, despite an almost annual history of floods, famines, cyclones and epidemics of communicable diseases.

The recent triple whammy disasters faced by Japan and its immediate response, thus leaves one wondering. What would happen in India in the likes of such widespread, cumulative or concurrent natural disasters? Where three of the seven remote sensing satellites engaged in collecting relevant thematic data are under-utilised or inefficiently operated? Where VI (Volunteered Information) is still new territory?

Could the Indian Governance handle such emergencies using the core tool of citizen participation?

A gross ‘NO’.

To begin with Gov 2.0 is still in a nascent stage with officials largely in the dark about the scope and extent of their operational area. Work is done only in spurts. There is almost no proper, updated database to fall upon in the event of disasters. Nor does there exist organised geospatial database or dashboards that one can look to. Except for the odd Facebook Page or Twitter account there does not exist synchronised social media tie-ins that could perform seamlessly to provide a transparent continually updated two-way flow of information for a response team to act upon.

So even as State Governments like Gujarat are fast developing datasets with integration of media and community, India as a nation is yet to adopt Gov 2.0 as a way of governance or Indian polity. Gov 2.0 continues to be an agenda on paper or of Gov2.0 conferences. Till every project or Department in India has a web portal with Web 2.0 or social media built-ins and a continuous stream of participatory information, India cannot truly traverse the Gov 2.0 roadmap.

It remains to be seen as well, how effectively e-governance applications deploy analytics across major business intelligence platforms for an integrated solution.

Unless an open source revolution blows across the nation, and a radical change to open governance occurs in the mindset of the local communities, I do not see a quantum leap in India Gov 2.0. A passion for e-governance and open data cannot be successfully pursued by a lone Minister, unless it is totally backed by political parties and the spirit percolated down to the grass-root administration.

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