Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Case for a Universal Collaboration System for the Government

The corner stone of the Digital India program is to make Government services more easily accessible to the ordinary citizens. 

The objective is to deliver timely service to the citizens with least cost and hassles. The resulting benefits are greater accountability and transparency in the citizen-government interface. 

The use of social media to gather ideas and grievances and report progress adds to the improvements of the this interface (others being digital portals, smart phone apps and public email ids of ministries and government functionaries) and is likely to bring about a much better impact than say the RTI in improving services to the citizens. 

It turns on it’s head the ‘mai-baap’ raj that continued much after the British left. Where people were treated as subjects of an empire rather than the masters of a republic, in which the government functions as a servant to its citizens.

But while this is a great initiative, it address only the deficiencies of the external exchange (between the government and the citizens). The inner working of the government is still riddled with inefficiencies and lack of transparency. A lot of that inefficiency and lack of transparency comes from the use of paper based systems within the government that make it hard to track, search and analyse data and information e.g. while citizens can file income tax returns on the digital portal and receive acknowledgements on their email ids and mobiles phones through SMS, the inner working of the income tax office like issuing notices, internal noting etc. all happen over paper. 

“Where some projects have been initiated to create electronic document filing and tracking mechanism, the outcomes have been uneven and limited. Sometimes, a combination of public and private communication networks are used to get work done without concern for security or privacy. Disparate systems are creating information and data silos, making it difficult to secure and track information.” 

Problems with today’s systems

  • Inefficiencies because of incompatibilities between systems (multiple platforms in use to communicate and collaborate)
  • Large amounts of data / knowledge gathered / captured during the process is fragmented and therefore hard to leverage for further analysis, insights and action.
  • Trail of conversations and action taken, broken and therefore hard to trace.
  • Networks don’t get formed (incomplete/broken network graphs), leading to under-utilisation of the expertise within the government
  • Sensitive information could reside in public networks 
  • Possibility of loss of Information - because it resides in people’s personal accounts and devices
  • A universal collaboration platform (like AADHAR)

Just as AADHAR has been useful in creating a universal, unique and digital identity for the citizens, making it easier to track and exchange information between different public and private agencies for replacing the inefficient erstwhile system of multiple ids, a high quality universal collaboration platform in government establishments can make for much improvements in efficiency, effectiveness and transparency in the inner working of the government. 

The benefits of such a common collaboration platform would be as follows

  • It would bring about uniformity and compatibility, ensuring easy movement of information between various government departments, agencies and working groups.
  • It would create an overarching system to handle exceptions, coordinate and manage the working various government agencies and departments
  • It would ensure a greater data security and privacy (with discontinuance of use of public communication networks)
  • Enable the creation of a central repository of information gathered in the normal course of work which could be mined for references and intelligence, to further improve government response
  • It would creates a government social network that can comprise of people from across departments, retried government officials and consultants who can collaborate over ideas, problems and issues
  • It’d create a platform to build more advanced and specialised collaboration solutions for different needs of the government.

Possible Approach


The platform can be built using open source software and open standards data for message exchanges using easily available building blocks. Here is a suggested five step program the government can follow to adapt collaboration technologies for their internal functioning.

  • To start with all correspondences made over the electronic mail (regardless of the system in use) should be archived at a central location for reference, analysis and scrutiny in the future. This will also ensure recovery from any data loss due to breakdown or accidents.
  • Make it mandatory to use electronic mail for internal and external exchange of correspondence in addition to / or instead of paper based correspondences.
  • Encourage the use of more collaboration mediums like video chat, chat etc. as a way to speed up the inner working of the government departments. PM Modi has used such a system (as part of the PRAGATI program) to great effect.
  • Develop dashboards and workflow applications specific to different government departments on top of the basic messaging and communication systems to further improve efficiency and deepen collaboration.
  • Open up the platform for other people to develop applications / tools that can leverage the platform** to provide enhanced functionality
(**like Aadhar or the IRCTCs Railway booking system) 

Benefits

“A study done by Gary Hamel & Michele Zanini estimates a 3 trillion dollar loss annual loss to the US GDP due to unnecessary bureaucracy in US companies. It could well be that India is losing massively due to the slow movement of the government bureaucratic machinery.”

There is tremendous benefit to be had in making the inner working for the government more effective, efficient and transparent. Collaboration systems can help break artificial barriers impeding progress, helping in turn to arrive faster at decisions, leveraging the experience and information present in the government network and accumulating intelligence to make more effective decisions. 

Often due to a system of transfers and lateral movement of the government staff, a lot of effort in expended in learning and re-learning the subject and matter at hand, slowing the response of the government. Collaboration systems can enable quicker sharing of knowledge, capture of that knowledge in searchable form for future reference and create knowledge networks amongst the government staff, for faster transmission of the learning.


PM Narendra Modi himself uses a video conferencing system to review and speed up projects. Meanwhile hundreds of cases in the courts and tribunals move at snails pace due to lack of knowledge, information sharing and oversight.

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