Two important developments have taken place at the ministry of communications and information technology in the past two weeks.
One, the department of information technology (DIT) has come up with a consultation paper on a mobile governance policy framework.
Two, the department has opened stakeholders’ discussions on the framework for citizen engagement in the national e-governance plan (NeGP)—a DIT division responsible for all e-governance projects, including 27 mission mode projects (MMPs) pertaining to almost all aspects of citizen services.
The mobile governance policy framework (MGPF) aims for “providing public services to all the residents in the country, especially in the rural areas, by utilizing the reach of mobile phones and the innovative potential of mobile applications, and making India a world leader in harnessing the potential of mobile governance for inclusive development”.
NeGP’s framework for citizen engagement (FCE) envisages the inclusion of all citizens in the MMPs, the creation of a citizen engagement fund and the development of a so-called citizen engagement toolkit.
While both MGPF and FCE documents come from the same department, they don’t appear to be linked to each other, with some key perspectives missing from them. Let me elaborate with some background perspective.
Information and communication technology tools have been critical in meeting the demands and responsibilities of governance in the last couple of decades. This has led to concepts such as good governance, e-governance and m-governance.
While e-governance is the use of electronic tools and media in governance, m-governance, according to the MGPF definition, is “the delivery of all types of public services, including making payment for such services, through mobile-based technologies…” NeGP was created as a means “to achieve good governance through e-governance”.
In the MGPF document, DIT does not elaborate how issues of governance arising from the high penetration of mobile phones would be tackled. Surprisingly, the MGPF approach is more of an enabler, focusing on infrastructure creation and mobile platform development.
But mobile telephony is an area in which the private sector has already created a massive infrastructure with a very large user base. There have been thousands of applications and value-added services running live from telecom companies, including applications and services pertaining to governance.
India has already reached 55% teledensity—143% in urban areas and about 33% in rural areas. In another couple of years, every adult is expected to have a mobile phone, and this is going to throw a serious challenge to various aspects of governance.
These m-governance issues for the government include: how to govern the users, usage and transactions over mobile; how to govern information and its right to citizens; how to deal with privacy issues over mobile phone and its users; how to deal with the mobile phone as the medium of literacy and identity; how to govern the rights of citizens over information produced on mobile phones, and the rights of private operators; how to address content creation, delivery and monitoring; how to regulate mobile phone content and delivery issues; how to make sure that mobile phones are just another platform, which must be considered to be integrated with all e-governance projects and looked at as an obviously inclusive medium of participation and inclusion; and how to create an enabling environment.
Above all, I would suggest that MGPF must specifically look at India’s 250,000 panchayats and how their three million functionaries could be integrated through mobile phones. Their capacity to be oral and carry diverse content would not only lead to information empowerment at the lowest strata of governance but also bring transparency.
Considering that DIT is working on m-governance, it is surprising that no mention of the mobile phone and its large reach is made in the FCE draft paper. It does not talk about exploiting the mobile phone penetration of over 50%.
Even more ironical is that FCE proposes “citizen engagement” as something that does not exist in NeGP programmes. The draft framework acknowledges that “our e-governance initiatives do not have mechanism to engage the citizens”. To qualify the observation, FCE proposes a consultative process on how to bring citizen engagement in NeGP.
We know through Web 2.0 phenomena such as Facebook, blogging and Twitter that citizens and people’s participation is an inevitable process for e-governance-related initiatives. But as we move ahead, we may wonder why Web 2.0 is not a natural progression of all MMPs of NeGP and why we need a separate framework in order to engage citizens. Besides, the entire FCE document reflects a pro-consultancy mode of design and development of a framework that could have limited impact at the end.
For example, FCE recommends a citizen engagement fund, a citizen engagement toolkit for e-government projects, and piloting proposed framework in the MMPs. This could be negated if the citizen and citizen associations or agencies are brought to the centre stage to drive the process, rather than superimposed consultative agencies or experts.
It will be keenly observed how the project plan of each NeGP project is synergized with citizen-engagement strategies, with visible and impact-oriented outcomes. I am presuming that each MMP has an inbuilt value chain to engage citizens and all it requires is realising them.