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India: Are e-Governance initiatives delivering on transparency and accountability?

Technology for Transparency Network This post is part of the Technology for Transparency Network where we research technology that promotes accountability and transparency worldwide· All Posts

In India, there has been an upswing in various Government-to-Citizen (G2C) e-Governance initiatives. Various government agencies and service providers are now embracing social media and other information and communication technology (ICT) platforms to engage citizens, optimize service delivery and reassure the public with respect to the government's transparency and accountability.

For example, we recently saw the Delhi Traffic Police (DTP) using Facebook to collect information about traffic violations. The Indore Police Department has been using a blog, Twitter, online and mobile complaint forms, a Google map of police stations and a digital crime mapper to track criminal activities in the region.

Indore Police – Digital Crime Mapper

The Maharashtra Police Department launched an SMS-based complaint tracking system (CTS), called “Turant Chovis” (“Within 24 Hours”), which promised to quickly redress citizen complaints by sending a first response within 24 hours and resolving the issue within 30 days. One of department's divisions, the Nasik Rural Police Department, even won appreciation at the Manthan Awards 2009 for their presentation on the modalities of the system and how they had achieved 96 percent success in implementing the Turant Chovis scheme.

Adoption of technology for better governance is not restricted to the police departments alone. Various state governments are also beefing up their e-Governance initiatives with use of interactive technology in areas such as citizen grievance redressal. The Sanjog Helpline is a single-window centralized grievance redressal system for the rural state of Orissa. Citizens can register grievances through a toll free number, fax or e-mail, as well as through the Sanjog Helpline portal in their villages. They can also at a later stage track and get acknowledgment of the status of their complaints. Jhansi, in Uttar Pradesh, has launched the Jhansi Jan Suvidha Kendra, a telephone-based grievance redressal system. The Madhya Pradesh government has an online complaint registration facility on its website. The site also allows tracking of individual complaints and displays statistics regarding the number of complaints received and successfully resolved.

Other departments such as the railways and income tax departments have also replaced some of their face to face interactions with online service delivery systems, presumably to make citizens’ lives simpler and to take out human interactions from the service interface as part of their efforts to reduce corruption. Citizens can now file taxes and buy rail tickets online.

These initiatives all promise convenience, engagement, transparency and accountability. However, to what extent are they successful? What has been their impact? Have they indeed managed to bring about the much-desired end goals of increasing government transparency and accountability? Unfortunately we have not yet seen much evaluation of the impact of these initiatives on the ground as far as enhancing transparency and accountability are concerned, which gives rise to concerns that perhaps some of them are mere window dressing — feel-good initiatives with no real wind beneath their wings.

For example, take the case of complaint tracking systems. When a citizen register a complaint and try to track it, she gets a message that her complaint is “in process.” This is a quick response, but what does it really translate into, other than making her feel frustrated after seeing the same status over and over? In this case, she cannot even vent her frustration anywhere, as there is no face to face interaction!

Recently, an experience with the online railway booking system has left me more skeptical of these initiatives. It's true that the online railway booking system has made life easier. No need to queue at the counters, no need to pay an agent or middle-man to get confirmed bookings. However, try to get some refunds for a canceled ticket, and then you will face the music.  This January, when a train I was supposed to take was delayed for over 10 hours, I decided to cancel the ticket instead of wasting time at the station (the rules online clearly stated that full refund will be given if a train is more than 3 hours late). However, I could not cancel my ticket at the station, as a ticket booked online can only be canceled through an online application.

Upon filing an online refund application, I received an instant, polite mail saying that my refund was in process and that I could track my application online. After a couple of months I got back 50 percent of the cost of the ticket, and the online status read “case resolved.” But why only 50 percent, when the rules stated that the refund would be 100 percent? No answer. Repeated mails have resulted in instant polite replies that the mail is being forwarded to the right department, but till date, apart from politeness there has been nothing concrete to address my grievance. The help desk, though happy to help, has no power to sort out the issue — they also have no clue as to who is accountable and whom I can approach if I want to escalate the matter. Moreover, I am handicapped by the fact that online cases apparently have to be sorted out online, so I cannot approach any officer at the railway offices!

Instances such as these make one wary of the tall claims of government departments about e-Governance G2C initiatives that promise transparency and accountability. However, that is not to say that such initiatives are not welcome. They are steps in the right direction. However, merely installing tools and technology is not enough. The government needs to ensure proper implementation. There should also be monitoring and evaluation, not only by government bodies but also by civil society groups that can pressure the government to uphold their promises to increase transparency and accountability.

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