E-Governance – a 21st Century War 

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Muscat, Oman – We are up against a bizarre situation. “Night ghettos” beckon. As commonly defined, e-government (or digital government) is “The employment of the Internet and the world-wide-web for delivering government information and services to the citizens.”

Electronic government, or in short, “e-government,” refers to the utilization of information technology, information and communication technologies, and other web-based telecommunication technologies to improve or enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery to public. The interaction process deals with employing internet, world-wide-web (www), electronic mailing, telephones, fax machines, text messaging (SMS, MMS), tracking system, identification, e-voting, online community facilities, and even television and radio for communications of information of governance, business, and services to benefit citizens at all levels (city, state or province, national and international).

E-governance allows citizens speedy interaction at any time and any location, and eliminates the necessity for physical travel to government. It permits easy access to information and forms, quicker processing time, access to help find or retrieve files, and linked information can be stored in databases versus hardcopies stored in various locations. It also lessens the need for hard copy forms and promotes greater citizen participation, as people from all over the country can interact with politicians or public servants and make their voices heard.

Studies have shown that people value prosecution of offenders over personal confidentiality, approve of Internet tracking systems of criminals, and are willing to forgo some of their personal internet privacy if it leads to the prosecution of criminals or terrorists.

Public sector or private sector portals and platforms are created that benefit citizens. For example, a person needing to renew their vehicle registration has a convenient way to accomplish this without meeting the regulatory inspection agents. They can file a tax return, book a ticket, and make payments on line, and many more.

Social networking is an emerging area for e-democracy. Government portals can be found through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Social media is fast gaining popularity, but can rapidly spread information which may be misleading or provocative, with far reaching effects. We have experienced this in various parts of the globe.

Examples of misinformation include tweeted news of President Assad of Syria being killed or injured; predictions of Israel’s attack on Iran’s nuclear establishment; and distorted news during Hurricane Sandy. In the context of India, in recent times we have seen mass public aggravation due to tweeted comments about top Bollywood stars, news of a mass exodus of Assamese from Bangalore due to spreading text messages, and many more. The point is, legal restriction of online comments is complicated, hence self restriction is necessary.

However, many controversies about e-governance exist. There are complaints of inequality due to lack of public access to the internet, issues of reliability of information on the web, and hidden agendas of government groups that could influence and bias public opinions.

E-government sites that provide web access and support often do not offer the potential to reach many users, including those who live in remote areas, have low literacy levels, or exist on poverty line incomes. In spite of huge amounts of money spent on development and implementation, it has yielded mediocre results. Some argue that online governmental transparency is dubious because it is maintained by the government themselves and information can be added or removed from the public eye.

There are also concerns regarding the implications of implementation and design, impacts on socio-economic and political factors, vulnerability to cyber attacks and disturbances to the status quo. It is opined that as people are forced to interact electronically, privacy is lost as governments obtain countless information on its citizens, and a totalitarian-like system might be developed. In countries where corruption is strongly predominant at various levels, questions are being raised whether we have a technological answer against corruption.

India is considered to be the brain hub of IT. Sadly, India is very lowly placed in the UN’s “E-governance Readiness Index.” Opportunities and scope are ample. E-governance can make various administration processes easier, less cumbersome and transparent by tracking applications, sending SMS updates to applicants, making information available online, allowing payment online, imposing penalties for delay for defaulters and many more.

With 900 million mobile connections we can achieve a fair degree of coverage. One can have voice-activated info kiosks in every village for those who do not have access to mobile phones or the internet. In recent times we have seen high voltage election campaigns with a high degree of usage of electronic applications and voting systems.

Can this desire not be successfully applied to other administrative processes in countries as a whole? Political influence on law enforcement bodies needs to be reduced or abolished in order for e-governance to be successfully implemented. Real intention or desire to enforce the laws with transparency will be possible only when the attitude of political leaders are changed.

We should fight for e-governance. This is an agitation that India in the 21st century needs, and not to create archaic laws that concentrate power in the hands of a super cop which has a huge risk of getting itself sucked into the abyss of corruption. Distribution of power instead of concentration is a logical thing to consider in order to create proper checks in the system. Technology will provide the enabling system. This is a 21st century war cry.

Mousumi Roy
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Mousumi Roy has a Masters (MA - Political Science) from Calcutta University and is a visiting professor of International Relations in Muscat, Oman

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