When the world is rapidly turning digital and moving to cloud-based information and communications technology (ICT), and the internet of things (IoT) is increasingly becoming the internet of everything (IoE), investment in the direction of ICT applications needs to be perceived as the right investment.
But the choice of appropriate technology for the purpose — such as procurement decisions, project planning, implementation, monitoring, review — and timely economic, effective and efficient project execution with prompt corrective and preventive actions to achieve the envisaged outcome both in qualitative and quantitative terms must become the crux of CAG audit analytics and analysis to derive useful practical recommendations for the government to act upon.
Where huge investment for a high priority domain is audited, the audit teams need to absorb the intent of the government and take a a holistic view before probing the choice of appropriate technology, the decision-making process, selection of vendors and procurement methodology, compliance of applicable regulations, and evaluation of the entire project implementation cycle.
Laudable objectives The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report no 20 of 2015 was placed before Parliament recently. It contains audit findings on the ministry of communications and information technology.
This article is confined to the audit findings on the department of electronics and information technology, based on the audit review of the creation of infrastructure for the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) and delivery of services to citizens through Common Service Centres (CSCs).
The objectives of the government are no doubt laudable — e-government, e-industry, e-innovation, e-security, e-inclusion and internet governance.
In short, the government wants to transform lives by “simple, moral, accountable, responsive and transparent” (SMART) governance. When the Union Cabinet approved the e-governance project in May 2006, it was stated that the primary vision was to “make all government services accessible to the common man in his locality, through common service delivery outlets, and ensure efficiency, transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs to realise the basic needs of the common man”. Therefore, citizens should be entitled to good governance through ICT applications.
Towards good governance The attributes of good governance for sustainable development go beyond SMART governance. They are clearly articulated by the UNDP. One, there should be participation from all men and women in decision-making, directly or through representatives.
Two, the rule of law must govern. This means rule according to law, rule under law, also rule according to ‘higher’ law, meaning certain unwritten universally acceptable “principles of fairness, morality and justice that transcend the human legal system”. Three, good governance is based on transparency, ensuring free flow of information, accessible to the people concerned.
Four, institutions and processes must serve all stakeholders. Five, good governance is based on evolving broad consensus based on what is in the best interests of the people. Six, all men and women must have equal opportunities and a level playing field to improve or maintain their well-being. Seven, governance infrastructure, processes and institutions must be efficient, effective and economic to produce the best possible outcome from the resources.
Eight, decision-makers in government must be accountable and civil society organisations accountable to the public and to the stakeholders. Nine, leaders and the public must act based on strategic vision, with a broad and long-term perspective on human development, understanding the underlying historical, cultural and social complexities.
It is important for the audit team to internalise the government intent in order to choose the right approach and methodology for auditing e-governance. All the nine attributes of good governance could have been appropriately used to derive the right audit questions and analytical sub-questions. Audit issue analysis and design matrix exercises must get the deserved attention rather than falling into the stereotypical exercise for offering valuable, practical, implementable recommendations.
E-governance audit should necessarily be about how far the ICT has resulted in good governance. Although most of the attributes of good governance are difficult to measure, they can possibly be identified through a systematic people’s survey.
Less government E-governance must lead to less government and more governance. Correct application of ICT should capture the quintessence of good governance for sustainable development.
The NeGP was conceived as a centralised project; however, the States and UTs are responsible for actual implementation.
The Cabinet paper spelt out clearly creation of right institutional mechanisms, core infrastructure with right policies, standards and legal framework for adaptation and channelising the private sector technical and financial resources.
Infrastructure such as SWAN (State-wide area network) and SDC (State Data Centre), though created for e-governance, are still to be effectively utilised in 10 States selected for audit.
It may not be possible to objectively evaluate the return on investment in areas of good governance as is possible in the private or corporate sector, but proper training and the involvement of users, efficient technology selection and transparent decision-making process must not be neglected. There should be zero tolerance for lack of knowledge and preparedness to use technology.
Inherent conflicts in sustainable development among economic priorities, environmental preservation and, most importantly, people's livelihood and social justice issues need to be resolved amicably by engaging the stakeholders and community participation.
E-governance projects too have faced time overruns, cost overruns, quality issues, inadequate utilisation of infrastructure and poor coordination between the Centre and States/UTs, and allied agencies. Laxity in monitoring and taking timely steps for preventive and corrective actions are reflected in every process and stage of execution.
It is time the government improved its project implementation approach and methodology. There is increasing need for better accountability amongst those who are charged with authority, power and responsibility to execute government projects on time.
The writer is a former director-general of CAG. The views are personal