U-Governance: ubiquitous government services through mobiles in India

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It is now 15 years since India’s National Taskforce on Information Technology and Software Development submitted its report laying down the contours of a long-term IT policy for the country. There has been a lot of effort expended and resources committed by government agencies over these years to leverage the potential of IT (and with improved telecom coverage, ICT, with "C" for Communications) in improving governance.

The National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) laid the foundations for an integrative approach to the design and use ICTs for governance through components dedicated to infrastructure creation, application development and human/institutional capacity building. The Digital India programme seeks to take this forward at a much larger scale with an ambitious objective of governance and [government] services on demand by providing the necessary digital infrastructure and capacities to citizens in all parts of the country.

This on-demand nature of government service provision resonates well with the notion of ubiquitous computing, which seeks to provide computation power to persons to carry out their tasks irrespective of where they are located. In some sense, an obvious technological choice to achieve ubiquity in governance in today's context is the mobile phone, which is not only witnessing a rapid penetration into more and more households across the country, but also a significant improvement in its ability to execute more and more tasks.

A number of government agencies are now willing to use mobile technologies to improve governance outcomes. Karnataka has been moving fast and on 8th December, the President of India will inaugurate its M-One project in Bengaluru, a mobile app that will provide a single-window interface for about 637 G2C (government to citizen) services offered by both the Union and State Governments.

The potential of using mobile phones to reach government services to citizens is not unreal and is being discussed quite optimistically by both the groups - those developing mobile technologies, as well as those concerned with government service delivery. There are quite a few challenges that will have to be overcome. At the infrastructure level, there still exist large pockets of non-connectedness and low quality of signals and availability of bandwidths to support the traffic that a desirable government service delivery experience will entail.

Another key element is the price of smartphones, perceived as more amenable for such services, which though declining still continues to be out of reach for a large proportion of citizens. The mobile app community has become quite active in India recently with angel and venture capital funding pouring in; however, not much progress has been made in delivery of m-government services.

Moreover, in terms of the broader use of ICTs for governance, while the citizen interface of services such as income tax return submission and passport application has been well received, nothing much has happened in public health, education and rural livelihoods - all sectors in need of urgent interventions to improve governance.

Inclusion is an important governance aim that we as a nation have set out for ourselves and it will have to be invoked in designing mobile-based government service delivery projects also. Governance does not restrict itself to a mere delivery of services, and it will be useful to understand how mobile technologies can be deployed to ensure equity and justice in the other dynamics of state-society relations such as in ensuring an effective citizen participation in the public decision-making process.

The panel on U-Governance through mobiles at the Mobile India 2015 conference (to be held in Bengaluru on 9th January 2015), seeks to deliberate on some of the aforesaid aspects of mobile technologies and their role in making ubiquitous governance a reality in the country. The panelists, drawn from the government, industry, civil society and academia will bring in diverse perspectives using their experience of working on key elements of infrastructure, architecture, delivery models and applications to highlight the challenges and opportunities and suggest ways to move forward.

About the author

Amit Prakash is a faculty member at the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore (IIITB) where he heads the Centre for IT and Public Policy. He has been actively associated with policy deliberations leading to design of national and regional development policies in India over the past 15 years. Amit has a graduate degree in engineering from IIT Roorkee and a doctoral degree in Information Systems from IIM Bangalore.

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