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Can IT-enabled services lower corruption?

Prabhudev Konana

Information Technology is not a panacea but it offers the potential to minimise day-to-day harassment and corruption.

A housemaid, Subbamma (name changed), recently lost her husband. She filed an application for Rs.200-a-month allowance in the taluk office under Vidhawa Vethana — the Karnataka Government's social security scheme for widows. She was shocked when a government official demanded a bribe of Rs.150. When she offered Rs.50, the official shot back that he was not a "beggar!" Of course, he is!

What else can he be? Before this, disgracefully, nurses in a government hospital in Bangalore demanded Rs.100 to 200 each time they shifted Subbamma's husband, who was in severe trauma, on to the hospital bed! It is a disgrace that no one is spared from the cancer of corruption and moral bankruptcy.

The rhetoric of "brand India" becomes meaningless when common citizens have to suffer from this menace. Public outcry against corruption is increasing but the impact is minimal. However, there appears some promise of reducing corruption through Information Technology-enabled services. IT is not a panacea but there is potential to minimise harassment of the kind Subbamma faced.

Recently, I was fortunate to moderate a panel discussion on the role of IT in economic development and better governance at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. P.M. Kuriakose, Commissioner of eSeva, Andhra Pradesh, provided an interesting insight into the impact of IT-enabled government services. eSeva is a public-private partnership programme to provide one-stop services, such as bill payment, and issue of licences, birth/death certificates, etc., to citizens.

The actual delivery of services is done through private franchisees compensated on the basis of the volume of transactions. The incentives are structured to provide service with courtesy and minimal delay. Of course, eSeva is still a long way from reaching all the citizens. However, its progress since 1999 has been remarkable. Over 61 million transactions have been processed through eSeva centres. It is believed that eSeva has improved service delivery and citizen satisfaction, and reduced corruption.

The lesson is that there are opportunities to reduce corruption by reengineering and digitising government processes, minimising direct contacts between the government and citizens, establishing appropriate controls and audit, institutionalising transparency and accountability, and privatising government-citizen interactions with appropriate incentives and controls.

Michael Hammer, a well-known business consultant who championed business process reengineering — that is, redesign of business processes to improve performance — wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review titled "Don't automate, Obliterate." He argued that firms should obliterate the existing ways of doing business, simplify processes, eliminate non-value added tasks, and innovate to improve speed, quality, and service. Simply automating the existing inefficient processes with IT provides no meaningful productivity improvements.

On similar lines, to reduce corruption in government services, we need to eliminate unnecessary government-citizen interactions! The potential for corruption increases when there are face-to-face interactions. Electronic interaction can obliterate them and leave a trail for potential audit. But the focus should not be on IT itself, but on how the government carries out various activities — that is, processes. IT is a means and not an end in itself. Research suggests that the value from IT comes mostly from process improvement and incentive alignment. Thus governments may need to give more importance to processes than to IT itself.

Complex processes with enormous paperwork increase the potential for corruption. The more the paperwork and number of steps, greater are the opportunities for brokers (consultants) to step in to get any work done in government offices. Some of these brokers are hand-in-glove with officials and become conduits for organised corrupt practices. Performance metrics have less meaning since blame is passed on to others. Further, recognising the inefficiencies or potential loopholes, private citizens may themselves become party to corrupt practices.

One of the greatest benefits of IT is enforcing queue in the system. A well-known political scientist once asked me why queues form. My response was a typical technical answer. But he surprised me when he said queues inherently represent equality and when people do not perceive equality, they break queues. Sadly, people with money, connection, or power perceive others to be unequal and tend to break queues more readily!

IT will force applications to be processed in the order of arrival. It can enforce multiple queues with different priority levels based on the willingness of applicants to pay a premium for the service. In a non-IT system, willingness to pay or accept payment is played out through bribes. One can debate whether government services should have different levels of priorities at all since the system will be inherently biased towards the wealthy.

However when processes are simplified, controls may be compromised. Fortunately, digitisation enables us to enforce rules and bring transparency. If a case is not processed within a certain time, the system can automatically trigger a notification for higher-ups. What if the higher-ups are corrupt? The government can make the status transparent so that non-governmental organisations or the media can report delays. In fact, citizens should be able to post delays and corrupt activities for the public to view. The government must provide a conduit for people to voice concerns, corruption, or compliments. Of course, corrupt citizens can use this conduit to abuse honest officials and, therefore, there is need for checks and balances.

Controls and metrics are necessary and the government has an obligation to make high-level aggregate information public. For instance, a government dashboard for each organisation may publicly list the number of cases in the queue, average processing time and its distribution, and the number of delayed cases. Organisational leaders must be evaluated on these metrics. These metrics can be derived from the system automatically. So there is little leeway in tampering with data.

Need for political will and vision

But the above is easier said than done. Even in the corporate world, a large majority of reengineering projects have failed for mostly non-technical reasons. There will be significant resistance from unions, governmental agencies, and powerful brokers who benefit from inefficiencies and have vested interest.

Service transformation will impact power structure, employee morale and skills, departmental boundaries, job security, information control, and incentive structure. Therefore, much like in a business environment where top management support impacts the success of reengineering and IT initiatives, there is need for strong political will and vision to make this transformation.

Of course, there are economic issues to be considered. IT is expensive to create and manage. Often, the focus is upfront cost in creating information systems. However, over 70 per cent of the life-cycle cost of the system goes into maintenance. Furthermore, a large fraction of the population has no education or access to interact electronically. Thus, governments may run an expensive system to meet the demands of a small population and a parallel expensive, manual, and inefficiency-riddled system for the masses.

In the short run, the cost will go up. Therefore, governments must pursue public-private partnership where the private partner will invest and share some risks and reach the citizens with appropriate incentives, checks and balances. This does not mean that the governments outsource social responsibility to the private sector. But this is a way to bring market efficiency and better accountability. It is relatively easier to address inefficiencies with private agencies than to deal with corrupt government officials. Further, privatising the actual delivery will eliminate the main source of corruption — that is, government-citizen face-to-face interaction.

eSeva has made remarkable progress by addressing the above issues. Hopefully, as eSeva expands and the citizens find convenience and less corruption, there will be a societal demand for even cleaner government.

However, I am a firm believer that corruption is a two-way street. It is the result of sustained participation of both the public and the private in corrupt practices. Government officials demand bribes or private entities bribe for favours; both the giver and the taker are equally guilty. Corruption is a reflection of society's tolerance and active participation. In a democracy, eradicating it is not just the government's responsibility but societal collective responsibility.

Unfortunately, corruption has become a cultural issue and transforming this culture is a daunting task. Maybe, the fastest way to reform the corruption culture is to prosecute both the taker and the giver.

(The author is a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and can be contacted at pkonana@mail.utexas.edu.)

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