Gates, Windows and e-governance

By Probir Roy | 26 Nov 2002

Mumbai: A select group of state legislators, ministers, secretaries and industry representatives attended a presentation by Microsoft chief Bill Gates and Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu on October 14, 2002 at Shilparaman, Hyderabad. Their theme was "e-Government — The Road Ahead".

Practioners of e-Governance might define this model as G2C — Government To Citizens. This has now subtly transformed into G4C — Government For Citizens. The basic objective of G4C is to set up transparent, efficient and citizen-friendly "touch points" across the state for everything from birth registration, registration of land and property deeds, driving licenses and ration cards, to procurement and Secretariat workflow.

Purists might argue that e-government is different from e-governance. E-government is more about putting together the IT infrastructure to make the average citizen's interface with the government easier, while e-governance has more to do with the laws and regulation of the Internet.

Whatever it is called, e-goverment comes with a hefty price tag. Nasscom estimates that India will spend $1 billion on e-governance initiatives this year, and $ 6 billion by 2008.

Andhra Pradesh is actively focusing on enhancing India's core competency, the knowledge worker. Since 1996, Andhra Pradesh has increased the number of engineering seats from 7,400 to over 65,000, which outdoes Maharashtra's 44,000. Further, all students from Class 6 onwards now have access to computers and computer education, akin to the Chinese model where English is being taught to everyone from age 4 onwards to compete in a world economy that increasingly uses the English language.

Microsoft gains two-fold from Andhra Pradesh's initiative. On the one hand, it gets a steady and assured supply of quality brainpower, with scientific and mathematical reasoning ability. On the other, it gets business, since the operating systems for desktops and related IT infrastructure will be from Microsoft. This is in sharp contrast with conditions a decade or so ago, when government tenders for IT products and services rarely mentioned a branded provider.

However, the Andhra Pradesh Technology Services (the nodal agency) has gone in for customised solutions instead of a branded solution for its Computer-Aided Administration of Registration Department project, with the help of the National Informatics Centre and Oracle 8 servers.

There is something disquieting about one service provider being hailed over all others for creating infrastructure.

The Tamil Nadu government uses Sun Microsystems' nux-based StarOffice suite across colleges and schools. HDFC uses it for mail and note taking. StarOffice is multi-platform — which means it can open Excel and Word files despite having its own applications for mail and presentation. Plus, it gives value for money.

While countries such as South Africa and Germany are looking at nux as an alternative OS, other independent software vendors (ISVs) and hardware vendors are making their enterprise applications and services inter-operable between nux and Java, the competing platforms to Windows.

Oracle, Sun, IBM, Dell, SAP and Intel have nux, the open source software, running their middle-ware and enterprise applications seamlessly across hand-helds and desktops to mid- and high-end servers, thus lowering overall ownership, management and licensing costs.

The traditional solution set would ideally have open system architecture such as nux as the operating platform, and chosen vendors for middle-ware, enterprise applications, hardware, training and systems integration. Although ISVs offer end-to-end solutions, infrastructure is best put together from several branded and proven providers.

Building up any e-infrastructure from zillah and mandal level to Central government level is no easy task. Re-engineering processes, capturing transactions and automating workflow are tough, but still easier than realigning mindsets. As IT and communications minister Pramod Mahajan said, “Technology can't work…unless administrators and the middle level are motivated to use IT tools to speed up communication and decision making.” In the absence of this mindset, government offices could end up becoming a graveyard of computers.

IT-savvy states like Andhra Pradesh are addressing the mindset factor above everything else. Using every opportunity to hardsell modern technology to the average staffer, without whose attitudinal support and feeling of ownership such visionary initiatives can't hope to succeed.

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