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Issue of August 2005 

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Get IT right

“A bureaucracy is sure to think that its duty is to augment official power, official business, or official members, rather than to leave free the energies of mankind; it overdoes the quantity of government, as well as impairs its quality. The truth is that a skilled bureaucracy ... is, though it boasts of an appearance of science, quite inconsistent with the true principles of the art of business.”

Walter Bagehot (1826-1877), British economist and critic

We hear a lot about how IT is making life easier for the common man. Quite often, this statement is made in conjunction with governance. Well, it’s true, a lot has been done to speed up and simplify government-consumer interaction, and we have many, many instances of that in the stories that follow.

That said, there’s a lot that remains to be done. For instance, take income tax—a topic close to the heart of chartered accountants, but one that gives most others hypertension. Why can’t we file returns online? The technology exists. In fact, in the US of A, online returns are preferred. Why, anybody logging on to the IRS (Internal Revenue aka US Tax Department) Web site can file their taxes electronically for free!

Or take the case of the Passport office that has an additional form called the Scanning form. It’s another matter that the form you fill out in triplicate is meant to be scanned anyway. Why do you have to fill out a form in triplicate anyway? To kill a few more trees?

How often do government organisations update their Web sites? The answer, most of the time, is hardly ever. Once the site goes up with the hastily made PDFs of highfalutin announcements made by the panjandrums in the corridors of power, nothing’s uploaded, nothing’s changed. Which is a crying shame.

IT can help. Provided that babudom gives it a chance. Which is not to say that some excellent initiatives haven’t been spearheaded and executed, because they have. The best known case is that of the Indian Railways, which has done a magnificent job of using IT to improve service levels to the extent that it has introduced ticket booking through mobile phones, and is now toying with the idea of an open ticket that can be changed online as desired.

It’s just that there are a million and one ways in which things can be oh-so-much-better. If only the government would give IT a chance.

Unfortunately, far too many government-to-consumer IT initiatives fall into the above trap. IT in governance is not a slogan, and it should not be an excuse to wrap the public in even more layers of red tape. Let’s get it right. This is the 21st century and long queues belong to the textbooks; let’s send them there.

Prashant L Rao
Head of Editorial Operations

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Indian Express - Business Publications Division

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