India’s digital transformation in the public sector

Corruption_And_ReformIn “Corruption and Reform in India: Public Services in the Digital Age” (Cambridge University Press, 2012), Jennifer Bussell explores why some governments improve public services more effectively than others. Through case studies, interviews and statistical modeling, Bussell shows the extent to which corruption is linked to the timing, management and comprehensiveness of reforms. Bussell is an assistant professor of public affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

How have digital technologies transformed how people do business with the government in India?

In general, governments at both the central and sub-national level in India have attempted in a range of ways to incorporate digital technologies into government processes so as to increase the efficiency and transparency of state operations. A particularly important example of these efforts is one-stop, computerized services centers, most often called Common Service Centres, which have been implemented to varying degrees across the country. These centers, in theory, allow individuals to acquire (in one place) services traditionally housed in different government departments, from income and birth certificates to passports and building permits.

When the centers are implemented well, this means improvements in the service delivery experience of citizens resulting in reduced, or at the very least better managed, lines at government offices, visits to fewer offices for a single service, simplified procedures for filling in applications, reduced discretion on the part of officials—and thus lower levels of corruption and bribe seeking, and reduced time to receive services.

Have digital technologies increased access for all people to government services?

Jennifer Bussell, assistant professor of public affairs

Jennifer Bussell, assistant professor of public affairs

Unfortunately, I would have to say no. While there is clear evidence that service centers can improve the quality of service delivery and reduce the demand for bribes faced by individuals attempting to access state services, these outcomes depend on a comprehensive model of implementation that requires the support of both politicians and bureaucrats. As a result, the benefits of these centers are quite varied.

Variations in the implementation of service center policies imply significant differences in the actual benefits received by citizens across the country. In fact, it’s often those places that have the greatest need for improved services that were the least likely to see improvements from these centers. I argue that this is because the promise of many of these initiatives was also their downfall: the expectation of improved, and less corrupt, services often posed a threat to government actors who depend on bribes acquired during service delivery. Bureaucrats who collect “speed money” or other types of bribes from citizens, and politicians who demand a cut of this income are both at risk of losing access to these sources of income with the introduction of computerized, one-stop service delivery.

Because the prevalence of this “petty” corruption varies across different parts of India, in those places where elites depend on this income for personal benefits, or in many cases to support reelection campaigns, the expectation that more transparent service delivery could limit future inflows of cash can imply significant constraints on incumbents’ ability to retain their seats. In contrast, politicians in areas with lower pre-existing levels of petty corruption should anticipate that reforms will only minimally affect their access to income, as the availability of bribes is low from the outset.

In the book, this is precisely what I found: Those states with high levels of petty corruption were less likely to introduce these computerized centers, implemented fewer and less bribe-prone services within the centers, and were less likely to fully computerize the service delivery process. Perhaps most striking was the fact that the level of petty corruption was the best predictor of state policy; these outcomes were largely unrelated to the wealth or level of development in a state, with poorer and less developed states with lower levels of corruption implementing some of the most impressive improvements to the quality of public services through these centers.

History has established, again and again, that technology is not a panacea. Technology is a tool for individuals and organizations and as new technologies are developed, the uses to which these tools can be put change and develop in often staggering ways. But the users of technology determine these uses, not the technology itself (or its inventors, for that matter). Digital technologies have the potential to dramatically improve service delivery in India, as they have been used to do in many other parts of the world. But in the same way that Indian elites have shaped the degree of improvement in so many parts of the country, similar effects may be observed in other parts of the world, such as in South Africa and Brazil, as I describe in the book.

The nature of influence over technology has broader ramifications and perhaps the most pertinent area today for considering the relationship between political elites and technology is in the realm of protest and revolution. Analysts have previously highlighted the control that national governments retain over Internet systems within their territorial boundaries, and we continue to observe examples of this influence. While digital technologies and especially social media have played an important role in communication during recent national protests around the world, government moves to limit Internet access, most notably in both Egypt and China, highlighted the continued relevance of state power in an era of rapid and decentralized communication. The incentives of individuals and groups who control technological networks and the technologies themselves, no matter in what country, will for the foreseeable future play a fundamental role in shaping the contours of technology’s use, and therefore its benefits to the broader public.