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‘Design-reality gaps’ in municipal reforms

By Anjali K Mohan and Balaji Parthasarathy

“E-governance is about using ICTs to improve government processes themselves, making them more efficient, and about transforming the relationship between governments and citizens by enabling more direct interaction and fostering inclusive development”

 

--Opening address, Helen Clark, UNDP (2012),Together Toward Digital Inclusion”
2nd International E-Governance Conference, Baghdad (1)

Introduction
For the last two decades, various international organisations, particularly the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank Group (WBG), have encouraged the deployment and application of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to foster human development. While the UNDP’s focus on ICTs as a means to inclusive development was introduced in 1992 (2), the WBG’s ICT sector strategy in 2000 recognised the potential of ICTs to foster economic development and reduce poverty (The World Bank Group, 2011). (3) This line of thinking has influenced these organisations to support ICTs for Development (ICTD) and consider e-governance as critical to equitable development. The basic premise is that access to information is critical to enable greater inclusion, human empowerment, and therefore poverty reduction. ICTs, it is claimed, play an important role in not just empowering citizens, but also in aiding local governments to perform better. While on the one hand, it is argued that informed citizens are better equipped to access services, exercise their rights, negotiate effectively, and hold state and non-state actors accountable, on the other, improved local governance (through e-governance) is likely to enhance service delivery and introduce greater responsiveness to the requirements of citizens.  Consequently, since the late-1990s, many countries, including India, have initiated e-governance to enhance public sector efficiencies and streamline governance systems to support equitable development (UNDESA, 2012).

Yet, the first wave of e-governance interventions did not yield the desired results, and were characterised, more often than not, by failure (Heeks, 2003, Ciborra, 2005). Consequently, recent debates, while acknowledging the hype about the initial success stories, have also begun to focus on the reasons why e-governance projects fail, especially in developing countries (Heeks, 2003, Ciborra, 2005, Dada, 2006). Heeks (2003) articulates a ‘design-reality gap’ as the main reason for the failure of e-governance projects. According to him, there is a mismatch between the requirements of the users of technology at the grassroots level (the reality) and the understanding of these requirements by those who are designing technological tools to facilitate e-governance (design). (4)

This paper takes the Municipal Reforms Programme (MRP) (5) of the Government of Karnataka (GoK), India, to demonstrate the design-reality gaps and their manifestations. The MRP is an e-governance intervention of the GoK which is currently being implemented across the state. The programme mandates the implementation of five reforms which are described in Section 1.1. The reforms are expected to result in the “creation of well-governed and functioning cities that are able to finance and deliver basic urban services for the urban poor in a sustainable manner”. (6) The implementation of reforms is expected to result in efficiency in service delivery mechanisms and the means to finance these mechanisms through enhanced state-citizen participation and accountability.

This paper focuses on two of the five reforms, both of which envisage direct state-citizen interaction, ie Aasthi, and the birth and death registration and certification system. Section 1.2 describes the working of Aasthi and the birth and death registration and certification system in the urban local bodies (ULBs) of Hassan and Bidar (7). This section demonstrates how, in Hassan, the design-reality gaps derive from the failure to understand the needs of the ULB and the purpose for which technology is being deployed. However, in Bidar, the ULB has bridged this gap by understanding its own mandate vis-à-vis citizens as well as the requirements of citizens. In doing so it has managed to reach the benefit of these e-governance interventions to citizens.

The paper concludes in Section 1.3 to show how the design-reality gap in Hassan has resulted in a clutter of middlemen inhibiting citizens’ access to services. These middlemen constitute what Malhotra (2002, 102) refers to as the “informal government” which operates in parallel with the formal government. In contrast, in Bidar, an understanding of technology deployment vis-à-vis citizen’s requirement has allowed citizens ease of access to basic services.  Bidar’s proactive understanding of the citizen’s requirements has resulted in a rethinking (of) Indian bureaucracy to account for the informal government (Malhotra 2002). Furthermore, Bidar has strengthened this formality by introducing technology at this level. Through the case studies of Hassan and Bidar, this paper argues not only for a fuller understanding of the user needs and purpose for which technology is introduced, but also a deeper understanding of the political contexts within which technology is introduced.

1.1. The Municipal Reforms Programme – An overview
ULBs in India are charged with the responsibility of planning for and ensuring social and economic development within their jurisdictions. (8) This includes efficient provisioning of basic services like water supply and sanitation, roads, stormwater drainage, solid waste management and street lighting, regulation of land use and building construction, issuing of birth and death certificates, urban poverty alleviation and slum upgradation. Delivering these services requires ULBs to raise financial resources, mainly from property tax. It is to help ULBs to play their roles more efficiently that the e-governance reforms described in the rest of this section were introduced. Thus ULBs, and the citizens they serve, are the main beneficiaries or pivot of these reforms.

The MRP aims to implement five reforms in 213 ULBs in Karnataka. These include: i) the creation of a website for all the 213 ULBs in the state. This requires all ULBs to put information regarding their functioning in the public domain. Currently all ULBs in the state have their own website (9); ii) the Fund Based Double Entry Accrual Accounting System (FBDEAAS) which includes computerisation of ULB accounts, thereby allowing ULBs to capture revenue and expenditure in real time, ie income as realised in the accounting period in which it is earned, regardless of when cash is received, and expenses recorded as they are owed, instead of when they are paid. This facilitates preparation of a balance sheet of income and expenditure accounts, a prerequisite to manage funds and mobilise resources. For budgetary control, the tool generates reports as and when the entries are recorded. This is in contrast to the old practice of single-entry cash-based accounting where revenues are recognised only when cash is received and deposited and expenses are recorded when bills are paid; iii) a birth and death registration and certification system to register current births and deaths online and to issue computerised birth and death certificates. Birth and death certificates are a part of the Civil Registration System and constitute a statutory function of ULBs according to the Registration of Birth and Death Act, 1969. It mandates recording and registering live births, stillbirths and deaths on continuous and permanent basis. These records are legal documents (proof of age, identity, nationality) besides being a source of official statistics. ULBs in Karnataka maintained manual registers of births and deaths. Certificates were also issued manually, which was time-consuming. Moreover, sifting through these manual records was a task and often, national- and state-level agencies did not have easy access to these databases. As part of the MRP, the GoK began computerising these records, introducing online registration of births and deaths, and issuing computerised certificates in the ULBs. Since 2007, all 213 ULBs in the state have digitised birth and death records and are issuing computerised certificates; iv) a Public Grievance and Redressal Module (PGRM), also referred to as the Helpline,assists citizens with registering and tracking complaints/ suggestions about the provision of basic services through multiple channels -- internet, phone, email and paper. A PGR cell has been established in all ULBs to facilitate registration and tracking of complaints. NGOs are involved in maintaining this cell around the clock. Complaint redressal is tracked by the cell and the status is regularly updated in the online tool. The online tool generates bi-weekly reports on the types of complaints as well as the trends and patterns regarding the location of problems across the city (10); v) a Property Taxation Information System (PTIS), also referred to as Aasthi, to computerise the functions of the revenue departments of ULBs. The main objective is to enhance revenue of ULBs through effective taxation of properties, both buildings and land, since taxes raised from property constitute the single largest source of own revenue for the ULBs. (11) Aasthi requires property owners to file taxes as per self-assessment based on the Capital Value System (CVS) outlined in the Karnataka Municipalities Act, 1964. (12)

1.2 Reforms in Hassan and Bidar
As one enters the Hassan ULB, one notices citizens cluttered around middlemen in order to fill property tax applications. Field visits, interviews and informal conversations with citizens, ULB representatives and political representatives in Hassan revealed that these middlemen are the officially appointed ‘tax advisors’ who assist citizens in calculating property tax for their respective properties for any given year. While Aasthi generates a computerised tax-paid receipt to the citizen after tax is paid, the online tool is yet to provide a digitised tax calculation facility to the citizen. (13) In the absence of this facility, the GoK has appointed ‘tax advisors’.

Interviews with citizens as well as the ULB officials showed that the ‘tax advisors’ are a necessity as the process of tax calculation is “complicated and requires not only a thorough understanding of taxation nuances, but also an updated knowledge of applicable rates and discounts which Bangalore [GoK] keeps changing. As citizens we do not have this knowledge and Rs 25-50 is not too much to pay for this convenience” (Citizen, Hassan ULB,  March 1, 2012).

Yet, several interviews also revealed that many a times these infomediaries, depending on the situation, were charging more than the mandated Rs 25-50 for the service.

A second set of middlemen or infomediaries were observed outside the gates of the ULB. Discussions revealed that these are distinct in status and function from those inside. Those inside the premises of the ULB are ‘official’ – they are government-appointed and assist the general public in filling forms required to calculate property taxation. Those outside are ‘not official’. Yet, they mediate citizen interaction with the ULB and assist the citizen in all matters other than property tax.

As with Aasthi, an online tool has been introduced to facilitate birth and death registration and certification. While the registration and certification is either free of cost (if done within a stipulated time period), or costs a nominal amount, availing this service requires a citizen to furnish the name, date and place of birth/death on a printed application that the health department of the ULB is supposed to provide. But fieldwork showed that while these applications were ‘out of stock’ in the health department, they were readily available with the infomediaries outside the ULB, for a fee. Furthermore, citizens also revealed that they had to bear an extra amount to have the application filled. These infomediaries constitute what Malhotra (2002) refers to as the informal bureaucracy, since they are neither on the payroll of the department, nor are licensed or regulated. 

In contrast, as one approaches the Bidar ULB, tax advisors are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, citizens are seen queuing up at a Citizen Service Centre (CSC) located at the entrance to the ULB. Citizens expressed their satisfaction with the system as “filing of tax requires only half-a-day leave from office” (Personal interview, Citizen, Bidar). It was gathered that, unlike Hassan, Bidar installed an online tool that calculates property tax for the citizen. This move, along with other backend integration measures allowed Bidar to take the benefits of this reform to the citizen. (14)

Bidar has digitised the calculation of property tax through a ‘helpdesk’ in the Citizen Service Centre. This helpdesk continues to collect a fee of Rs 25 from the citizen as service charge towards filling the property tax form. However, unlike in Hassan, where it is pocketed by the ‘tax advisor’, this fee is revenue for the ULB. Furthermore, the CSC has other helpdesks assisting in filling forms for birth and death certificates or any other requirements of the citizen.  Thus Bidar, in understanding and addressing the primary requirement of citizens, especially the poor, has managed to take the benefits of these e-governance interventions to the public.

1.3 Conclusion
This paper provides an overview of the implementation of citizen-centred reforms in the ULBs of Hassan and Bidar in Karnataka. It shows how computerisation of the basic functions of the ULBs has produced divergent outcomes. In Hassan, it has resulted in instituting a clutter of middlemen – human infomediaries between the citizen and ULB. While most citizens acknowledged the criticality of the infomediaries, they also added that many a times the ‘tax advisors’ would charge more that the stipulated amount, ie while providing much-needed infomediation, the infomediaries also seek charges from citizens. These charges are  also demanded by an informal bureaucracy in the birth and death registration process.

In contrast, in Bidar, an understanding of technology deployment has facilitated ease of access for citizens. Bidar’s decision to deploy technology to service the citizen has resulted in formalising the informal government while also strengthening this formality by introducing technology at this level. The working of reforms in Hassan and Bidar shows how design-reality gaps can derive from various situations. The experience of Aasthi, and the birth and death registration and certification system, emphasise the need to understand the purpose of introducing technology -- to ease access of citizens to services.

Anjali Karol Mohan has recently submitted her PhD dissertation at the International Institute of Information Technology in Bangalore, India. Prior to her academic training, she  worked for 18 years as an urban and regional planner.

Dr Balaji Parthasarathy is an ICICI Professor at the International Institute of Information Technology in Bangalore, India. His teaching and research interests focus on the relationship between technological innovation, economic globalisation and social change.

Endnotes

1) http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/presscenter/speeches/2012/12/02/helen-clark-together-toward-digital-inclusion-/ (last accessed on February 12, 2014)

2) The UNDP’s focus started with its action plan for sustainable development as outlined in Agenda 21 agreed upon at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. http://www.undpegov.org/sites/undpegov.org/files/eGovernance%20ROAR%20mapping%202011%20with%20Annex.pdf (last accessed on February 12, 2014)

3) The World Bank Group (2011), Sector Strategies Approach paper on Information and Communication technologies http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTICTSTRATEGY/Resources/2010-12-27_ICT_Sector_Strategy_Approach_Paper_EN.pdf  (last accessed on February 12, 2014)

4) Heeks (2003) identifies three archetypal situations in which failure is likely to occur: Hard-Soft gaps; Private -Public gaps and Country-context specific gaps.

5) The MRP was initiated in 2002-03 with assistance of the Asian Development Bank as the Nirmala Nagara Programme in 49 urban local bodies (ULBs) in the state. In 2005-06, the programme was scaled as the Karnataka Municipal Reforms Programme (under World Bank funding) to cover the remaining 164 ULBs. Both programmes are popularly referred to as the MRP. Municipal reforms constitute an important component of both the NNP as well as the KMRP. While the former supported poverty alleviation schemes, solid waste management, access to toilets for the urban poor, rainwater harvesting, property tax reforms and property-related GIS, computerisation and fund-based accounting systems, the latter has four main components: institutional development & technical assistance; investment support (general urban investment and public health), Bangalore development (capacity-building and investment support) and incremental operating costs to KUIDFC. Institutional development & technical assistance envisages electronic service delivery which is the focus of this article.

6) The World Bank, 2005 http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/NEWS/0,,contentMDK:20851897~pagePK:34370~piPK:34424~theSitePK:4607,00.html (last accessed on February 13, 2014)
http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-karnataka/world-bank-clears-216million-loan-for-state-project/article3165147.ece

7) In India, ULBs are a constitutionally recognised third-tier of governance, responsible for the provisioning of services in cities and towns.

8) The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992 mandates a three-tier governance system (national-state-local) as against the post-independence two-tier structure (national-state). It advocates the strengthening of the local level (as a level closest to the people) to improve governance.

9) National-level policies in India require ULBs to publish information about their functioning on a periodic basis. Such information includes, but is not limited to, statutorily audited quarterly statements of performance covering operating and financial parameters, and service levels for various services being rendered by the ULBs. The main objective is to promote transparency and accountability in governance.

10) These reports are accessible to the administrative head  and are expected to “aid the Municipal Commissioners and other officials to streamline the municipal functions through process reengineering [and] proper planning [which] in turn bring about transparency of information and smoother delivery of municipal services” (CMAK 2006: 3, Ranganathan, 2010, 77)

11) ULBs in India are historically weak tiers of governance, dependant largely on national and state fiscal transfers for their functioning.

12) Taxation is based on the market value of the property which in turn is guided by: location and usage (residential/ commercial/industrial/public); occupancy (self-occupied/ tenanted); construction type and depreciation factor. For the purpose of taxation the valuation is based on market value guidelines published under Section 45B of the Stamp Act, 1957.

13) While the online tool caters to all aspects of property tax assessment and collection, the GoK, to begin with, decided to digitise only one step in the process -- ie issuing computerised tax-paid receipts. This would allow them to build a database of properties within ULBs, thereby giving them a handle on the available tax base. 

14) Apart from having a digitised tax calculation tool within the ULB premises, Bidar (unlike Hassan) has also integrated a bank facility (adjacent to the CSC) within the ULB. The citizen therefore does not have to step outside the ULB premises to file taxes. In institutionalising and embedding the tax advisors within the ULB, tax calculation for the citizen has been eased.

References

  1. Ciborra, C. 2005. ‘Interpreting E-Government and Development: Efficiency, Transparency or Governance at a distance?’Information Technology and People, 18 (3). pp 260-279.
  2. Dada, D. 2006. ‘The Failure of E-Government in Developing Countries: A Literature Review’. The Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries, 26 (1). Pp 1-10
  3. Heeks, R. 2003. ‘Most E-Government-for-Development Projects Fail: How Can Risks Be Reduced?’ iGovernment Working Paper Series, Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester
  4. Ranganathan, M. 2010. ‘Fluid Hegemony: A Political Ecology of Water, Market Rule, and Insurgence at Bangalore’s Frontier’. Unpublished PhD dissertation. University of California, Berkeley.
  5. Malhotra, P. (2002) ‘From Hyderabad to “Cyberabad”: Technological Visions and the Everyday Bureaucracy’. Unpublished Bachelor of Arts Thesis. Harvard College.
  6. UNDESA. 2012.  ‘E-Government Survey 2012 – E-Government for the People’ http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un/unpan048065.pdf (last accessed on February 12, 2014)


www.netpehchaan.in, March 2014