Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Complexity breeds corruption

One of the biggest drivers of corruption in the India is the complexity involved in interfacing with Government departments. Anyone who has applied for passport, or a driving license, or a voter's id here is well aware of the myriad of processes and procedures that is encountered in the interaction.

This complexity is driven by multiple factors:
1. a lack of understanding or awareness of the process
2. the multitude of specifications that need to be addressed and the range of hand-offs involved
3. the number of human processing points involved
4. a lack of service levels or clarity in turn-around times - which often provides a perception of greater complexity

The average man who seeks to independently interface with Government machinery often gets frustrated by this complex set of opaque processes, and is forced to utilize middlemen who provide a greater understanding and structure to the process.

Now, it is fair to understand that the use of middlemen (touts, brokers, agents, consultants!, call them whatever you will) often occurs in public and private spheres where is significant complexity involved. Take travel ticketing: the rise of the travel agent industry is a function of the significant complexity involved in planning travel and booking tickets among the range of options available. Middlemen often provide a layer of encapsulation to manage complex processes. To that extent, it is not wrong.

Where it becomes a wrong is when the middlemen come in cahoots with officers to maintain the complexity. This drives corruption and inefficiency in the system, as the officers have now a vested interest in slowing it down.

Where it becomes wrong is when the process becomes exploitative and accessible to only a privileged few in the population who have the capacity to pay. When a free public service becomes a pricey interaction, where the wealthy have the option to pay 'speed money', it becomes a wrong.

Unfortunately, this is a reality in most parts of India today.

So what can the Government do?

a. Increase citizen awareness and provide transparency through better technology use
Providing information about services online, and providing means to access Government services online is a big way to mitigate the complexity involved. It improves the accessibility of services, provides greater transparency and helps manage work-load better.

Enable self service online. People who have worked in the contact center industry know this as one of the most effective ways of reducing the volume of processing requests. With most Government departments claiming to be buried under the load of volume, this is an effective approach.

The RTI Act has clearly been a path-breaking piece of legislation in improving Government transparency (I made an RTI application during a passport re-issuance, and got detailed process information within a week of putting it in. That was a 'Wow!' moment for me). Now its time to the RTI applications online - the current process of making offline applications in an unstructured format makes it cumbersome for applicants, and makes queries open ended for Government departments.

The Electronic Service Delivery Act is a foresighted piece of legislation in the works to move services online, though its up-take by States and the extent of its implementation still needs to be seen.

Better still, it is time for the Indian Government to proactively move data online. Government 2.0 initiatives in the US have been a great hit in improving citizen access and interaction, and its time for India to emulate these. The Ministry of IT's draft Framework document for use of Social media is an interesting start.

b. Simplify processes and rules, and standardize
Awareness and transparency will not be enough if Governmental processes continue to remain as complex as they are currently. The Government needs to take a close look at the number of steps and processes required in all citizen interfacing processes, and prune relentlessly.

Isin't there a better alternative to having stamp papers, court fees, court stamps on almost every application? (there must be alternative ways and means of financing the judiciary). Isin't there an alternative to having gazetted officers and notaries stamp every affidavit or declaration?

And standardize. Most Governmental procedures involve multiple levels of citizen identification or authentication, and simplifying this into one standard will help reduce complexity significantly. That's why UID has so much potential if managed well.

c. Institute a customer service culture
It is time for Government departments and officers to realize that citizens are their true customers, rather than viewing the service as a favor, as most currently seem to. A change in attitude will go a long way in improving the interaction into a more pleasing one, and give greater confidence to citizens that middlemen are not required.

Better still, it is time for the Government to consider instituting service levels (after all, isn't it 'For the people'). At least for the most common of interactions. The lack of a definitive turn-around time is one of the biggest concerns for citizens making an application. The Delhi Government's start in this - the Right to Citizen of Time Bound Delivery Act 2011 - is a brilliant move.

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India definitely needs to reduce the complexity of its citizen-Government interfaces if it needs to has to attack the malaise of corruption in the system. While there have been attempts at various fronts, we need more serious thought and effort behind this issue.

(For the record, this post is written as an outcome of one such extremely grevious Government interaction) 
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