Measuring Rural e-Governance
India is predominantly a rural country with two-third population and 70% workforce residing in rural areas. Rural economy constitutes nearly 50% of the National Income. Thus, the rural population’s sustained growth and development is critical to the overall growth and inclusive development. Those living in rural areas deserve better living standards for sanitation, housing, piped drinking water, and electricity. Better education, health facilities, skills, jobs, and consumption are considered equally crucial by an archetypal Indian rural household. This scenario holds true in many of the Asian countries with significant rural population such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, and other parts of the world such as Latin America and Africa. The migration from rural to urban is one of the side effects if the development is not equitably addressed.
To address these issues, the efforts are being done by respective Governments in terms of development initiatives, at individual and/ or family and/ or community level, and duly supported by e-Governance measures. Though the progress and impact may vary from province to province, region to region and country to country.
The digital-first emphasis brought to the forefront by the Digital India Programme has highlighted the opportunity to catalyse and energise the rural development initiatives. There are several ICT systems which were rolled out to support the Government Schemes and programmes catering to the rural areas. ICT infrastructure was strengthened through rollout of digital connectivity and setting up of Telecentres in villages through which ICT applications would provide services.
In this context it is pertinent to assess the impact of the rural e-Governance initiatives and gather evidence to realistically analyse its success and breaches. Quite a few e-Governance assessment frameworks have been developed by various entities to measure the readiness and impact. They have been discussed in the paper “Analyzing E-Governance Assessment Initiatives: An Exploratory Study” [(Alarabiat et al., 2018). The frameworks are (a) UN E-Government Development Index (b) EU E-Government Benchmark (c) the Waseda–IAC International Digital Government Ranking, (d) OECD Digital Government Transformation. In India, National e-Governance Service Delivery Assessment (NeSDA) initiative has been undertaken by Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances (DAPRG), Government of India. This framework primarily assesses all the service portals for State/ UT and Central Ministry on 7 key parameters, viz. Accessibility, Content Availability, Ease of Use, Information Security & Privacy, End-service Delivery, Integrated Service Delivery and Status & Request Tracking.
In NeSDA 2021, the framework is proposed to include additional 6 parameters, viz., Open Government Data, E-Participation, Alignment to IndEA (India Enterprise Architecture), Alignment to SDG (UN’s Sustainability Development Goals), Leveraging Emerging Technologies, and Cyber Resilience.
The frameworks or tools discussed above are generic and holds good in overall assessment in normal circumstances across urban & rural areas. These frameworks though fulfilling are however, not tailored for rural areas and a one-size-fit-all does not elucidate the nuances in rural e-Governance. The book “e-Governance for Development: A focus on rural India” authored by Shirin Madon discuss the prevailing models and practices of e-Governance and the author argues that local governance practices are vital for performance improvement of e-Governance in rural areas. In the paper titled “Understanding and Measuring eGovernment: International Benchmarking Studies”, Richard Heeks presents conceptual framework for measuring e-government. Another paper titled “ICT for Rural Development: An Inclusive Framework for e-Governance” propose a systems-based framework for e-Governance systems that results in economic and social empowerment of people at the grassroots (Charru Malhotra et al). In fact, the findings of a research study done way back, in 2005, amply substantiate the efforts to assess the usefulness of enabling ICT intervention in Rural India which was published in a paper “Enabling ICT for Rural India” collaboratively done by Asia-Pacific Research Centre(APRC), Stanford University and NIC with participation of Prof Rafiq Dossani, DC Misra and Roma Jhaveri.
However, this is just a beginning and need to be carried forward. This article is an attempt to strengthen the understanding and take forward this initiative with further insight to facilitate development of a framework to measure the effectiveness and impact of the rural e-Governance programmes.
Rural e-Governance Dimensions
Rural e-Governance can be measured through the following dimensions:
(i) ICT Infrastructure : It plays a foundational role in the rollout of e-Governance services. The success of ICT and e-governance projects lies in the availability of infrastructure by the Government for public accessibility. These can be measured through the presence of optical fibre backbone, telecom towers and 4G network availability, number of households with mobile connections or personal computers, amount of data consumed, availability of telecentres and kiosks etc.
(ii) Access to e-Governance services: Availability of the number of e-Governance services for rural areas and the ease of access of such services is an indicator to the success of the digital services. Better accessibility would lower the cost of availing such services.
(iii) Mobile First : It is a practice of starting the development with respect to the mobile user or a mobile device first. It favours lightweight and low-bandwidth design that can be responsive based on-screen size and available capabilities. Rural users are more likely to have smartphone than laptops / desktops to access e-governance services.
(iv) E-Literacy and awareness : Level of education complemented by basic awareness of IT skills, awareness of the several e-Governance initiatives and services available.
(v) Usage behaviour : Pattern of usage in terms of consumption or utilization of the services, behavioural change in the rural society in seeking the e-governance services such as e-Health, online education, skills enhancement etc.
(vi) Localized content : Availability of localized content from rural areas for e-commerce, tourism, consumption of content by non-local and external players such as industries. This requires and can be facilitated by each rural unit having their own distinct & configurable website, managed by Village Secretary, such as being created in India for each Gram Panchayat(i.e. Rural Local elected Government comprising set of villages) as a part of National Panchayat Portal sponsored by Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Govt. of India
(vii) Employment and productivity : Generation of alternate source of income through employment locally or remotely, improvement in productivity through information available, innovations at the grassroot level
(viii) Grievance redressal : Ease with which grievance can be raised and resolved
(ix) Participatory governance : Feedback and regular participation in improving governance, shift in policy (devolution of fund, function & functionaries to rural local Government) and implementation by reciprocating to the actual needs of the locality. If devolution is of fair degree, the governance & services of local people is likely to be met by local Government unit and dependence on ICT is considerably reduced since geography gets shirked within a village so is gap between ruler/provider and ruled/consumer. Therefore, participatory & decentralised governance is indirectly reducing ICT intervention from certain perspective in local-to-local context.
(x) Inclusion : Inclusive growth by reducing the social and economic inequalities, access to e-governance services by socially backward and marginalized communities, all genders, language, region, disability, age groups or other status. It would encompass financial, business, and regulatory inclusion. This is to ensure that eGovernance measures ensure balanced transformation of Information ecology of the rural unit with maximum gains.
Contextualizing to the maturity of e-governance programmes and demographics, suitable model can be built using this framework. With these impactful dimensions, drilling them into measurable Key Performance Indicators based on actual data, an Index can be prepared.