“These people just don’t want to work,'' my father uttered in an exasperated tone, as he got back from his annual trip to the municipal office. He had gone to pay his property tax. His rant continued, “Why are the queues so long, why does it take so much time to process one payment, why can’t there be more counters?”. This rant was a yearly ritual. It is also the standard experience for most Indians accessing government services.
While government employees in India are characterised as ‘lazy’, the reality is quite different. At the municipality level, most employees are overworked. They have additional duties beyond their day job. These range from election duty (which includes enumeration, conducting polling, and maintaining polling stations), ration distribution during Covid lockdowns, organising state functions and events, assisting with disaster relief, census data collection, to delivering and overseeing state or central schemes.
On a visit to Punjab, a revenue officer in Zirakpur showed us why the delivery of services is slow. Pointing to a storage room full of files, he said “Every time a citizen asks for an old record, I need to leave the counter and search for it manually.” He added that his cousin, who is not even a class 10 graduate and drives a cab, uses multiple mobile apps; he - a graduate - is still drowning in a sea of files. The technological revolution, he felt, had left him behind.
Our experience of creating digital public goods to improve urban governance in India has taught us that the oft-forgotten beneficiary of digitising governments is the frontline government employee. A 2019 survey on the implementation of ‘Pura Seva’ e-governance program in Andhra Pradesh shows that with processes like electronic instead of manual filing, 96 per cent of Urban Local Body (ULB) employees surveyed reported enhanced quality of work.
With e-governance, employees no longer have to sift through reams of documents and files to locate citizen records. Going paperless has helped save 11 hours a week on an average per employee. A ULB employee in Punjab’s Rayya district told us how earlier it would take him about 20 minutes to manually calculate property tax. Now all he does is type in the property ID on the computer, and it is done in minutes. This has translated into reduced workload, less scope for manual errors, and efficiency in municipality offices.
Less paper and files at government offices have also helped restore employee dignity at the workplace. The visual of cramped offices littered with heaps of old files and records is slowly becoming a thing of the past. There are even health benefits: the improved conditions have made these office spaces less appealing for rats and mice.
An enhanced employee experience has altered the citizen experience too. Often overwhelmed with work, government employees’ frustration at times translates into a negative citizen experience. But our data from Punjab shows that post-digitisation, the average time taken to resolve citizen complaints is down from 45 days to 7 days. Moreover, with access to real-time, digitised updates on citizen complaints and faster-moving citizen queues, the chances of an altercation between citizens and government employees have also gone down.
Working on a computer, an experience which was earlier reserved for those employed with a multinational, has become a source of pride. Municipal employees’ tasks have become more versatile, creating new opportunities for professional development. Equipped with modern tools to do their job, both their efficiency and self-esteem improve.
Since every service that is digitised gets a corresponding dashboard, municipal employees also have access to reliable and structured data at all times. This substantially boosts their ability to manage the performance of their cities and towns, and direct resources to high-traffic areas. This is leading to quality planning that is data-driven. For instance, grievance redressal trends can help anticipate an increase in pothole complaints in monsoons, allowing the city to be better prepared before the season begins.
To be fair, the transition to digitised working is not without its challenges. Many older employees say they have difficulty adjusting to working on a computer. They end up relying on their younger colleagues, which can instead increase workload. However, with the right training and assigning digitised tasks to tech-savvy support staff, these issues can be resolved.
The success of e-governance depends heavily on those in public service jobs. For digital governance to take off in a big way, it is important that we build enough incentives and support systems for government employees in our digitisation plans. If it is both designed and presented as a system that will improve the lives of government employees themselves, there is a higher chance of securing their enthusiastic participation.
Viraj Tyagi is CEO, eGovernments Foundation. Kinshu Dang works in the CEO’s office at eGovernments Foundation