Technology & Governance: Do the twain meet?

The Covid-19 pandemic brought with it an increasing and probably an irreversible dependence on technology. Right from education to health to food delivery and entertainment, there are technology solutions available to suit the needs and budget of consumers. What started as a luxury service restricted to only those who are digitally active, has now permeated to anyone who owns a smartphone.

In such a situation, can governance and policymaking be insulated from leveraging technology to help make decisions?

Source: Pixabay

It is becoming increasingly relevant on the convergence and the role played by Sarkar, Samaaj and Bazaar towards ensuring that any policy decision does not leave any of these segments worse off. The one intervention that connects these three pillars of democracy is technology, with the potential to enable interactions that are seamless, demographic agnostic and inclusive in its approach. It is only when the points of view of each of these segments are taken into consideration, will the policy creation be a truly inclusive process.

However, India’s government machinery has not been equipped with the necessary capacity in terms of manpower or technology to be able to gather and process citizen opinions on policy matters. The Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy (PLCP) introduced in 2014, requires government departments to publish draft laws in the public domain for citizens to access and share feedback on them. As expressed in this article, as per an analysis, between June 2014 and May 2019, 186 Bills were introduced out of which 142 saw no prior consultations.

While in spirit, the PLCP policy guideline intends to consider citizen opinions, its effective execution is severely constrained by the absence of a robust and sustainable system that is able to reach out to citizens, capture their feedback and process it in a manner that aids with decision making.

With the growing influence of social media, everyone with a social media account has the opportunity to present their opinion on a policy matter. Oftentimes, relevant, objective and well meaning opinions get lost in the melee of voices that throng such platforms. For any government official to be able to sift the chaff from the grain, is understandably an arduous task. What results is public opinion not being considered or even worse misinterpreted. The Indian government has taken initiatives to upskill its manpower through training initiatives like the iGOT Karmayogi platform. However, such efforts can be truly amplified by leveraging technological interventions to bridge the gap between what citizens want and what the government provides for in its laws and policies. State capacity is usually constrained by the following factors:

Precedents for such initiatives exist in the international arena. Taiwan’s government leveraged civic tech, through a platform called Pol.is, that allows citizens to express their votes on policy issues. It encourages sharing of diverse opinions and allows for constructive dialogue to pave the way for making policy recommendations. In Iceland, an open source platform Your Priorities, connects civil society with the government facilitating a democratic decision making process.

India in comparison is a much larger, diverse and complex country by way of its demographic breakup, and any direct comparison may be tainted to be a product of isomorphic mimicry. However, it cannot be denied for any governance activity to be truly democratic and inclusive in its intent and execution, there is a strong need for neutral, apartisan and accessible technology platforms to be leveraged to reach out to and connect with citizens.

The government’s own platform myGov has taken a step in this direction by allowing for citizens to access and comment on recent initiatives taken up by the government. However the representation of various stakeholders and their opinions being considered towards policy making is a matter of debate and discussion. It brings to light that apart from being able to gather opinions, being able to analyze them objectively is an equally important aspect. The usage of Artificial Intelligence tools and Natural Language Processing (NLP) based solutions hold immense potential in this aspect. Citizenlab is one such platform that leverages NLP to analyze citizen feedback.

The usage of such tools does not come without its own line of caution. It is very important for technologies to maintain the context of citizens’ opinions without coloring them with any preheld bias or assumptions. There are some aspects that such solutions would have to address:

Having said that, objectivity and transparency are two qualities that give technology aided decision making an upper hand as compared to an opaque, subjective decision making system that is not backed by evidence.

It is also an avenue that allows for a partnership between the government and civil society. Non-government organizations like Civis, Reap Benefit, Janaagraha, Gramvaani and Haqdarshak have already made the inroads towards reducing the divide between the citizens and government on matters of policy. An added impetus provided with technological support for being able to communicate citizen feedback back to the government, can go a long way in making decision making truly democratic.

To what extent would India be able to encourage and leverage technological solutions for engaging citizens remains to be seen. However it would not be incorrect to say that if not given it timely and due importance, the bridge between the sarkaar and samaaj would only perpetuate, leaving democratic governance relegated to being a concept on paper.

Disclosure: The author of this article is employed with Civic Innovation Foundation (Civis), a non-profit organization that facilitates citizens to submit their feedback on draft policies. The views and opinions expressed in this document are their own, and do not reflect on Civis in any way.

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