Context: The role digital platforms are playing a part in empowering citizens and advancing democracy, especially during COVID-19 outbreak, which has steadfastly demanded the transitioning the government into a digital state. 

More on the news:

  • COVID demonstrated how one element of Digital India - Aadhaar enabled Direct Benefit Transfer - facilitated quick and targeted action. 
  • But COVID also demonstrated how large parts of the Indian state continue to resist, underinvest and delay digitisation. 
  • Recently, CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General), under a new project and law called DATA (Digital Accountability and Transparency Act) proposed the three-phase transition to mandatory digital payments, accounting, and transactions for the government.

Need for such transition: 

  • Unchanged system of transaction from a long time: The Union budget grew from Rs 197 crore in 1947 to Rs 30 lakh crore and total government expenditure may be higher than Rs 70 lakh crore. 
    • But the form and manner of keeping accounts have more or less remained unchanged since Independence.
    • Manual transactions and manual payments often lead to manually entered data at different stages in different databases on different systems. 
    • This makes data unreliable, violates the principle of “single source of truth” and sabotages transparency and good governance. 
  • India’s current gap: Between the digitisation of the private sector and government means our rights as consumers are higher than our rights as citizens.

Proposed Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA):

  • Will make government data accessible: DATA will recognize that digitally empowered citizens require digital public utilities that not only provide e-services but make all government revenue and expenditure data electronic, accessible and searchable.
  • Will provide a national framework and dictionary: To consistently and accurately capture, record, report, publish and analyse data both vertically and horizontally across government. DATA has many other upsides:
    • Recognising off-budget transactions - The last Union budget took steps towards this fiscal transparency and consolidation. 
    • Business continuity - Electronic records cannot be lost or misplaced like files or paper records. 
    • An incontrovertible audit trail: Hence, ease to trace data to its source.
  • Will enable Parliament and legislatures to draw assurance:About that each rupee the government has collected, and each rupee has been spent for the purpose it was allocated.

Challenges: A challenge for DATA is that government “computerisation” has often mechanised manual processes rather than “re-engineered processes”. 

  • This has created siloed IT systems with disparate databases that lack modern data sharing protocols for organic linking like APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).
  • This may lead to breeding of valid concerns of fiscal data being incomparable, obscure, non-traceable and misclassification.

Way ahead:

  • The start point for DATA is mandatory and common data standards for all entities receiving government funds in all forms of funding.
  • The endpoint is a single searchable website to ascertain total government funding by element and entity. 
  • The above can be achieved by following three elements: 
    • 100 per cent end-to-end electronic data capture - This includes all receipts and expenditure transactions including demands, assessment, and invoices should be received, processed, and paid electronically.
    • Data governance for standards across all government entities - This is complex. 
      • Data standards are rules for describing and recording data elements with precise meanings that enable integration, sharing, and interoperability. 
      • Prescribing data elements for all transactions will ensure standardisation, clarify ambiguity, minimise redundant data, and create protocols for integration across different databases.
      • Recurring operations will require a Data Governance Authority.
    • Technology architecture - Must ensure that all IT government systems should conform to a prescribed open architecture framework while ensuring robust security and maintaining privacy.

A citizen-centric view of a single source of government data will be an innovative step towards citizen empowerment. In this backdrop, the digitisation of the Indian state proposed by the government and CAG imagines a giant leap in empowering our citizens.

Source: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/digitising-the-state-6496692/