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Making state agencies citizen-friendly

LiveMint logoLiveMint 17-04-2017 Mahesh Krishnamurthy

The offices of our state agencies, be they police stations, courts or income-tax offices, are decidedly citizen-unfriendly. They make simple things complex. Not only does one need a Permanent Account Number (PAN), but also an Aadhaar card, a driver’s licence, a Permanent Retirement Account Number (PRAN) for the National Pension Scheme, and yet another number for accessing the Provident Fund. While Aadhaar will accept a bank statement as proof of residence, the regional transport office (RTO) will not. The RTO will, however, accept Aadhaar as proof of address! But it will not accept a driver’s licence it has itself issued! A bank will ask for know-your-customer documents to open a new account even from long-term customers. Opening a demat account requires at least 20 signatures.

An actual example will illustrate my point. To get a photocopy of one’s answer book from a university exam, a leading government university requires a two-sided application form with two signatures, photocopies of current and previous marksheets, and a photocopy of the question paper. Intriguingly, they do not ask for a copy of the hall ticket.

What can be a brief, one-sided application becomes a 10-page document. If you want to get your paper re-evaluated, you have to provide all the same information again. Photocopy shops must love this. Needless to say, the university already has 95% of this information. A process that can be simple and possibly completely online is instead a paper chase for both the student and the university.

In addition to the complexity with documents, there is the Kafkaesque complexity of interacting with a government office.

You cannot reliably know what paperwork is needed without visiting the office. These requirements, as the above example illustrates, can be non-intuitive, which means multiple visits are inevitable.

Forms that should be easily available for free are often only available at the local photocopy shop for a fee. You have no way of knowing how much time your work will take and in most cases cannot make an appointment for a specific time.

Once the process is done, there is no easy way of getting a status update. Hence, those who can, interact with the government through an intermediary, such as a chartered accountant to interact with the tax department, or an agent for the RTO.

In terms of total cost, we end up paying more for our government services, often more than people in rich countries.

In California, I was able to transfer ownership of my car in about 10 minutes by filling a one-page form and paying a $20 fee. The effort to do the same in Mumbai is manifold in terms of time, cost, and the associated stress. This inefficiency is effectively a regressive tax.

Petty corruption thrives in such a system with an army of touts and agents infesting most government offices. We have also created massive privacy and security issues, with photocopies of our identity documents widely distributed and handled without adequate care.

All this is made worse by shabby infrastructure which is insensitive to the needs of citizens. I would venture to say that citizens feel disrespected by and are generally unhappy with the user-friendliness of government agencies.

Other countries have made specific efforts to improve citizen-government interactions. The Paperwork Reduction Act in the US requires the government to justify any information it seeks, explain how it will be used, and to estimate how much effort it would take for a person to provide this. No form can be introduced until it has been approved by a specialist agency with expertise in process design. The US government publishes an estimate of the total time required by citizens to fill its forms and strives to reduce this.

In India, the government has recently made several efforts to simplify processes—passport renewals are now quite user-friendly, self-attestation of documents is being allowed, and some e-governance initiatives are quite successful.

What is needed is a more systematic and comprehensive effort, with significant ongoing citizen participation, to improve the government-citizen interface. This effort should reduce unnecessary interactions between the citizen and the government, and make essential interactions as efficient as possible, ideally without requiring in-person visits.

It should explicitly factor cost-benefit analysis into the system design. As an example, two-factor authentication is not cost-effective for small-value transactions. Asking for multiple identity and address proofs makes little sense.

The government should leverage technology, through schemes such as Aadhaar and Digi-locker, and create an information gateway so changes made with one government agency will—with user consent—be appropriately reflected with other agencies.

The government should also take privacy and data security issues into account. It should provide assistance to citizens who require it so they do not have to use agents or middlemen. There should be a mechanism for continuous improvement, with feedback from users.

Such an effort will be a big step towards “minimum government, maximum governance”. It will not only improve governance, but also reduce the cost of government and increase public satisfaction with the government.

This is a great opportunity for one of the states to take the lead and provide an example of how a modern government should interact with its citizens.

Mahesh Krishnamurthy has worked in the corporate sector for 30 years. He is interested in environmental and governance-related issues.

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