eTransparency Case Study No.16
VOICE: Using Interactive Television to Improve Local Government Services in India
Case Study Author
Swapna Veldanda (email@example.com)
Vijayawada Municipal Corporation (VMC), an elected city government in Andhra Pradesh state, India, has introduced a multi-channel project (VOICE: Versatile Online Information for Citizen Empowerment) to disseminate information about government activities to citizens, and to enable online services interactions.
VOICE provides a potpourri of government-related information. This includes:
- Contact details for VMC politicians (name, address, ward (electoral area), phone number), and similar details for senior VMC officials.
- Budgetary details: income and expenditure.
- Public notices including health and police alerts.
- Tender notices.
- Statistical information on demographics (births, deaths, population), and taxpayer grievances addressed and settled.
- Schedules of transportation, garbage collection, and other services.
- Tourism-related information.
VOICE also provides online transaction-initiating services including requests for water/sewerage connection, registration for business tendering, registration of complaints and grievances, and application for issuance of birth/death certificates. Taxpayers can also access their 'personal ledger' to see details of taxes paid and owing. Transparency is addressed through automation and information provision for some services. For tendering, for example, the system also provides: the rules and regulations of the tendering process, technical specifications for tenders, records of past bid winners and conditions, details of tender/procurement opportunities, and online access to tender documents.
In addition, the system also provides management information for senior decision-makers within the Corporation. For instance, the Commissioner - VMC's head official - can view statistics on corruption-related complaints.
Role of ICT
The main VOICE servers provide services via the Web (at www.ourvmc.org). However, this service has been largely unsuccessful. As in a number of other Indian locations, the system was also set up to connect the servers via leased lines to kiosks at various locations in the city, through which citizens can access information or initiate transactions. The main innovation within the VOICE system - initiated in mid-2002 - is the link provided from the VMC servers to servers at one of the local cable TV stations. Citizens can then use a combination of their telephone plus TV screen to access information-based services: users tune in to the VOICE channel on their TVs and dial up the server system on their telephones. They can then use their phones as keypads and see the results on-screen as the TV acts as the equivalent of a computer monitor. Instructions are provided in both English and Telugu (the main local language).
Underlying this has been the digitisation of most VMC operations and records, providing a base that can be fed into citizen information and services, as well as internal management information. There are also links from VMC servers to bank branches, enabling credit card payments to be made direct.
In order to undertake basic tasks of paying bills or tendering for contracts or getting licenses and certificates, the citizens of Vijayawada were traditionally forced to travel between many different government offices, located far and wide. Even to undertake a single transaction, they often had to pay repeated visits to those offices and/or were forced to bribe VMC officials in order to get even basic service. As a result, citizens had a very poor image of VMC and were angered by the Corporation's self-centred approach. This had a dangerous knock-on for the Corporation - a gradually declining revenue base as citizens avoided payments, combined with internal leakage of funds for expenditure.
The introduction of the VOICE system was undertaken in an attempt to repair the Corporation's image with citizens by enabling flexible, multi-channel provision of services and information. Automation of key services, thus removing them from the control of VMC staff, was intended to make those services faster, lower cost to both citizens and government, more transparent, and less corrupt. All this, it was hoped, would increase VMC's revenue base. Provision of better management information was intended to help tighten up on internal procedures, including expenditure and handling of public complaints.
The main driver behind introduction of the television-based service was the perceived failure of the earlier Web-based service.
The sponsors of the system are the World Bank (through the Government of India), the State Government of Andhra Pradesh, and Vijayawada Municipal Corporation. Senior officials within VMC were key movers in initiating the project, together with the project team, which was made up from some VMC staff, but was principally staffed by the IT developers, CMC. VMC public servants are strongly affected by the system, and the main intended beneficiaries - at least in overt terms - are the citizens and businesses of the city. There are also a tranche of operational staff, such as database operators within VMC and kiosk operators.
Transparency and the Poor
The initial channel for services and information was the VMC Web site. The population of Vijayawada is estimated at around 1 million, consisting of some 200,000 households. Of these, only around 4,000 households are thought to have their own Internet-connected computers. Thus Web site usage rates were pitiful - just two or three hits per day, with a massive excess of system expenditure over revenue generated. In order to reach out to the majority of the population, VOICE therefore had to look beyond a simple Web-based system. 21 kiosks were installed in various central locations in the city in order to increase the accessibility of services and information. The kiosks are staffed by operators so that computer literacy - or even basic literacy - are not pre-requisites for use. The main direct outreach of VOICE has occurred through the cable TV channel, to which up to half of all households are estimated to have access: many times more than can access the Internet. As a result, the number of system accesses has risen to around 1,000 per day. Where a certificate is requested through this system, it is delivered by post.
Impact: Costs and Benefits
The VOICE project's initial infrastructure was funded by the Federal Ministry of IT (48%), the Andhra Pradesh State Government (32%), and VMC (20%). Costs paid to the developer for the underlying applications were c.US$400,000 divided roughly equally between hardware and system software on the one hand, and application development on the other. The costs for the additional hardware to create the cable TV interface were much lower: less than US$20,000 (i.e. well under 50 US cents per household).
Vijayawada Municipal Corporation provides the following figures as a reflection of system benefits:
- The number of businesses participating in VMC tendering has risen by 40% since VOICE implementation.
- The number of applications for birth/death certificates has doubled.
- VMC revenue has risen by 20%.
The number of complaints registered with VMC has risen by 30 times. Although this may seem something of a strange benefit, it could be taken as a sign of increased confidence in the Corporation: with around 97% of those complaints now said to be resolved, citizens may now perceive their complaints leading to tangible outcomes.
There are no clear figures on corruption, but there is a perception that the rates of bribery have been reduced by the system if for no other reason than by reducing the number of interactions required between citizens and public servants. There is also a perception of a more positive image for the Corporation among citizens: 90% of surveyed users said they were satisfied with VOICE.
Evaluation: Failure or Success?
There has been no independent evaluation of the project. Statistics cited above are provided by the Corporation.
Enablers/Critical Success Factors
- Multi-channel strategy . A Web-based service alone was shown to be an ineffective basis for a citizen-related e-transparency system. A combination of kiosks and interactive TV has provided a multi-channel approach that has reached out to a far greater proportion of the public than the Web, and which has formed a valuable basis for relatively pervasive e-transparency.
- Pressing political and economic need . VMC was in both political and economic difficulties vis-à-vis its citizens because of its problems; a fact well-recognised by senior officials. VOICE - including its e-transparency components - provided a potential way to address these difficulties, and so gained the support of those officials.
- Extensive groundwork . It took more than three years' of meetings and conversion work to agree, plan and implement the digitisation of Corporation data; yet this digitisation is an essential foundation for any e-transparency project. In all, some 1.5 million records had to be entered onto the system database. Since internal VMC staff were found unable to cope with the load, much of the work was outsourced. Thus, even though the project began in 1998, citizens could only access information and services from 2001.
- Staff resistance . Not unexpectedly, there has been significant staff resistance to the VOICE system since many staff stood to lose a significant portion of their income through the growth in transparency. One attempt to face this was the introduction of an internal performance appraisal system, with officers held accountable for the services and information their section was providing, and with implementation of VOICE provided as the only way in which they could achieve performance standards. Nonetheless, there have still been problems with VMC staff bypassing the system and undertaking separate paper-based processes.
- Staff skills . Most staff were, at best, computer novices. Therefore, a huge training operation was required. 220 staff were given module-specific training so they could use particular VOICE modules. 60 officers were given basic courses by external IT institutions. Eight core staff were trained in systems administration in order to manage an internal support desk.
- Use simple, pervasive technology rather than fancy solutions . Web sites may look nice, but they are unlikely to be the basis for e-transparency systems that truly reach out to large swathes of the population in most developing and transitional economies. Designs are better if they are based on existing, rather than new, technologies; on pervasive rather than niche technologies; and on simple-to-use rather than complex technologies. VOICE's achievements have come about partly through the recognition that telephones and cable TV reach far more households than the Internet.
http://www.ourvmc.org/sitiegovernance/Slides/governance.htm - to view interactive TV screen shots
Case Editor : Richard Heeks.
Author Data Sources/Role : Project Consulting Role.
Centrality of Transparency : Mixed. Type : Transaction. Audience : Mixed. Content : Mixed. Sector : Multiple. Outcome : No Independent Evaluation.
Region : South Asia. Start Date : 1998. Submission Date : December 2003.