Leveraging vigilance with technology by Mr. N. Vittal
(Article published in the 4th Anniversary Souvenir of VSC, Hyderabad)
The process of fighting corruption is called the vigilance function. Corruption is lack of integrity. In a broad sense, the word integrity will cover, financial integrity, moral integrity and intellectual integrity. However, in the area of public governance, when use the word corruption, we all the time are referring to financial integrity. The root cause of the lack of integrity is greed. If corruption has to be tackled, then the root cause also will have to be tackled.
In maintenance engineering there are three stages – predictive, preventive and break down maintenance. In vigilance also, there could be predictive, preventive and breakdown aspects of vigilance. The predictive aspects of vigilance arise when the organizations and systems, procedures, rules, regulations are designed. The manner in which they are designed themselves can indicate weak points where the scope of corruption exists. Preventive vigilance comes into play before any act of corruption takes place. The system itself through internal checks and balances can ensure that acts of corruption do not take place. Break down vigilance is the phenomenon with which most of us are familiar. This is happening all the time in every sector in our country. The systems fail. Many a time, the systems themselves are exploited to precipitate acts of corruption.
In tackling corruption, the best solution would be to eliminate the root of corruption which is greed. This is possible only by inculcating the right values in people. This is a long term solution. But from a pragmatic point of view, if systems are designed in such a way that those who are corrupt are promptly punished, then it will be effective. The question is whether technology can help in improving the vigilance function.
The all pervasive of technology today is the information technology which is a happy marriage of telecommunications and computers. Information technology itself has certain aspects, which from a systems point of view attacks the root causes of corruption and thereby help in ensuring that many acts of corruption are prevented.
Corruption flourishes, if there is delay in the system. A very common form of corruption in our country, especially in public governance is the form of bribes given as speed money. To the extent we are able to use information technology, the process itself becomes faster and to that extent, the scope of corruption can be reduced.
A very happy example we have witnessed all over the country in the last two decades is the computerization of the Railway passenger Reservation system. This has given immense relief to the traveling public not only in the ease of booking railway reservation and also drastically reducing the scope of corruption that used to prevail in this sector.
But then, the speed provided by technology alone cannot ensure that corruption is eliminated. I understand that in Andhra Pradesh, for example, the Registration Department was computerized some years back. CARD was a very popular program. The registration process which used to take about 2 weeks or a month used to be done within an hour. But then, still this could not eliminate corruption totally. Once the data is fed in to the computers the process could be completed within half an hour. But for inputing of the data, the corrupt public servants of that department had to be bribed.
This highlights one important aspect in leveraging technology for eliminating corruption. It is not enough only to replace by computers which have been done manually. It is necessary when computerization and information technology are introduced to look at the entire process of the government function and introduce business process reengineering concepts so that full advantage of the computers is taken and at the same time, the scope of corruption is eliminated.
The basic principle should be to see, to what extent human intervention and human discretion can be eliminated in performing the public service function. The happy experience in Vishakapatnam, a few years back when the places for getting birth and death certificate was computerized by the Municipal Commissioner office is an example of successful business process reengineering.
While vigilance can be greatly helped by using technology, there are reports that the Bhoomi program which is a model of success and whose initiator Mr. Chawla was even honoured by the Prime Minister as a model civil servant has given rise to complaints that the very process of open access of information about the land ownership has given opportunities to speculators and criminals to pressurize land owners forcing them to sell their lands or undergo other unpleasant consequences. I do not know to what extent this problem is existent but apparently, this is so in the periphery of big cities like Bangalore.
The second cause for corruption in public system is lack of access and lack of openness. Transparency is the best remedy for eliminating the scope of corruption. It has been rightly said, sunshine is the best disinfectant so that the germs of corruption do not flourish. Information technology by making information about policies, rules and regulations, rules and processes accessible easily to a very large number of people, can go a long way in reducing corruption by increasing transparency. But as we have seen in the case of Bhoomi program that there could be unexpected consequence of the very transparency sometimes causing embarrassment.
It requires imagination also to utilize the facility available with the technology for improving the vigilance function. For instance, the data regarding stolen cars must be available in the police records in every state. The National Crime Records Bureau also keeps track of some of the crimes including stolen cars. This information can be leveraged so that atleast one flourishing aspect of crime and corruption that goes with that can be tackled by making the information easily accessible to all concerned whenever a car is stolen or whenever a crime is committed.
The use of information technology especially by National Stock Exchange is another example of how in an important area like the capital market where not only speculation but other corrupt practices can flourish, clean practices can be made to prevail and economic growth also ensured. In a record time, the NSE of India has become the third biggest exchange after the New York Stock Exchange and the NASSDAQ.
While looking at leveraging technology for better performance of vigilance, we should therefore, keep in mind, how the natural advantages of technology especially information technology for handling masses of data, capacity for operating at the speed of light and providing wide access especially through the communication channels. Ultimately, as Oscar Wilde said, the thief is the artist and the policeman is only a critic. Technology’s value is neutral and it can be as much used as misused. It is learnt from the yearly reports of agencies like KPMG which publish about cyber frauds that 80% of the frauds are committed by the insiders and perhaps 80% of them are due to reasons for preserving reputation or not widely publicized. In this sort of situation, ultimately we come to the basic point that the human aspect should not be lost sight off. How can human greed be controlled? The greed can be controlled only in a long term point of view if the right values are inculcated in the individuals through the course of education and the society norms. From an administrative and management point of view, greed can be checked if the risk for the corrupt people is enhanced. Today, unfortunately, thanks to our systems especially delay our judicial processes, corruption is a low risk high profit activity. This can be drastically changed by imaginative use of information technology which advantage of open access and speed.
Technology can also be useful as a psychological weapon in fighting corruption. In fact, in January 2000, when the CVC for the first time in the World used internet to publish the names of the public servants guilty of corruption and it attracted international attention. The Neesweek carried an article on the development and called it a case of e-shame. So if shaming the corrupt is one psychological strategy to check corruption whereby enhancing vigilance in that also information technology can be of use. Technology is a very useful instrument. How does it is leveraged depends on the imagination of those interested in the task of the vigilance function.
The elementary precautions to be taken technology is to ensure that at least the effort made for computerization produces effective results. Many a time, in many government departments, different softwares are being used and so much so, information may be available in different departments, they can not communicate with each other. Such basic mistakes must be avoided apart from reengineering of entire process to ensure that computerization does not only mean replacing with computers what was being done manually.
In fact, optimizing the use of technology to enhance the effectiveness of vigilance and checking corruption is a challenge to every honest individual and the citizens of the country.