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Volume 17, No. 3, November 2007


Table of Contents

 

Making E-Government Projects in Developing Countries More Successful and Sustainable

Lessons from Two Case Studies from India

 

Rajendra Kumar

International Development Group, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

kumarr@mit.edu

 

Abstract  

Evidence from e-government projects in developing countries suggests that most of these projects either fail completely or succeed only partially in meeting their objectives. How can these projects be made more successful and sustainable over relatively longer periods of time? In this paper, I examine this issue in the context of lessons drawn from two ICT based government to citizen (G2C) and citizen to government (C2G) projects in India. The projects that I examine are: Gyandoot, a G2C and C2G project aimed at delivering a host of government services to the people in Madhya Pradesh, and the e-government component of the Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) project, a G2C and C2G project in Tamil Nadu aimed at delivering government services to the public. I examine the sustainability of these projects and argue that in addition to analyzing the critical factors responsible for success or failure of a project using a cross-sectional analytic framework, it is also important to examine the sustainability using a longitudinal framework along five dimensions: financial, cultural/social, technological, political/institutional, and environmental. I conclude that ensuring a project’s sustainability along all these longitudinal dimensions is critical to its long-term success in meeting its objectives. I also draw some general lessons from these cases that are critical to the long term success of such projects. I conclude that successful e-government projects require full back-end computerization to improve service delivery, effective disintermediation, and locally relevant content in the local language. Creating suitable ICT infrastructure and coordination among supporting institutions for service delivery are also very important.    

Keywords: e-government, projects, developing countries, India, sustainability, success, failure  

Introduction  

E-Government, in its essence, is the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the public sector to improve its internal and external functions and operations. When used for internal functions, it can improve an organization’s processes and make them more efficient and transparent. Externally, it can improve the delivery of services to the citizens, empower them, and bring accountability to the public sector’s operations. Due to these factors, it is increasingly being seen as the answer to a plethora of problems that the governments or public agencies in general face in serving their constituencies effectively. This is especially so in developing countries, where generally the public agencies face resource constraints in improving their operations and delivering services to the citizens. In such cases, e-government has been touted as a means to save costs while at the same time improving quality, response times, and access to services (ADB, 2003)  

Though researchers have focused considerable attention on how e-government can help the government or public agencies in improving their services, there has been considerably less focus on examining the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of these projects (Aichholzer, 2004; Heeks, 2002; Heeks, 2003a). Researchers have noted that e-government projects in developing countries often fail either totally or partially in achieving their objectives despite initial success (Heeks, 2003a). Heeks (2002) classifies these projects into three categories: total failure in which a new system never gets implemented or is implemented but is abandoned immediately; partial failure in which the major goals are unattained or in which goals are attained for some stakeholders but not all; and success in which all major goals are attained for all stakeholders. The sustainability failure of projects can be classified into partial failure where the project attains its objectives for some length of time but is then abandoned (Heeks, 2002). The proportion of projects in developing countries failing totally and partially may range from 20-25% to 33-60% respectively (Heeks, 2002). Only around 15-20% of the projects can be classified as successful.  

Researchers have proposed a number of theoretical frameworks to understand the reasons for the failure of such a huge proportion of e-Government projects. The models proposed include critical success factors (CSF)  and critical failure factors (CFF) model (Heeks & Bhatnagar, 1999a), ‘design-actuality’ (R. Heeks, 2002) or ‘design-reality’ gaps  (Heeks, 2003a), scenario analysis for long-term sustainability problems (Aichholzer, 2004), economic sustainability of rural ICT projects (Best & Maclay, 2002) or political and institutional factors due to lack of commitment on the part of political leadership and public managers (Bhatnagar, 2000).  

Though the models presented above are helpful in explaining why a project succeeds or fails in meeting its objectives, they focus on analyzing a project cross-sectionally, i.e., at one point in time. As they are basically synchronic models, they do not help us in analyzing the project longitudinally. For example, it is possible that a project is successful for some length of time in meeting its objectives, but then suffers a sustainability failure.  

Kumar and Best (2006) present a sustainability failure model that explicitly considers the sustainability of the project longitudinally. This model consists of five principal modes of sustainability failure: financial/economic sustainability failure; cultural/social sustainability failure; technological sustainability failure; political/institutional sustainability failure; and environmental sustainability failure.  

The failure of a vast majority of e-government projects in developing countries raises important and serious questions about the justifiability of the huge investments in financial and human resources made in these projects. How can these projects be made more successful and sustainable over relatively longer periods of time? In this paper, I examine these issues in the context of lessons drawn from two ICT based government to citizen (G2C) and citizen to government (C2G) projects in India. The projects that I examine are Gyandoot, a G2C and C2G project aimed at delivering a host of government services and receiving grievances from the people in Madhya Pradesh, and Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI), a private and NGO managed G2C and C2G project in Tamil Nadu aimed at delivering a host of government services and receiving grievance petitions from the public. Both these projects are examples of sustainability failure where the projects achieved considerable success in the beginning but then failed to achieve most of their objectives over the long term.  

The rest of the paper is organized as follows. First, I briefly describe the two projects mentioned above and how they managed to achieve considerable success in the beginning; next I discuss the research methods employed in this study; then I examine the reasons for sustainability failure or success of these projects using the appropriate theoretical frameworks discussed above; and, finally I examine the general lessons that can be drawn from the implementation of these projects and how they are relevant to other such projects in developing countries.  

Brief Description of the Projects  

I take up two widely known and acclaimed e-Government projects in India for detailed analysis of their sustainability in meeting their objectives over a relatively long period of time. The first project, Gyandoot, was implemented in Madhya Pradesh state in India while the other project, SARI, was implemented in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. I discuss below the main features of these projects and how they were implemented.  

Gyandoot  

This project was started in 2000. The project established intranet based kiosks in villages with the goal of delivering information related to agricultural practices, crop prices, etc., delivering government services such as copies of land records, on-line applications for caste, income, domicile certificates, and providing an online system for Redressal of public grievances (Bhatnagar & Vyas, 2001). The project was considered path breaking at its time and won several awards at national and international levels. However, subsequent evaluations of the project show that the project has failed to meet its objectives and the usage is quite low (Cecchini & Raina, 2003; Centre for Electronic Governance, 2002). The main reasons for the failure of the project are lack of computerization of the back-end processes, lack of supporting ICT infrastructure in the villages, lack of supporting initiatives for better service delivery, lack of financial sustainability of the kiosks, and lack of relevant content for the poor (Cecchini & Raina, 2003; Centre for Electronic Governance, 2002). The implementation of the project also suffered tremendously as no efforts had been made for institutionalizing the project after the initial champions left (Cecchini & Raina, 2003).  

Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI)  

The e-government component of the SARI project is a G2C and C2G project in Tamil Nadu aimed at delivering a host of government services and receiving grievance petitions from the public. The project was started in 2001 as a private initiative through the collaboration of several organizations in India and abroad. It uses a Wireless-in-Local Loop (WLL) technology to provide internet connectivity to rural villages. The internet connectivity is offered to the local community at kiosks, which are run as a self-sustained business with cost recovery through service charges. A majority of the kiosks are locally owned and operated by self-employed entrepreneurs, while some are operated by self-help groups of a local non-governmental organization. Though the kiosks also offer a number of other services, e-Government was an important component of the project during the first year of its operation.  

The e-Government services provided through the kiosks consisted of sending applications electronically to the Taluk office for birth, death, income, and community certificates, old age pensions, and general grievance petitions to the higher government officials. The Taluk office would process these applications and send the certificates through the kiosk operators who in turn would hand them over to the applicants in the village itself. This had led to substantial savings in cost and time for the applicants and had also reduced corruption in delivery of these services (Kumar & Best 2006). The kiosks were reasonably successful in providing these services during the first year of their operation.  

However, this component of the project failed to sustain itself after one year due to a number of reasons. Primary among these were lack of adequate training of government office personnel, lack of sustained leadership and institutionalization of the processes in the government office, lack of consistent evaluation and monitoring, and opposition from government personnel in the lower hierarchy due to reduction in opportunities for rent-seeking (Kumar & Best 2006).  

Research Methods  

I mainly use qualitative research techniques for this study. In particular, I employ the comparative case study method for analyzing these projects and to draw general lessons from them that may be useful for planning and implementation of similar projects elsewhere. While I use secondary data for analyzing the Gyandoot project, I use primary data for analyzing the SARI project. The secondary data for analyzing the Gyandoot project comes from published studies and reports on this project. The primary data on the SARI project was collected by me during field research during summer of 2003 and 2004. This data came from detailed interviews with the government officials involved in the project, the SARI project officials, the kiosk operators, and the users of the e-government services. I interviewed eight government officials, who included the state level government secretary of the information technology department and every official involved in the project at the district and taluk levels, and four SARI project officials including the project manager stationed at state headquarters in Chennai and 3 local officials stationed at Melur. I also interviewed 12 kiosk operators to understand the entire process behind delivery of e-government services and the reasons for their subsequent failure. In addition, I also conducted interviews with 10 users of these services in 4 kiosk villages to understand the reasons for their choosing the kiosks for obtaining these services instead of submitting a paper application as before. I conducted all interviews using structured questionnaires, designed separately for the village users, kiosk operators, and the government and project officials. Each of these interviews took around one hour to complete.  

Sustainability of e-Government Projects  

As discussed earlier, researchers have proposed a number of theoretical frameworks for understanding the reasons for sustainability failure of a majority of e-government projects in developing countries. I use two of these models to analyze the sustainability of the two e-government projects discussed in this paper. These models are the critical success factors (CSF) and critical failure factors (CFF) model  by Heeks and Bhatnagar (1999b) and sustainability failure model proposed by Kumar and Best (2006). I first briefly discuss these two models and then explain how they can be used to explain the sustainability of the two cases discussed here.  

Critical Success and Critical Failure Factor Model  

As per this model, success or failure of an ICT project can be understood in terms of several critical success and critical failure factors (Heeks & Bhatnagar, 1999b). These critical factors can be organized into ten broad categories as follows: (i) information factors relating to provision of content; (ii) technical factors such as availability of hardware and software, compatibility of different hardware and software platforms, etc.; (iii) people factors such as availability of skilled personnel, appropriate training in use of hardware and software, etc.; (iv) management factors, such as appropriate management and organizational practices for bringing the desired changes through ICT projects; (v) process factors, such as modifying existing or designing new processes for making the project successful in achieving its objectives; (vi) cultural factors, such as reforming organizational culture for successful implementation of new projects; (vii) structural factors, such as structural rigidities in traditional organizational structures that may be a cause for failure of ICT projects that aim at reforms; (viii) strategic factors, such as decisions that cover a wide range of services or cut across a number of departments or affect the project’s performance over a relatively long term; (ix) political factors, such as political support and support from the stakeholders; (x) environmental factors, such as changes in the overall external environment of the project.  

Heeks and Bhatnagar (1999b) then go on to synthesize the above ten categories into seven critical dimensions: Information; Technology; Processes; Objectives and values; Staffing and skills; Management and structures; and Other resources. This framework requires assessing the gaps that exist in the design of the project and the reality along these seven dimensions. Heeks (2002) further refines this framework using a contingency model of organizational change into a design-actuality gap model. This model is more useful for assessing the likelihood of failure of a project based on the gaps that exist along each of the seven dimensions rather than analyzing the reasons for its actual success or failure.  

Sustainability Failure Model

Kumar and Best (2006) present a sustainability failure model that explicitly considers the sustainability of a project longitudinally. The model consists of five principal modes of sustainability failure, which are as follows:  

(i)    Financial/economic sustainability failure: For example, a donor supported program loses its funding after some time.  

(ii)       Cultural/social sustainability failure:  For example, some stakeholders gain from the project but some others are hurt. This tension over time leads to sustainability failure.

(iii)     Technological sustainability failure: For example, the field hardware and software become obsolete and are no longer compatible with the equipment within the central offices. This also examines the relevance of the content provided.

(iv)     Political/institutional sustainability failure: For example, the local champions leave and without larger institutional structures in place the project fails.

(v)      Environmental sustainability failure:  For example, a project that does not have plans for disposing of or reusing equipment when they become obsolete or lose their usefulness. 

As noted before, the CSF and the CFF model is a synchronic model that analyzes the reasons for success or failure of a project at one point in time. However, it is very useful in explaining the factors responsible for a project’s success or failure. When used in conjunction, the two models discussed above can provide a more accurate picture of the longitudinal success or failure of a project. I discuss below how we can employ these two models to analyze the longitudinal success or failure of the two projects discussed here.

Gyandoot

As explained before, this project has failed to meet its objectives due to lack of computerization of the back-end processes, lack of supporting ICT infrastructure in the villages, lack of supporting initiatives for better service delivery, lack of financial sustainability of the kiosks, and lack of relevant content for the poor. The implementation of the project had suffered tremendously as no efforts had been made at institutionalizing the project after the initial champions left.

As per the CSF and CFF model, clearly the main factors responsible for failure of the project are information (lack of appropriate content for the poor), technical (lack of back-end computerization and ICT infrastructure), management (lack of appropriate management and organizational processes for bringing the desired changes), process (lack of redesigned processes for delivery of services), and political (lack of institutionalization) factors.  

As per the sustainability failure model, we can see that the project suffered a sustainability failure along four of the five dimensions: financial (lack of financial viability of the kiosks), social (stakeholders did not benefit), technological (lack of back-end computerization and ICT infrastructure), and political and institutional as the local champions left the project.  

Combining the two models, we can say that the project suffered a sustainability failure due to lack of financial, social, technological, and political and institutional sustainability due to information, technical, management, process, and political factors.  

Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI)  

As noted before, the primary reasons for the failure of the e-government component of this project were lack of adequate training of government office personnel, lack of sustained leadership and institutionalization of the processes in the government office, lack of consistent evaluation and monitoring, and opposition from government personnel in the lower hierarchy due to reduction in the opportunities for rent-seeking.  

As per the CSF and the CFF model, we can see that the critical failure factors were: people (lack of training for the government staff), management, cultural, and structural (lack of sustained leadership and institutionalization, power shift), and process (lack of evaluation and monitoring).  

As per the sustainability failure model, we can see that the project failed due to political and institutional sustainability failures. Combining the two models, we can say that the project suffered a political and institutional sustainability failure due to people, management, process, cultural, and structural factors.  

Conclusion  

As we can see from the analysis presented in the preceding sections, the two models when used in conjunction provide a more accurate picture of the sustainability failure or success of a project. While the CSF and the CFF model helps identify the factors responsible for success or failure, the sustainability failure model helps us in longitudinal analysis of the sustainability of a project.    

Making e-Government projects more sustainable: what lessons can be drawn?  

Analysis of the sustainability of the two e-government projects discussed before offers a number of general lessons for making these projects more successful and sustainable in meeting their objectives. I discuss these in brief below.  

Mere Supply of ICT is not Sufficient: Successful e-Government Projects Require Complete Backend Computerization  

The analysis of the two projects here shows that backend computerization is essential for cutting-edge online service delivery to citizens. As noted before, this was one of the major reasons for the failure of Gyandoot. This aspect points to the need for focusing on the transformation required for achieving the goals of the project and not just merely on supplying more ICTs.  

Disintermediation is Important for Successful Service Delivery  

The experience of these two projects also shows that disintermediation is a must for cutting-edge delivery of services online. Lack of disintermediation was an important reason for the failure of Gyandoot, where people still had to go to the concerned government office even after they had applied through the kiosk (Cecchini & Raina, 2003).  

Localized and Relevant Content is Critical  

The experience of Gyandoot shows that locally relevant content is critical. Though the kiosks offered a number of services, only very few were actually being used. Content in the local language is also extremely important for increasing usage and delivering the benefits to more people. Customized content for women is also important for increasing usage among them and addressing gender specific digital divide (Cecchini & Raina, 2003).  

Need for Coordination among Supporting Institutions  

Another important lesson from the analysis of the above projects is the need for ensuring proper coordination among supporting departments for real time updation of data and better online service delivery. These projects depended on coordination among various departments for delivery of services. As noted before, while both projects enjoyed considerable success in the beginning, they failed in sustaining their success due to lack of coordination and support from the supporting departments. This shows the presence of strong complementarities in ICT projects and the need to ensure good coordination among various agencies involved

ICT Infrastructure, Project Implementation, and Sustained Leadership are Extremely Important 

Lack of adequate supporting infrastructure for ICT (electricity, telephone, etc.) was an important reason for the failure of Gyandoot. Lack of financial sustainability of the kiosks due to very low usage was another important factor. Though it may be difficult to ensure financial sustainability through user charges in some e-Government projects in very poor communities, in the case of Gyandoot, the problem was due to drastic reduction in usage over time (Cecchini & Raina, 2003). Implementation of the project and coordination with different government departments also suffered after the initial champions of the project at the district level left. These factors are extremely important in any e-Government or ICT for development project. Several authors have noted their critical importance in ensuring the success of such projects (Bagga et al., 2005; Keniston, 2002; Kumar, 2004).  

Conclusion  

This study clearly shows the importance of analyzing and understanding the sustainability of e-government projects along its multiple dimensions. Employing two different analytical frameworks, it shows the importance of identifying the critical factors responsible for a project’s failure or success and understanding the sustainability of a project along financial/economic, social/cultural, technological, political/institutional, and environmental dimensions. The case studies of two widely known e-government projects in different parts of India clearly show the importance of ensuring sustainability of such projects so that the objectives of the project are met for all the stakeholders over the entire duration of the project and merely in the beginning. The general lessons drawn from them show that successful e-government projects require full back-end computerization to improve service delivery, effective disintermediation, and locally relevant content in the local language. Creating suitable ICT infrastructure, coordination among supporting institutions for service delivery, and sustained leadership are also very important.  

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