“The Answer Company set to unfold the next leap of eGov Apps in India”, Sudhir Aggarwal

Thomson ReutersA very few of us would be in the know that the fabled Global News Agency Thomson Reuters, whose bylines dot almost every coveted newspaper, has a broader portfolio of semantic software applications in the domain of eGovernance as well. Built upon the knowledge legacy of Thomson Reuters these semantic tools can be seen as an apt response to the emerging scenario of eGov 3.0 whereby platforms and processes are given.
Speaking at length to its Head – Government Relations, Mr. Sudhir Aggarwal, ReTHINK INDIA unfurled a wide variegated spectrum of answers pertaining to technological adoption & adaptation; governmental policy & preferences and the constraints & opportunities for the industry at large and Thomson Reuters in particular which envisions to position itself as a niche player in the Indian eGovernance ecosystem offering differentiated value propositions to change the rules of the game.
Sudhir Aggarwal
A non-assuming tech evangelist in Mr. Aggarwal answered all the probing questions with poise which ranged from the challenges in formulating Government Opinion in adopting third party platforms for mission critical applications; addressing the penchant for green field application development; issues pertaining to sovereign security, localization, integration of CoTS with the larger application ecosystem, cost differentials, readiness of deployment and much more. 
 
Here were present the outcome of that free-wheeling and unbridled conversation with the man who claims on his twitter bio (@sud_agg) to be a Passionate Indian with Sound Value System, wants to give back his 2cents to Society for everything he has got today. His life principle, Let a child in you NOT die till last breath, resonated quite well throughout the conversation.
 
RI :: What is your take on the Minimum Government, Maximum Governance (MG2) Paradigm?
SA :: For me it’s all about the shortening of the distance between the Government and the Citizens whereby the former reaches out to the latter instead of vice-versa, as had been happening so far in the conventional sense of governance. And this mammoth shift has been possible only due to the advent of technology which has reduced the transaction timelines, brought in unimaginable efficiencies and most importantly induced transparency.
Take for example the Passport Application. You can simply make your application at 11:00 am in the bed and go out in the afternoon to the Passport Office, appear for the formal interview and receive your document in the comfort of your home within a span of few days.
On the G2G side of it, you would be astonished to know that the performance of Tax Officers is being assessed by using sophisticated analytical tools whereby any deviation from the standardized norms are being checked and factored into the decision making of the Tribunals.
Officers with compromised integrity are singled out in this way, creating the ripple effect of sticking to the well laid out procedures where any sort of discretion, favoritism and influences are done away with. The Prime Minister mentioned in his recent television interview as to how he has sent several tax-men on early retirement.
RI :: In a country as diverse as India which lives in various epochs at the same time, what would be the key factor driving the success of eGovernance?
SA :: Well, considering the wide diversity both in terms of literacy & economic status, Assisted Mode of Technology is the most suited for Indian conditions. The requisite human touch makes the processes more personalized and effective. India would perhaps be a classic case whereby digital divide would have been bridged first than the economic divide, thanks to these smart designs.
With the advent of Mobility, technological adoption has got all the more ubiquitous and pervasive reaching out to the last man in the queue. The experiments in dispensing G2C services on non-smart devices is again a commitment for inclusive eGovernance. The linguistic interventions have made it possible to communicate in local and regional languages in a big way.
Despite, all this, the assisted model has been fueling the Indian ecosystem, ensuring the maximization of job creation as well even in an era of automated service delivery.
RI :: The aspiration index of the people is calling for fast delivery of Governmental Services. What should thereby be the Technology Mix, the right technological Stack to fulfill these aspirations.
SA :: Well, there are few stakeholders in the ecosystem who wish to keep the technological discourse very complex as it serves their vested interests. The rule of the game going forward however lies in simplifying the same. 
Any RFP from the stage of its inception to that of its writing down takes somewhere from 6 months to 3 years, which in itself is quite a cumbersome exercise. All the fancy people in the industry, try to make this RFP as complex as possible so that they only qualify or they let some of their consortium partner to qualify for the same. This at times used to delay the entire process as phases of tendering and re-tendering used to be involved.
One of the best things which has happened in recent times is Cloud as it abstracts the entire platform layer from the process and application layers.
Now that the backend platform is a given commodity, the focus has shifted entirely to outcome based applications.
The development of these applications or apps in the mobile ecosystem has also become simpler. The start up revolution has accelerated and given further impetus to it.
RI :: In the context of mission critical & sovereign order of government what are the newer paradigms of application development emerging.
SA :: Course correction & upgradation of applications has become a routine feature in the government domain as well. Take for example the passport sewa. It is the next and much more refined version of an earlier application developed by NIC.
The focus is fast shifting from ‘my creation’ to ‘co-creation’ even amidst the so-called closed circles of government.
Learning from others is fast gaining ground whereby the successful applications developed by the Leader States are being adopted by others readily.
Many of the states have come out with a Swiss Challenge framework whereby if you have a demonstrated innovation which are closer to the requirements, the same can be adopted at once directly.
Long back Government of Rajasthan adopted the Commercial Tax application developed by Government of Gujarat under this co-option mechanism.
States like Andhra Pradesh have built in Swiss Challenge as an integral part of their state policy.
Going forward, the Government to Government interface in sharing their best practices and applications would be much more pronounced in the earnest spirit of cooperative federalism.
Compete & Collaborate would be the mantra going forward.
 
RI :: How much of this Compete & Collaborate in happening in the domain of Smart Cities?
SA :: Well due to the taut timelines at present not much has been accomplished on this frontier. However going forward the cities would have to collaborate to compete. There is no other choice as the scale of IT deployment in a smart city is far smaller than that of a state or so. So collaboration and co-adoption would be imperative in the context of smart cities.
RI :: How much industry is keen to come forward to develop the local level city leadership in making them understand the multifaceted and far reaching implications of technology deployment in a city precinct?
SA :: See, what’s is happening that Industry is moving more and more towards CoTS (Commercial Off the Shelf Solutions) rather than the earlier bespoke ones. It’s quite difficult to look through the lens beyond a 5-7 year window. All the RFPs in eGOV space are meant to span through this time period. Now after the end of this contract who shall be the bidder. Generally the one who won it for the first time used to continue it forward.
Now, MCA21 is one service which has seen an entire overhaul. It’s initial tender was more on the bespoke model. When it came to the second version, the tender had more of COTS than bespoke. Its original bidder got changed from TCS to Infosys. So a kind of self evolution and course correction is happening in the eGOV space.
Industry on its own is moving forward for these standardisations and government is also understanding the nuances of these technology deployments and is getting more refined in subsequent iterations.
Now, in the context of Smart Cities, nobody even from the top notch spectrum can tell the requirements which are going to be 3-5 years down the line.
Just see the emergence of cloud, mobility or even smart devices in a span of last 3 years. Nobody had envisaged their ubiquitous usage the way it’s happening today.
Smart Devices have become the run rate devices which none had thought of just a couple of years back.
Now 3-5 years from now both the technological solutions would see a transformation alongside the key business requirements.
Whatever governance reforms which are now happening, a large chunk of it are instigated from the stakeholder expectations. Their aspirations have evolved and enhanced putting pressure on the government machinery to respond and act to that.
Once an application is put in place, a dynamic model of governance sets in. The user driven pressure starts aspiring for higher denominations of service and delivery, something which every technology provider has to factor into its offerings.
The pace at which technological deployments are evolving as well the societal aspirations refining after experiencing one milestone, it’s going to be an iterative process of evolution.
I thereby say that reforms in governance shall happen following the leitmotif of revolution in an evolutionary manner.
You have to sow the seeds or a concept, work upon it, oversee the outcomes and then further refine its definition on the basis of the key outcomes.
RI :: This refined evolutionary perspective is quite rarely shared in the public domain. What do you think is the reason behind. 
SA :: Well this reality is well understood and accepted across the spectrum. But in the rat race of weekly, monthly and quarterly targets, this goes for a six and all kinds of extraneous influences do come in the picture. And there is nothing wrong with this rat race even. If you don’t survive there is no future as well.
RI :: Where do you see the convergence of technology and interoperability of applications amidst such an evolutionary revolutionary scenario?
SA :: Well, on the technological count this is given. More and more developers are creating applicators with open standards. Even a very compelling proprietary application won’t last more than 6-12 months.
Now coming to the application aspect there are the layers of data and process which again are getting abstracted and encapsulated in an evolutionary manner.
Passport application for that matter has a police verification intertwined. May be in the phase one of the application it was delivered in a more crude or semi automated fashion due to various reasons. May be Police department was not prepared at that point of time. But now whatsoever be the back-end architecture, it just cannot be said by any vendor that the police verification app cannot be integrated with the passport application. The only point under consideration might be the level of smartness. Whether the integration is happening at the data layer, process layer or the top application layer.
So convergence and interoperability is emerging on its own due to the very nature of this evolutionary revolution called eGovernance.
RI :: Coming to the specific context of Thomson Reuters which is known for its semantic applications, what are the key valued offerings for the Indian eGovernance space? 
SA :: Well, you got it quite right. After my 3 decades of baggage, I find Thomson Reuters having a vast bouquet of self-learning applications which somewhere cater to the next leap of eGovernance applications which are in due symphony with the ongoing national thrust as well.  It’s a niche player in the entire eGovernance ecosystem uniquely positioned with its vast array of differentiated applications.  Thomson Reuters is more of a Data & Information Corporation.
We do have a set of applications pertaining to Land Management, Revenue Management and Property Valuation which have gained the must-have category status owing to their profound impact on revenue maximization from the existing tax-payer base itself. This suite of applications allow governments to categorize properties in a scientific manner and embark upon a differential taxation regime.
Applications like C-Track automate an entire Court, while WEST LAW is a global database of court cases which can be utilized by the legal fraternity of all hues.
WORLD CHECK enables an early warning system for detecting the financial side of global crime syndicates.
Thomson Reuters is the only company which delivers the entire cluster of DATA, Technology and Managed Services in tandem.
RI :: How would you like to position the Thomson Reuters Proposition going forward?
SA :: We would like to position ourselves as a niche player helping Governments to change the rules of the game by creating new value propositions out of our immense global experience by integrating the local data & knowledge into these smart self-learning application frameworks of ours.

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