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Making e-Forms Work

Making e-Forms Work

Standardisations of information collection, storage, digitsation, of forms are the key factors for making e-Government services ticking in the country


INDIA took a major leap of faith on September 18, 2006, when the Ministry of Company Affairs (MCA) made e-filing of returns to the Registrar of Companies (RoC) mandatory for all companies in India.

The initiative under the country's MCA 21 project was aimed at automating the processes related to the proactive enforcement and compliance of the legal requirements under the Companies Act, 1956.

Fortunately for the project, standardisation of its various forms was not a big hindrance as the proposed service, despite being a nationwide rollout, was related to just one department, and there was enough political and bureaucratic support to ensure its smooth run.

However, despite a massive success of the project that has truly enabled anytime and anywhere MCA services to the businesses, the other departments which interact with these businesses cannot, in any way, benefit from the repository of valuable data that the Ministry collects from companies and its directors from across the country.

Besides, it also does not allow companies to significantly streamline their interaction with the government as they are still required to refile the same or substantially similar information to multiple departments.

Similar is the case of the country's Income Tax Department, which has started accepting returns online and has a huge repository of individual data but it has so far been impossible for other departments to access where it might be appropriate, not to talk about the inconvenience faced by individuals who have to repeat the same information multiple times while filing returns and making a claim.

The issue may soon be a thing of past once departments start following standards for electronic forms and share common information on individuals and businesses.

Experts suggest that standardisation of information collection and storage and digitisation and standardisation of forms are the next crucial steps for making e-Government services successful in the country.

This is relevant since some of the states have already deployed State Wide Area Network (SWAN) and are in the process of completing Common Service Centers (CSC) deployment and putting in place the State Data Centers (SDCs).

Once this is through, state governments would be loading applications on the SWAN, which can be accessed through the state service delivery gateway that aims to provide a single window access to the information and services of the Indian government at all levels-from panchayat to central government to residents, businesses, overseas Indians, and others.

The Department of Information Technology (DIT) and all stakeholders have been brainstorming on the best format of data and e-Forms in which risk of failure is minimum and benefits to citizens maximum.

The initiative will not only help in smooth deployment of e-Forms across the country but will also help citizens to get their respective certificates in a timely way by filling specific form with required information. And all this will be possible through CSCs located in rural villages near their homes with the click of a mouse.

In India, E-forms will ride on three pillars-SWAN, SDC and CSC. The SWAN infrastructure helps in connecting all state government offices both horizontally as well as vertically. SDC is used for hosting SSDG and state portal and forms the main engine of e-Forms. CSC is used for filling up e-forms from a remote rural location helping common man to access service transparently. Cisco has played a major role in building these pillars.

Standardisation: The Biggest Challenge
While one of the key elements of India's National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) of providing all government services accessible to the masses in their locality is the CSC project, the country still needs to travel a long way before it can actually achieve this objective.

Presently there are hundreds of forms related to both government to citizen (G2C) and government to business (G2B) services provided by all the three layers of the government i.e. central, state and municipal governments. Many of them vary widely from state to state. For example, different states have different formats with respect to birth certificate, domicile certificate, RTI, various welfare schemes etc. At times in the same state, the format varies from district to district.

The reason for this can be attributed to the fact that many such services are state subjects and are governed by local laws, which have evolved over many years. Also lack of standardisation procedures in absence of automated functioning is another major cause.

Automation of services enables exchange of information quickly amongst various departments. Now with the Government of India focusing on automation of all the departments within central and state government through central mission mode projects (MMPs), state MMPs and integrated MMPs there needs to be a well defined process and standard for all forms.

The Department of IT believes that e-Application will provide significant benefit to citizens and make accessible all services online via state portal in an integrated manner. The adoption of proper standards and architecture will ensure seamless integration with backend computerisation as and when it gets deployed.

The information collection and storage needs to be standardized and the forms need to be automated and put on the central and state portal in a standard format so that one can download it, fill it up, and submit applications electronically with the electronic forms hosted on the state portal and routed by a common services gateway.

After submission, the project guarantees assured electronic delivery of the request from the citizen to the specified field office of the government department, electronic acknowledgement of successful submission of application or request from a department to the citizen.

Besides, this would not only help citizen find out the status of their application or request at any point of time, it would also enable the various government departments and agencies to respond to the queries through the state service delivery gateway (SSDG).

The e-Forms Application project combines state portal, SSDG and electronic form. The aim is to create an integrated information infrastructure which will integrate and enhance the reach of the services provided by the government to citizens through CSCs.

The back end processing at the department may initially continue in a manual mode. Gradually as MMPs and state applications get implemented and the backend gets computerised, the functionality of the services provided will get enhanced and eventually all services will be provided online and can be accessed through state portal in an integrated fashion.

The functionality of the SSDG is similar to national service delivery gateway (NSDG) at the centre and acts as a standards-based messaging switch and provides seamless interoperability and exchange of data across departments.

The NSDG is an attempt to reduce such point to point connections between departments and provide a standardised interface, messaging and routing switch through which various players such as departments, front-end service access providers and back-end service providers can make their applications and data interoperable.

And the benefits are many. According to experts, e-Forms and the SSDG will benefit citizens in many ways. First, the SSDG will act as a single gateway to people for service delivery.

Secondly, availability of the forms through the CSCs will increase convenience to villagers and significantly reduce the time and costs they incur in accessing government services.

For those with direct Internet access, anytime and anywhere access to government programs and services will give a big boost. What is more, the reduced contact between citizen and government departments will increase efficiency and productivity of departments allowing the department staff to redirect their efforts to resolving the most complicated cases.

Further, the greater transparency in service delivery will lead to reduced corruption and the reduced number of visits and reduced cost to citizens will change the image of the government among citizens.

To take the initiative further, DIT has asked CDAC to develop a "Form Engine" which could be used by the states and the Union Territories (UTs) to generate e-Forms and showcase capability of routing the e-Forms to different departments. The engine is also expected to support all 22 official languages in India.

e-Forms have been started on a pilot basis in few states and it is still a long way to go for full scale implementation. Some of the issues related to e-Forms implementation are: technology issues, management issues and people issues. All these issues need to be sorted out so that e-Forms rollout in the state is smooth and all stakeholders benefit due to excellent time bound quality of service.

On the technology front, standardisation of information collected and its format is a major challenge as different states are collecting similar information in different formats. Standardization of the form itself would also be useful. Security of data related to e-Forms and digital signature on certificates is also important as majority of certificates will have digital signature. Whereas appropriate and legal sharing of information databases underlying e-Forms will help departments in better co-ordination and enable client-centred service delivery such as repeated requests for the same information and automatic change of address in various departments.

With regards to management issues, the state has to identify any gaps in infrastructure for rollout of e-Forms and address these gaps deployment. The management should also focus on ensuring ownership by line departments for the information and processes required to support e-Forms within state and also develop mechanism for monitoring timely disposal of electronic applications.

Work is underway to provide unique acknowledgement number at national level for all applications whether made to central/state departments or municipal authorities so that tracking becomes easier and every application across the country has one unique acknowledgement number. Tracking applications using mobile phones is also on the agenda.

People issues are also important and should not be neglected as the focus should be on business process re-engineering. Persons responsible for different processes need to be identified and staff at all levels need to be trained in how their functions differ as e-Forms are introduced. The absence of backend automation will mean additional work for updating application and it needs to be factored while allocating work. On the plus side, introduction of e-Forms will generate significant information on where work loads are greatest/lowest and allow for improved planning.

The Austrian Model
Austria's long term plan states that all citizens should have access to all forms of e-Government at all levels-federal, provincial and local. The digital journey started in early 90s and in 1997, the country built the digital guide for all authorities including e-Forms, electronic information system for laws and online taxes.

Having started its program long back, Austria is a successful model in the e-Gov space and the credit for this goes to the government for adopting a comprehensive plan and implementing many measures including a good Internet backbone, supportive policies and standards, and revised processes.

Austria is also the first country to achieve 100 per cent fully online availability of services, which means that, each resident or business has the possibility to access all available government services via a fully transactional electronic channel. According to the European Commission e-Government ranking, Austria is at the top of the web-based benchmark on electronic public services since 2006.

In terms of Internet penetration, the country has an excellent infrastructure as 70 per cent population and 95 per cent of companies registered have direct Internet access.

All this helps in increased online usage of government to citizen (G2C) and government to business (G2B) services. As per Austrian government statistics, 93 per cent of Austrian municipalities are online and 71 per cent are using e-Forms.

The core task of e-Government is simplification and speeding up of processes between citizen and administration.

An e-Government strategy has therefore two main goals - process integration as in electronic back office, including training of civil servants how to use it and harmonising of e-Services, says Christian Rupp, Federal Executive Secretary Digital Austria. Presence of e-Gov academy in each province has played an important role in training of civil servants.

Making available centrally developed applications to municipalities has also helped rapid implementation across thousands of municipalities.

In Austria, all this has been possible since public authorities have been working together and cooperating on administrative issues.

For making the model work, the government portals link up with each other to form a group and share the existing infrastructure. The advantage of the portal group concept is that many applications are available from a single entry point.

The Austrian Style Guide for e-Forms constitutes the basis for the harmonised layout of interactive online forms used in e-Government applications of Austria's public administration.

Since its first version was published in October 2002, it has provided orientation to numerous authorities and, especially, the software developers commissioned.

The responsibility for designing forms used in Austria's public administration almost fully lies with the competent administrative units even if the legal basis is the same throughout Austria.

The present Style Guide for e-Forms constitutes the basis for achieving this harmonisation. Built upon underlying data standards, it presents concrete measures for structuring interactive online forms, systematically arranging the content and, finally, designing the layout.

To deliver better services, the federal and local government work in tandem and also involve users to understand which e-Services will be used and are easy to implement. Secure communication and transactions and confidential handling of personal data have top priority and therefore the government uses electronic identities and electronic signatures.

Registering with an electronic delivery service, business employees or their representatives as well as citizens can retrieve documents online round the clock.

In addition to the amount of time saved, electronic delivery also brings further cost reductions. Electronic delivery services can also send non-official documents electronically with proof of delivery.

By Pravin Prashant, Editor, iGovernment.in

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