Research Brief I

Anita Gurumurthy
Nandini Chami
Deepti Bharthur
Publication Date

IT for Change

This paper summarises the key issues in the current digital governance scenario in India. It focuses on emerging technological practices in government and articulates the gaps in current legal-policy measures necessary to promote participatory democracy in the digital age.

There is, this brief argues, a new governance paradigm emerging, characterised by the rise of "governance by networks" and "rule by data". For example, given the socio-economic differences that play out in digital access and capabilities, the marginalised leave smaller data trails and are less vocal online. As a result of this, even in mature democracies, big data tends to be exclusionary. Shifts such as this turn to big data, say the authors, are marked by a hollowing out of the state, replacement of human functions in public administration by digital technologies, and networks where private actors are becoming part of government. "[P]assive, indirect interaction decoded from data cannot become a substitute for participatory and deliberative methods to shape government decision-making. Much of the 'how' and 'what' behind data-driven participation remains hidden in proprietary black boxes, belying the unlimited transparency promised to citizens through new governance paradigms."

The brief moves on to examine and interrogate the vision, design, and implementation of e-governance in India and the shift to a "digital by default" discourse in government. The authors point to new exclusions from welfare services; for instance, even though 95% of India's adult population has an Aadhaar card, and mobile penetration in rural households is over 67%, hardly 27% of villages have access to a bank within 5 kms. There is also a lack of a data commons roadmap. The much-publicised Smart Cities programme involves partnering with information technology (IT) companies and promoting a data-based solutionism, yet the guidelines underpinning the scheme make no reference to the need to ensure that civic data generated in the Smart City projects must be retained as a data commons and not appropriated/locked in by the IT vendor. The authors are also concerned about "the absence of meaningful cultures of citizen participation online" and observe that "[o]pen data efforts, despite the existence of the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy, have not been able to effectively open up access to information that can bring about real change on the ground." Finally, "Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) seem to be the preferred modus operandi in the emerging digitalised governance ecosystem. The result is a marketisation of governance functions, a process in which democratic accountability is completely compromised."

The resultant "crisis of governability" calls for new institutional mechanisms to protect and promote democratic values, as old ones are rendered inadequate. Reclaiming democracy in the digital age calls for action on many fronts:

  • Norm development for a digitalised public service delivery model that guarantees citizen rights.
  • Laws and protocols on data that cover privacy safeguards, transparency and accountability considerations (including open data practices), social ownership of data, and regulation of the data economy.
  • Rules and protocols for participatory and deliberative democracy, including digital rights of citizens.
  • Reigning in run-away "network governance" through legal-institutional mechanisms that check anti-democratic practices of private and public actors.

The brief concludes by raising a series of questions for democratic accountability and citizen empowerment in digital times raised by the policy research. For instance: "How should we rethink the right to participation in the digital age? What does it mean to extend this right to online spaces and what new guarantees and institutional safeguards are required?"

This research brief is part of the IT-for-Change-led Voice or Chatter? - a multi-country case study analysis about how ICT-mediated citizen engagement can be empowering for citizens and transformative for democratic governance outcomes. Voice or Chatter? was funded by Making All Voices Count.


OpenDocs from Institute of Development Studies (IDS), August 22 2017. Image credit: Deepti Bharthur