Smarter Local Governance: Going Beyond Just SMART Cities

smart cities

Smart Cities in India must go beyond namesake, and empower the third tier of India’s federalism.

Local governance all across India has rarely got the kind of attention that it is being accorded currently. From the Bhilwara Model to Pathanamthitta model, mitigation measures against covid-19 have shown that despite a centralized approach to lockdowns and economic activities, local governments are at the forefront of these measures. There is a sense of convergence, between the administration, civil society and citizens, of urgency, to identify and contain hotspots, and of accountability, towards citizens and the higher echelons of governments. As we plan graded easing of lockdowns, the thrust on effective local governance assumes more relevance in the post-covid era. This highlights a need to elevate them from mere agents of the state governments to robust centres of population and socio-economic management. It is in this context that we must understand the need for smarter local governance in urban centres, as an integral part of the broader SMART Cities Mission.

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An overview of the scope of SMART Cities Mission

The SMART Cities Mission was launched in 2015, which brought in a new paradigm of technology-driven urban transformation across selected cities in India. It aimed to incorporate the elements of decentralized planning, holistic urban development, and a sense of competitive federalism, given the limited slots for the initial phase. The importance of such an urban transformation has for long been understated, given that cities:

· Have about 32% of the population

· Contribute about 60% to the GDP

· Are rapidly becoming catalysts for socio-economic mobility and political changes.

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A brief, macro evaluation of the SMART Cities Mission

A near-modern perspective on governance (by Osbourne and Gaebler), envisions it to be a network of stakeholders engaged in collective problem-solving. By extension, a SMART approach to governance would involve making these networks convergent, simpler, closer to each other, more reliable, and more transparent. Practical examples, undertaken in various urban centres include:

· Ramping up e-governance networks, between the government, market, citizens, and the civil society.

· Emphasis on leveraging data from usage and monitoring of various services (such as collector’s dashboards, feedback loops, for monitoring various schemes), to further enhance evidence-based policy making

· Making administrative processes more streamlined, transparent, and inducing greater accountability, (such as online registration of property)

While such a system is vital for a generally efficient administration, the possibilities of post-covid scenarios throw up quite some challenges. Solving more complex aspects of crowd management, healthcare provision, administrative coordination, information dissemination, and welfare provision would need a lot more than just a backbone of information technology. This calls for a smarter approach to urban local governance, that better integrates man and technology, and gives greater legitimacy to the third tier of federalism in India. What could such an approach include?

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An overview of a possible ‘smarter’ approach

1) Smarter planning

Planning, indicative or directive, has been the cornerstone of administrative goals. A rethink of planning, in terms of intent (objective), and structure (administrative processes involved) is crucial to achieve any semblance of a smarter approach to governance. This is so, because information technology is at best a tool, but not an end in itself, for administrative effectiveness.

In terms of intentthere is a need to make public health an important pillar of urban local governance, and this is not just because of covid-19. India’s public health architecture is less than effective, in terms of accessibility (reliance on private healthcare), and in terms of approach (reliance on reactive, rather than preventive healthcare). It is in this context that the One health approach assumes significance.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the concept as an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes.

Furthermore, the 3 underlying elements governing this approach include food safety, controlling zoonoses, and combating Anti-Microbial Resistance. Such an arrangement, combining the advantages of smart governance and the One Health Approach allows for making the quality of human capital as the focus of welfare governance and paves the way for the percolation of objectives of the National Health Policy, 2017. Some practicable measures in this direction may include:

· Better monitoring systems for tackling lack of sanitation — such as greater sample sizes for assessment of ODF status, production and placing of standardized, low maintenance public toilets

· Creation of separate, professional hospital management and administration staff in district hospitals, and mandating the use of Management Information Systems to avoid overlap with healthcare duties and resolve issues of procurement and quality.

· Faster turnaround times and local complaint handling on official food safety apps such as Food Safety Connect

The other half of the suggestion, centred on structure, involves increasing the effectiveness of planning machinery. Decentralized planning at the local level, has been persistently less than effective, with centralization by states, and lack of relevant financial and administrative powers of local bodies. District Planning Committees, and Metropolitan Planning committees, as mandated by Articles 243ZD and 243ZE respectively of the Indian Constitution, have not been established across all states, and in where they have been established, are impeded by inadequate powers, and other specialized urban organizations (e.g. MMRDA). The case for smarter planning, in this regard, points at-

· Increased role of state planning boards and state finance commissions, in the formulation of plans for smart cities. This may be realized by an increased push for the proposed city-level GDP statistics, that can be realized by urban exchange centres (along the lines of the pilot project by IISc Bengaluru). Such centres can become the repository of not just such data, but also those on utilities, services, and public feedback.

· Online meetings (and publication of details), of district planning committees, to coordinate movement and migration to urban areas from rural areas.

· Reducing the area-function dichotomy, that currently exists between municipalities and specialized bodies, and exploring an integrated zonal model, that is followed in countries such as Singapore

Lastly, blending intent and structure, the idea of smarter local governance provides another way for the manifestation of New Localism. This idea recognizes the drawbacks of a one size fits all approach to local development and provides space to local governments to work their way into achieving national goals. The relevance of such an idea can be seen by the lack of progress of State governments to transfer powers, and subjects of legislation, to local governments. Gradual, but an increasing transfer of managerial power (followed by political power) is a good way to integrate local governments into national plans, and evaluate the effectiveness of policies and schemes made thereof. Some examples in this regard include different cities planning development and maintenance of tourist hotspots in their jurisdiction, for goals under schemes like PRASAD.

2) Smarter approach to good governance

The evolution of the State’s activities from just government, to governance, and presently good governance, has made the conception of SMART cities possible. The definition of good governance is governance that brings citizens closer to governments. Philosophically, the definition has stayed the same, but the scope is expanding, thus putting the onus on the State to keep adapting. It is in this context that we must not just stop at the existing levels of benefits, that good governance provides. When we think of such lofty global ideals (accountability, transparency, participation, and responsiveness), it may seem herculean in the context of a large nation. Still, from another perspective, local governments are best poised to achieve these ideals and transfer the good work upwards. Thus, a smarter approach to good governance must empower the local governments to become instruments to achieve these goals.

The notion of accountability is best enforced and realized in local governance due to the proximity between citizens and the state. Although information technology has improved administrative processes, there is a need for more accountable and participative governance. This may be achieved by:

· Emphasizing on greater disclosure of local activities by municipal departments, as part of a voluntary disclosure under the Right to Information Act

· Quicker flow of information between resident welfare associations (and townships), housing boards, ward committees, and the municipal council, especially as a component of community-based disaster planning

· Regular online townhall conferences, to involve citizens in local plans, and leveraging such meetings for social audits of urban projects

· Online access to citizen scorecards/surveys for comprehensive governance indices, and publication of the same

· Enabling use of government data through cloud-based architectures, similar to Maharashtra government’s initiative

Citizen centricity, another component of good governance, may include scaling up of simple, but promising technology-driven G2C initiatives. This is a much-needed exercise in incrementalism and can span across a variety of domains, such as welfare provision (end to end digitization of fair price shops), local agriculture (farm to citizen mechanisms, such as those in Hyderabad by GHMC, as a supplement to e-NAM), and healthcare (telemedicine, mental health counselling helplines and chatbots).

3) Smarter administration

Smarter governance must improve communication and coordination among various government agencies. Each Smart City under the mission has been envisioned to operate with an Integrated Command and Control Centre, that can monitor services based on the input data received. While this serves to be a useful tool for heads of local governments to stay updated and obtain actionable intelligence on developments, it must also become a tool for networked governance, where civil society organizations at the local level have access to relevant information. This helps considerably in planning for relief operations and allocating volunteers, that can ultimately help the cause of local governments.

Furthermore, local governments today have greater ownership in delivering quality education and healthcare. A smarter administration must connect departments with respective service providers; a practicable example being the integration of local education departments deriving data from the Management Information Systems of Aanganwadis, and government (and private) schools. This is immensely beneficial while planning for schemes such as ICDS, Mid-Day Meal, and the RTE Act.
Smarter local governance is also where the emphasis on the protection of such critical data is as important as making data-driven decisions. Smart cities, notwithstanding the capital-intensive process, must be resilient in the cyberspace- investing in robust cyber-security systems and cyber-insurance arrangements.

Lastly, a smarter administration must balance the needs of minimalism in government, and maximization of governance. It must not be a superficial intervention that reduces the role of administrators to mere supervisors, but a tool to transform them into agents of rational policymaking and implementation. It may become a method to reduce the excessive division of work, or overlaps in functions of local bodies, but not the very functions that are essential for urban life.

In conclusion, smarter governance, just as the name suggestsaims to be an incremental development over Smart governance. But the very idea of local governments becoming smart is a radical, but refreshing approach to reverse the ever long maladies plaguing them. Not many countries have made the landmark decision of giving a well-elaborated constitutional status to local governance as India has, which is why it is essential to trust them with their role on the frontlines of development and build on the successes seen in their handling of covid-19 across India. Urban Local governments have the potential of adopting the notion of Gandhian development and more, in an urban context, and the vision of smart cities (that become smarter) brings that vision closer than ever. Hence, the aforementioned compilation of perspectives may form a part of a roadmap that is a translation of that vision.

Read more by the author: Inter-State Council: A catalyst for effective federalism


The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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