When I became a Central Information Commissioner, I was able to see why Public Information Officers, despite being conscientious and wanting to give information, often failed to provide it.

“Untraceable files” is a common reason for not providing information. Of course, this excuse is also used to deny information that could reveal illegal or arbitrary actions or corruption.

It was fairly difficult to gauge when a public information officer was being truthful and when they were lying. Often, a five or 10-year-old file would be missing. It could even have been stolen. But it is difficult to identify when it was misplaced or stolen and fix responsibility.

Many individuals, from the top officers to the ordinary workers, have ample opportunity here. If a file is not required immediately, its “missing” status may only be discovered when details are sought through a right to information application.

Paper trail

The only reason for keeping records is to refer to them when required. But the way government files are organised and maintained, many records cannot be accessed.

Even in the Central Information Commission, which started functioning only in 2005, many files could not be located. The Commission has to send annual reports to Parliament about the number of Right to Information applications filed, disposed of, rejected and so on. The Commission would send reminders to different public authorities to provide data. Some would reply and some would not. The Commission would then send the data that was given to it. It had no means to provide accurate information.

Since most government departments maintain registers in which they make entries, it can be quite the task to collate this data and provide it. Even in the Central Information Commission, when some files got misplaced, it was difficult to locate them.

This makes clear a serious problem with the functioning of the government. All government work is done on paper files. When a citizen goes to an office for some work, they are often told that the relevant file cannot be traced. If they pay a bribe, the file becomes available. It is common knowledge that depending on the amount of the bribe, a record can be altered, replaced or lost.

Credit: Henryk Niestrój via Pixabay.

How it enables corruption

A significant amount of corruption and inefficiency is a consequence of maintaining paper files and records. Many government offices create records that they cannot access a few months later. Most have computers that are usually used as electric typewriters. Almost all panchayat offices have computers and internet connectivity. There is, then, a fairly simple solution in sight.

If all government work was done on computers and displayed on the relevant department website, there could be a sea change in governance. Only some information, exempt according to the Right to Information Act, should not be made public.

If Parliament proceedings can be telecast live, there is no reason why the executive cannot function in a transparent manner. Only with transparency can there be any hope of accountability.

Had the purchases for the 2010 Commonwealth Games of toilet paper rolls for nearly Rs 4,000 each been displayed on a government website, perhaps such orders may have never been issued. The transparent availability of information on some decisions will itself curb some of the arbitrariness and corruption.

Towards transparency

Unfortunately, those in power are keen on transparency when it applies to others but are reluctant to practice it themselves. The corrupt, obviously, dislike transparency, while the honest believe they know best and that informing citizens and exposing their actions hinders work.

This is the big challenge then. Accountability will automatically follow transparency and a reduction in corruption and increased efficiency will be natural byproducts.

Information in various files and registers is usually collated manually. Errors in this consolidation are common and difficult to identify. If all government offices worked only on computers and transmitted files over the intranet or the internet, the decision making process would be much faster.

Transparency can be achieved by design if most records are displayed on websites at the end of each day. If any change is made or any record deleted, it is then possible to identify the person who did it and also what changes were made. A backup can be taken regularly so that data remains safe even in the event of a natural disaster.

As for the argument that government employees cannot use computers or that there will be security concerns, India’s public-sector banks are clear evidence to the contrary. India prides itself for its superiority in information technology, but fails to use it effectively for governance.

Reports extracted from computerised data can be as accurate as the data collected and decision-making would be more efficient and reasoned. The country can also save thousands of crores spent on paper, files, printing machines and cartridges as well as the space needed to store so many files.

Currently, if a file has to go to three different offices in different cities, it is sent physically. With a computerised system in place, this can be done in less than an hour. Misplaced or lost files would become history.

Digital transition

In my last two years as Central Information Commissioner, I implemented a paperless office and found that efficiency increased greatly. I had to do this with almost no software support and used a simple document management system.

Many officers provide several reasons as to why the government cannot go paperless and entirely digital. Some of these are:

Objection 1: Digital records can be hacked or deleted and then there would be no record. Security would be compromised.

Counter: The world’s banking system depends on digital interlinking. If this was a real threat, international banking would have collapsed. Even in small towns, credit card transactions can be made at local establishments. The country’s passport service has also gone paperless. Digital operations can allow for data backup and track or detect any changes or deletion. Paper records, on the other hand, can be altered, substituted or stolen with ease.

Objection 2: Many citizens do not have email access and would need paper responses.

Counter: In such events, a response can be sent using conventional means. In many cases, it is also possible to respond by text messages or instant messaging applications.

Objection 3: Government employees are not willing to work on computers.

Counter: Most government employees are familiar with how computers work. Many of them use smartphones. They only need to be taught how to operate word and data processing software – such as Microsoft Word or Excel – and emails. This can be achieved in a few hours of training.

The government is spending thousands of crores on “digitisation”, which involves scanning files, sometimes even after a matter has ended. This has no real benefit. I have received a computerised list of land worth thousands of crores given on lease by the collector of Mumbai in 2006 and then been told in 2012 that the records can no longer be accessed.

If the operations are not computerised, scanning and digitisation will remain ineffective. Suppose a decision is taken to go fully digital by April 2025, ideally, all records made that day onwards should be computerised and only previous files that need work should be scanned.

Accountability to citizens is the rationale and foundation of democracy. This cannot be achieved unless transparency is built into governance as a default mode. Digital operations can usher in this change and the government only needs to decide on a timeframe to achieve this goal.

There is a need for change and the benefits will be enormous. It will result in a meaningful democracy that has credibility as well as the citizen’s trust.

Instead of piecemeal e-governance solutions, a commitment to digital government operations would make a discernible change in governance. There is no real obstacle to improving governance and transparency, and one hopes citizens will push for this change.

Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner.

Also read: Why do government files go missing so often, and what can be done about it?