Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Impact of IT on Diplomacy

I am delighted that I have been invited to address the IT Summit 2010, even though I feel a little out of place in the company of technologists and technocrats. I am quite innocent of technology and as for computers, I had thought till recently that personal computers made excellent hat or book stands. For fear of being treated as an illiterate, I learnt from my children and grandchildren to handle email, facebook and twitter. Now I feel very technologically savvy when I see my contemporaries think that facebook is a book on cosmetology and that twitter was invented by Dr. Shashi Tharoor.

Indeed, I represent the generation in transition, someone who has worked mostly with typewriters, carbon paper, stenographers and innumerable drafts and now coping with paperless workplaces. It is a bewildering world, with two kinds of IT posing some of the grave challenges of the 21st century, Information Technology and International Terrorism. One IT was benign so far and the other IT deadly and widespread. Today even the first IT is assuming dangerous proportions, with the prospect of the next world war being fought not with bombs or guns, but with laptops and cell phones. Is IT another Frankenstein monster that man has created?

Our topic today is E-governance, the art of governing a corporation or a country with the gifts of IT. We are entering a world of digital interaction between the Government and citizens, Government and business and between Government agencies. This is still in its infancy in India as our connectivity and network of computers are still very low. But the fact is that the growth of IT has made a big difference to the way Governments function and whether we like it or not, the age of E-governance are upon us.

You will understand if I draw upon my experience in the field of diplomacy to show how IT has transformed the way the Government functions. Perhaps IT has revolutionized the art of diplomacy more than any other profession. There was a time when ambassadors were truly “extraordinary and plenipotentiary” and they were sent to lie abroad for their country largely on their own. Armed with the credentials with the sign and seal of their heads of state, they became masters of their areas of accreditation. They had the authority to make peace or declare war as they deemed fit to secure the interests of their nation. They negotiated treaties, acquired territories and won hearts and minds of foreign nations. Their masters came to know of their accomplishments only when they dispatched a messenger or when they themselves returned to recount their exploits. They enjoyed victories and suffered defeats by themselves. Their dispatches, written at leisure in flowery language traveled to their Governments by the venerable diplomatic bag at snail’s pace. No instructions came and they came late, if at all, leaving ambassadors to their own devices.

Today, both Information Technology and International Terrorism have changed diplomacy beyond recognition. The communication revolution has transformed the way diplomacy works. Diplomats cannot lie abroad anymore because news, both good and bad, travel fast and unless they employ the latest IT tools, they cannot cope with the flow of information. Foreign ministers and heads of state meet frequently and talk to each other on phone, giving the Governments diverse channels of communication at multiple levels. Ambassadors have to struggle hard to remain relevant today. As for the impact of the other IT, International Terrorism, ambassadors have become suspects, being patted down at airports, not to speak of those who have been injured and killed in terrorist attacks.

More than any other department of the Government of India, it is the foreign office and our missions abroad that will have to use IT tools effectively. I recall my days in Fiji, when the paradise was plagued by the first military coup in the South Pacific in 1987. The first thing that Sitiveni Rabuka, the coup leader did was to cut the telephone and teleprinter links with the rest of the world, a standard practice for coup leaders. For three days, I had no contact with Delhi and all I did was entirely on my own. But the British High Commissioner told us that his fax line was not cut as the authorities were not aware of its existence. We learnt our lesson and our High Commission in Fiji became our first mission abroad to be equipped with a fax machine. Today the fax machine has become too antiquated. No military dictator can ever cut communications in the cyber era and no ambassador can claim that he had no way of seeking instructions from home.

The way we report from abroad has also changed dramatically. Till the advent of the fax machine, diplomats used to read newspapers and magazines in their countries of accreditation, absorb them, analyze them and send only the most relevant portions with their considered comments and recommendations to the headquarters. With the introduction of fax machines, we began transmitting texts of everything important, shifting the burden of reading to headquarters. Today, with the world press at the finger tips of decision makers at home, diplomatic reporting is relevant only if it contains instant analysis of a confidential nature. Of course, the confidentiality of diplomatic correspondence, considered sacrosanct has also been violated by Wikileaks, a fall out of technology. When messages were coded and decoded by human hands and transmitted by telegrams, it was possible to share frank assessments without fear of compromise and embarrassment. Not anymore. Wikileaks must have changed the way ambassadors, at least American ambassadors, report.

Today, the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs has not only an interactive website, but also facebook and twitter accounts. How times have changed!

IT has brought speed and efficiency and transparency in Governments, it reduces corruption and error of human judgment, but at the same time, opens out possibilities of hacking, manipulation of data and total loss of valuable material. The overarching danger of cyber warfare looms over the horizon. But one thing is certain. No Government, no profession can stem the tide of IT and even if we can, it would be unwise to attempt it. There may be paperless Governments and phoneless conversations, but there can never be Governments without the human touch. Compassion and consideration must remain as important ingredients of Governments. E-governance, however efficient, cannot serve the people without the human touch.
Although India takes pride in being the software super power of the world, we are not even one of the 50 countries in the world, which have e-government ready status. So we have to go a long way in terms of connectivity, adaptation, innovation and creativity before e-governance becomes a reality.

Turning to Kerala itself, I recently had a glimpse of the achievements in this field as a member of the jury which chose products and processes for the e-governance awards. From imaginative websites to user friendly services, there was an array of innovative measures adopted by different departments of the Government. Among them were innovative citizen services of the Kozhikode Collectorate, digital base of doctoral theses of Mahatma Gandhi University and the selection process of engineering and medical students online. These are major accomplishments, but they also show that we have to travel much before we reach anywhere near e-governance becoming a reality. More than anything else, a change in the mindset and attitude is absolutely essential.

I have no doubt that this conference has contributed to the development of IT in Kerala, including the development of our e-governance skills.

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