The Rational IT Policy

So it’s time to unveil the IT policy that I had been promising for a while. I have already laid a bit of ground work in the previous three posts — “BJP’s IT for All“, “A Rational IT Policy: The Preliminary Bits“, and “Of IT and Pascal’s Wager.” In the following, I will conclude the introduction with a brief discussion on tools as means, and then present my version of a rational IT policy.

Information Technology Tools

Information and communications technologies present useful tools. The value of IT lies in the utility those tools afford. In other words, there is nothing of intrinsic value in IT – it is only valuable to the extent that the tools are useful and relevant in a given context.

To bring this matter into sharper focus, it is better to talk about “information technology tools” (or ITT) rather than about IT alone. The stress on “tools” helps us avoid the traps that lie in wait for those who confuse technology with what one is supposed to do — a confusion of means and ends.

Utility of Tools

Tools are useful. But their utility is circumscribed by the situation at hand, which determines whether the tool is relevant, effective and efficient. A hammer is very useful in the context of nails but quite worthless when you need to determine the temperature or do arithmetic. That is, a tool is has to be relevant to the need.

You could use a hammer on a screw but it would be better to use a screwdriver. A hammer is not as effective as a screwdriver in the context of a screw. Effectiveness of a tool is important.

Tools also have to be efficient. You could use a fancy weighing scale costing thousands with sensitivity in micrograms for checking your weight but why would you bother if you could get your weight to the nearest 100 grams on a cheap store-bought bathroom scales.

Once a situation is properly understood, two jobs remain. The first job lies in figuring out which of a large set of available tools is the best tool for the job in terms of relevance, effectiveness and efficiency. The second job is to acquire the ability to use the tool if one does not already have it.

Even if we have determined that a CAT scanner is the tool required in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, we still have to address the question of affordability. And finally, we need to have the expertise to operate the scanner and interpret the results. The ability to use a tool matters.

So in summary, technology sounds great but has value only in the utility of the tools it provides, and this utility is contingent on the relevance, effectiveness and efficiency of the tool. Furthermore, affordability has to be considered. Lastly, the ability to properly use a tool is a prerequisite to deriving utility from it.

All this is glaringly obvious but let’s just put it in there for the record.

Tools are Demand Driven

Since tools are a means and are not ends, the proper sequence of intervention in a particular situation is to first fully understand what the situation is and then look around for the appropriate tool. As I have argued above, the appropriateness of the tool is context sensitive and the ability to use the tool. This is another way of saying that the use of tools is demand-driven.

Demand driven means one does not have to promote the use of tools – one has to promote the desirable goal. Once the goal is sold, the demand for the tool will emerge automatically. Focusing on tools instead of specific goals is akin to putting the cart before the horse. Worse yet, it could be like pushing a string: silly and ineffective.

With this introduction, we are now ready to get down to the main point:

The Rational Information Technology Policy

Be totally blind, deaf and dumb on whether to use or not use IT tools.

Details:

  • The government has no recommendations on who should use IT, in what manner IT will be used by people, households, and firms.
  • The government will not directly fund or subsidize the adoption and use of any IT tools
  • The government will neither support nor oppose the use of any IT tools in any legitimate activity. The government will be agnostic towards the adoption and use of all IT tools
  • Tools are tools, not ends. Use of tools helps achieve ends. The government is interested in ends, not in means. Depending on the context, the appropriate tools will be selected.

There you have it. I have solved the problem of an IT policy.

There is no need for any specific IT policy. The use of tools is the outcome of a set of rational processes which arise from a set of rational policies that address rational goals. IT use is a derivative demand, not a final demand. IT and its tools are an intermediate input to a process whose end result is desired.

For the sake of completeness, here is a list of areas where IT tools may conceivably be of use: education, agriculture, industry, commerce, arts & entertainment, medicine & health, research & development in science and technology, and so on.

Let’s take education as an example. Suppose the education sector were liberalized. Investment will flow into the sector. Supply will expand to meet the demand. Firms will figure out the most effective and efficient ways of providing education. In all probability, IT tools will be used by the sector. Computers, the internet and other IT tools will spread around the country.

The role of the government in the education sector is limited to financially support those students who face financial constraints.

The major point here is that people who are in the business of education are much better placed to know which tools to use than some government bureaucrat who has little knowledge of what tools are most effective in education.

Conclusion:

The best IT policy is a non-existent IT policy because the less any IT policy prescribes the better it is. However, a non-existent IT policy means that there will be no need for a Ministry of IT. Without a ministry, there will be no need for huge multi-billion dollar budgets. Without multi-billion dollar budgets, there will be no profit in being part of the government. That’s unfortunately our destiny. A world with huge government and fat policies.

It’s all karma, neh?

10 thoughts on “The Rational IT Policy

  1. baransam Tuesday March 24, 2009 / 9:15 pm

    I completely, fully and whole-heartedly agree with Atanu on this IT-policy-issue. I can not think of putting it in any better format. Brilliant!! Thanks Atanu for a wonderful read.

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  2. viveksh Wednesday March 25, 2009 / 4:54 am

    1) “The major point here is that people who are in the business of education are much better placed to know which tools to use than some government bureaucrat who has little knowledge of what tools are most effective in education.”

    I’m not sure this is true. I see colleges propping up across the NCR region so it seems like the investment is there. However, what are your thoughts about quality of education provided by these new colleges? Many of these new colleges seem to be set up to make a quick buck – nothing wrong with making money off of education except the word quick.

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  3. tarang_72 Wednesday March 25, 2009 / 7:16 am

    Let’s not forget that Govt expenses are atleast third of the GDP and it employes many millions directly. Every individual / firm is dependent on govt for some needs. I dont know exact statistics but many other countires also have similar govt share in GDP. The problem with india is accountability, efficiency, effectiveness of govt machinery. IT can be used very effectively by govt so that consumers of govt services (individual or firm) get better services (just throwing some examples – ration card in 5 days, passport in 2 weeks, decision on civil case in 6 months and criminal case in 3 months, uptodate status of any of pending application with govt and so on).

    I dont buy the argument that we need to liberalise education to improve quality. Public schools in US are very decent alternative to private schools. Community colleges train many technicians/nurses and other similar professionals. And on national level, they have excellent public universities in states like caliornia, michigan, pennsylvania, north carolina etc.

    Why can’t indian govt improve quality of its services?

    (on side not, i went to india after 5 yrs. After visiting SBI and Axis bank, i am convinced that privatisation can not be solution for every problem).

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  4. pankaj Wednesday March 25, 2009 / 11:24 am

    Good post as usual by Atanu dey.Tarang Axis/Sbi are nationalised banks they are not private, try HDFC instead .

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  5. tarang_72 Thursday March 26, 2009 / 4:07 am

    Pankaj,

    Pls read Atanu’s post ‘Of product and process innovation’ for his experience with HDFC!!

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