New Delhi: The Indian government machinery has for long earned the reputation of being a bureaucratic behemoth walled behind stacks and stacks of paperwork and burdened by slow-moving files.
The 21-day lockdown, precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has however forced an overnight metamorphosis — from the analog to the digital.
The buzzwords in the structures of power in the Central government these days are e-Office, video conferencing, audio bridges, emails and WhatsApp.
Central government ministries have shifted most of their daily business to these virtual platforms in the last two weeks, even as routine work has taken a backseat as a result of the lockdown guidelines.
This is for better coordination as most government buildings are functioning with just a skeletal strength of staff.
The move is in line with an office memorandum issued by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which said that heads of departments should ensure that 50 per cent of Group B and C employees attend office every day, while the remaining 50 per cent staff should work from home.
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Work in the time of a pandemic
Senior officers in the ministries — barring those directly associated with Covid-19 work — are either working from home or attending offices on staggered timings and rotations.
And as a result of the memorandum, most junior staff such as section officers and deputy secretaries are mostly working from home. Directors and above are attending offices when required.
Most consultants attached to the Central government are working from home. Other necessary contractual staff have been issued official letters so that they are not stopped during the lockdown.
Multiple government officials across ministries told ThePrint that they are slowly adapting to the changing work conditions, though coronavirus-related work remains the priority for ministries directly working on it.
A senior civil servant in the central government told ThePrint that the limited routine work of other ministries are being held on virtual platforms.
“Meetings in the office are being called only if a matter is of utmost urgency or if there is an important meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office. Urgent files are being cleared on e-office,” the officer said.
The official, however, added that ministries such as the health ministry or home ministry and others involved directly in Covid-19 work, regularly hold meetings.
“They have to interact with the states as well as the PMO for coordinating and issuing new guidelines and rules. Work has only increased in such instances,” the official told ThePrint.
Use of NIC platforms go up in lockdown period
While the video conferencing platform Zoom was initially used for holding regular meetings, top officials are increasingly shifting to the video conferencing facility hosted by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
This after CERT-In warned Zoom users of cyber risks.
Talking to ThePrint, NIC director general Neeta Verma said the video conferencing facility is hosted in secure NIC servers. “All video conferences at the top levels of the government are being hosted on our platform,” she said. “Whether it is cabinet meetings or the PM’s interaction with media heads or pharma companies, our lines are fully functional and teams are working overtime to ensure there are no glitches.”
Verma said that not only central and state government meetings but even district-level meetings are taking place on the NIC platform.
“The use of this platform has grown manifold in the last one month than what it used to be in the last few years,” she told ThePrint. “In the month of March itself, NIC facilitated over 2,300 video-conferencing sessions of over 60,000 hours across the country.”
Verma further said that NIC software e-Office is being used to transfer files and streamline workflow. “e-Office, the digital office solution from NIC has turned out to be the nerve of government functioning. Secure access to e-Office from home has helped government officers do a lot of work from home during the lockdown period,” she said.
Verma added that the Public Financial Management System (PFMS) team is facilitating smooth functioning of the financial machinery of the government.
“PFMS achieved a major milestone recording the highest number of transactions in a single day on 30 March. There were 2.19 crore transactions that day, surpassing the earlier mark of 98.19 lakh on 28 March 2018,” she said. “PFMS also facilitates transfer of funds directly to the bank accounts of beneficiaries under various government schemes.”
Regular govt business takes a backseat
Senior officials from several infrastructure and social sector ministries said their routine work has taken a backseat.
“Essential files are being cleared on e-Office, requisite interactions are being held on our official emails. But the usual routine work of the ministries has been put aside for now, with the focus being only on Covid-19,” a senior officer of one of the social sector ministries told ThePrint.
In a given day, ministries in the Government of India conduct a range of business — starting from legal issues, administrative work, drafting policies, working on amending legislations, bringing new rules, initiating procurements to coordinating with states for the implementing and monitoring of central government’s schemes.
“Monitoring of Government of India schemes such as Swachh Bharat or others at the state level or initiating any amendment in them, new policy decisions or even amending existing legislations are out of question now,” the social ministry officer said. “Only essential work such as releasing funds to states is taking place.”
Government officials said even routine administrative and legal matters are not the priority. “For example, if a scheme had to be modified, the process had to begin now,” another officer said. “From getting the expenditure finance committee to look into it to preparing the cabinet note, it takes six months. But no such work has been initiated now.”
A third senior officer from one of the infrastructure ministries said that those unable to access files digitally are banking on the scarce staff present in the offices, who would email or message relevant portions of a file to the person concerned.
“We are just ensuring basic business continuity in such times,” the official said.
‘A cultural shift’
Senior government officials told ThePrint that the transition is more of a cultural shift.
“It’s true that a fully paperless office is yet to be a reality, but a lot of work is being done through e-Office,” said another senior civil servant posted in an infrastructure ministry. “But junior officials do not have the VPN required to access e-Office from home. Work can move faster once they have it.”
The official said the bigger problem is the virtual video conferences, which he says makes coordination of important work much more difficult than a regular meeting.
“Officers come better prepared when there are regular meetings in the office, because a lot of review takes place there,” the officer said. “This is lacking in virtual meetings. Moreover, there are connectivity issues at times, which adds to the problem.”
Another senior government official said that decision-making, however, is faster in the e-Office system. “Only complex files needing a lot of referencing to previous decisions need a physical examination. Otherwise, e-files had percolated substantially in the last five to seven years, except for ministers,” the official said.
Work deadlines extended after lockdown
With the slowing down of work since the lockdown, ministries have extended several important deadlines.
Pre-planned events too have been cancelled or postponed. For example, the government cancelled the 13th Civil Services Day on 21 April scheduled to be held at Vigyan Bhavan. The DoPT, for instance, has extended substantially, timelines for recording Performance Appraisal Reports for 2019-20 for All India Service officials.
The ministry has also extended the fixed timelines associated with the steps involved in the processing of vigilance related matters.
“A lot of work is not getting completed on time because of the lockdown and the focus on Covid-19. Hence extension of deadlines were inevitable,” the third government official told ThePrint.
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