For a government which has prided itself on leveraging the internet to connect with its people, some of its policies are remarkably difficult to find. Take the case of the widely-reported Draft National Encryption Policy, formulated by an Expert Group of the Department of Information Technology (DeitY). One would think that to disseminate it as widely and openly as possible would be the way to dispel any suspicions surrounding its bona fide. But this is not what the Government did.
Instead, the Policy was published on an obscure webpage which attracted few hits. No notification or press release accompanied it and no external page linked to it. It was only the search for an equally obscure legal document, the habit of browsing for regulatory updates – and some measure of providence – which led me to the webpage. After an immediate update to a client, I posted the link to a WhatsApp-based internet-interest group. As things would turn out, this was the first most people in the field had heard of this Policy.
This surprise comes at a time when the government portal in question (www.deity.gov.in) had dedicated sections titled “Public Opinion” and “What’s New” on its homepage. As well as a prominent, if not garish, scrolling banner providing outdated updates. If a policy development as critical as this [Policy] did not require the use of these resources, we can only wonder what we have missed out on in similar fashion.
In all fairness, it may have been the case that the Government withdrew the Policy before it was to be circulated but then why upload it in the first place? Was the problem merely a rogue junior-scientist or was it more institutional? Questions such as this are not novel. Access to government news and releases has never been as intuitive as they should be. Documents are never where they are supposed to be and, by the time you locate them, they are gone. In a similar fashion, you will now no longer find the Draft Encryption Policy or the infamous clarification to it on the DeitY page. All that remains is the damage-limiting withdrawal statement.
At the same time, exceptions do exist. Portals such as that of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and myGOV are regularly updated and relatively straightforward to navigate. Calls for comment from the public find prominent placements on them – TRAI even posts the comments and counter-comments. myGOV ironically was developed by the National Informatics Centre, a unit of DeitY.
In DeitY’s case, its expertise in technology and cyberspace can only be held up against it. Either the placement of the Policy was a careful attempt to minimise its exposure or the very expertise that we so readily assumed above is to be questioned. In any case, one inescapable fact is that the status quo does not work to the advantage of any stakeholder. Inadequate circulation of a policy document not only reduces public engagement but may – inadvertently, in some cases – cast aspersions on the intentions of the Government itself.
What is required is easy access to and, if possible, centralisation of government releases and communications such as call for comments, draft legislation and other policy-linked documents. A possible solution would be a direction or office memorandum issued by the concerned Government (at the Central or State level) that all communications be routed through the Press Information Bureau which itself does a reasonably good job of providing timely updates online. If government-wide centralisation would take time, at least in the interim, implementation on a ministry-wide level could be a quick compromise. Existing policies aside, a standard format for government portals and binding rules on notification, upload and deletion of communications would also go a long way towards easier access to governance – a critical facet of any move towards a more ‘Digital India’.
Tarun Krishnakumar is a Delhi-based policy lawyer with a technology-focus. The views expressed are personal.