The recent controversy about the Chief Secretary of Kerala visiting Gandhinagar to understand the Gujarat Chief Minister’s Dashboard has highlighted how digital governance initiatives are taking centre stage in India.
Though the controversy was largely limited to the political class for obvious reasons, the context has set for the debate on the utility and efficacy of data dashboards in governance.
Data has taken up a key role in the new age of governance. With social media and technology becoming the keywords for public engagement and improvement in public service delivery, many authorities and regulators have opted for representing and narrating the model of their governance using data and data visualisation as a tool.
Many state governments in India have launched dashboards to depict the mammoth list of projects, deliverables, grievances redressal etc that they are dealing with, and it has become a kind of live show dedicated to their voters in the name of the transparency and accountability. Even though there are hardly any studies showcasing how much these dashboards influence the voters’ behaviour in contemporary politics and how popular and reliable they are for the beneficiaries, such dashboards have become very popular in tech-savvy states.
Most of these dashboards are anchored from the Chief Minister’s office to showcase the image of powerful and accountable leadership, and paint the CM as a strong leader who is in the control of overall development and is the chief executive of the administration.
Theoretically, these dashboards are supposed to transparently represent the health and robustness of the administrative setup and its agility in response, reaction, and initiatives. They are supposed to help in better decision making through the analysis of trends and forecasts. Data visualisation offers a better platform for interactions with the general public; many of these platforms are interactive as well. The availability of various open and free platforms such as Esri, Tableau, Microsoft Power BI etc has made it very easy to make such dashboards.
However, even though the dashboards are very dynamic and engaging, their usefulness depends on the philosophy and openness of the governments.
For one, most of these initiatives lack a description of the architecture of the dashboards, the backend systems, algorithms, and the team which collects and analyses the data. It should be in the open domain if we are to rely on such dashboards. Remember that the statistical standards in the country lack a proper framework in many respects.
A second issue with dashboard is that uniformity of data, which is procured from different sources. We need to ensure that there are standard definitions and that the quality of the data is not lost in its transmission.
Here lie the main challenge: how open and liberal our data is available for the private parties to make competitive dashboards that may help to provide alternate presentations and narratives of the same datasets.
Third, while centralised dashboards could provide a cumulative number and percentages, one can’t decipher the performance of last mile delivery systems if the dashboards do not reflect them at each level. Most of the time interdisciplinarity is also missing in the design architecture of dashboards. This leads to the lack of limited evidence for the decision-makers while accessing visualisations to support their decision making.
Dashboards are relevant and useful only when mechanisms supporting citizens' engagement, data interpretation, governance audit and institutional arrangements are part of the overall design architecture. The lack of a comprehensive and robust mechanism will result in asymmetric information, which is the reason for the very genesis of the dashboards. It is important that it is easy to search, and logically present data and its Application Programming Interfaces are easy to plugin for third-party software to use.
Dashboards are used as a substitute for the evidence-based standards if they exist; to support the identification and evaluation of trends over time; help in comparisons against the intra and inter averages among the departments etc. Dashboards should even help the layman to measure the performance and identify the causes and the correlations that exist, gather information based on the trend lines etc. But the key here is the selection of the indicators and the quality of the data used. Otherwise, dashboards will remain as a visualisation exercise and not be able to provide insights expected from them.
(Nissy Solomon has contributed to this article.)Dhanuraj is Chairman, and Nissy Solomon, Hon. Trustee (Research & Programs) at the Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.