Originally Published 2011-09-15 00:00:00 Published on Sep 15, 2011
The crucial question is this: Is it time to look beyond institutions, which are supposed to repositories of our trust but routinely betray them, and look at means of self governance?
Lokpal and Governance
Osama bin Laden needs no introduction. Gerardo Beni and Jin Wang do. The three have never been introduced to each other, but have at some point of time been struck by the same idea. For highly decorated professor of electrical engineering Beni and his colleague Jin the idea led to what is today known in the rarefied world of cutting-edge robotics research as Swarm Intelligence. For Laden it led to a brutally effective terror juggernaut called Al Qaeda.

The idea was startlingly simple and based on a fact that had been staring at humanity for eons. Every bird is, well, bird-brained, hardwired with just about enough processing power to keep itself alive, zone in on food and procreate seasonally. But throw the birds together in a flock and there is an emergent, collective intelligence that allows the birds to navigate thousands of kilometres around the globe to a particular spot, fight off tactical and strategic threats, protect the flock and attack or defend when needed.

It's not just the birds. Take ants. Alone they are as intelligent as the average piece of pebble next to your boots. But as a colony they construct mounds that are architectural wonders with internal town planning comprising of main streets, lanes, by-lanes and resting areas that are as complex and intelligent and as they are structurally sound. So much so that modern architects today are borrowing concepts and principles of construction from ant mounds and are calling it bio-mimicry.

It's a lesser known fact that bin Laden was a voracious information junkie. Nobody knows whether bin Laden read scientific papers on Swarms or Collective Intelligence, but his network of autonomous terror modules, each completely useless in isolation, became intelligent once they started communicating with each other. Just like the birds and ants. It was also an idea that was central to the paradigm of distributed computing, parallel processing and peer-to-peer networking.

Traditional computing follows a hierarchy-driven model where roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. Engineers would refer to the relationship between the central repository - a server - and those who were connected to it - the nodes - as a master-slave relationship. Remove the computer for a moment and you can see a real-life social relationship of a semi-feudal society like India.

This traditional form of computing is still the bedrock of desktops and laptops that we use, with a Central Processing Unit (CPU) being the master hardware and the system files being the master software. Call it Computing 1.0. Scientists are men and women of society first and of science later. Even though it might appear to be a chicken and an egg question, it's safe to say that the hierarchy-based computing model developed, over 60 years back, later presumably derived from the way the society itself was structured in terms of power dynamics. Call it Society 1.0

But computing paradigms change and so do social ones. As computing evolved, transforming desk-bound machines limited to spreadsheets to nodes connecting to the amorphous beast called World Wide Web (WWW), it brought about a revolution in communication protocols, a redefinition of master-slave relationships and a growing realisation that a network of autonomous agents connecting together in a random manner was flexible, scalable and extremely powerful. Think of any Internet service that you use today - Google, Facebook, Twitter, ebay - and you will find them using third party cloud services, replication engines, business intelligence tools, peer-to-peer networking to keep their services up and running 24/7. And that's just the backend. Call it Computing 2.0.

But a more fundamental change took place in frontend in the form of people like you and me connecting with each other and exchanging information without any mediation, distortion and in an instant's notice. This ability to connect with people across geographical boundaries at an affordable cost revolutionised information exchange and decision-making, in many cases reorienting carefully constructed and hierarchically driven social structures. One just needs to look at the proliferation of informational and transactional services across Internet and mobile platforms to truly understand this social transformation. Internet companies call it crowd sourcing. Let's call it Society 2.0

The way of doing business has also changed. Conventional brick and mortar business logic presupposed the ownership of every single link in the value chain. But as the Detroit motor giants found out as they went down hard, it is difficult to scale up and expand your footprint when you had to do everything yourself. The Japanese car companies, in contrast, had their Eureka moment quite early in their business lifecycle. They kept their production lines lean and efficient by roping in partners, focusing on core competencies and promoting innovation. As the Detroit giants crumbled, the Japanese car companies spread out in the US like a well-coordinated flock of birds. Today every single global business worth its salt routinely partners with thousands of niche companies, focusing their energies on their core services and products. Management gurus call it an asset-light strategy. Let's call it Business 2.0.

Computing 2.0. Society 2.0. Business 2.0. And even Terrorism 2.0. The single overriding theme that defines all of them is an inbuilt understanding that the whole is always greater, stronger, faster and more intelligent than the sum of all parts. But does collective intelligence actually work in the real world? Would a group of people without any institution laying out a set of well-charted out rules and regulations solve a problem? Can we act as a group of self governed people rather than a set of individuals who need to be governed by institutions? The proof of the pudding, as the saying goes, lies in eating it, savouring it and letting out a contented sigh.

A doctor can figure out how healthy a person is by observing pulse rate, colour of eyes, skin and the state of the tongue. Similarly how well governed we are as a body politic can be detected by how well managed our traffic is. The ski resort of Vail in Colorado in the US had spent millions of dollars installing expensive signaling systems to solve an acute and persisting traffic logjam to no avail. In a desperate move in 2004, someone in the city council, presumably inspired by the concept of Swarm Intelligence, brought about a controversial proposal to do away with signals. After heated debate, the resort tore down all the signals and replaced them with roundabouts. After few initial hiccups, the logjam disappeared, accidents came down and drivers become a lot more responsible. The European Union did one better in 2007. Seven cities across the continent were made signal free. Local press dubbed the experiment 'controlled chaos'. But just like Vail, incidences of traffic jams and accidents dropped. That's two concrete examples of collective intelligence - of people self-governing themselves - for you. The whole, it seems, is really greater than the sum of all the parts.

How does all of this fit into an uncontrolled chaos called India? Tackling traffic is one aspect of governance, but ending corruption is of a different league. Look at it from any angle, but the acrimonious debate surrounding Lokpal is about the lack of governance. Corruption is but a symptom of a deeper malaise of the lack of benchmarked processes, auditing and accounting systems and foolproof systems of oversight. This is where our collective imagination fails - both of the civil society that seeks to represent us and of the government that claims to be elected by us.

The crucial question is this: Is it time to look beyond institutions, which are supposed to repositories of our trust but routinely betray them, and look at means of self governance? Can a perpetually miffed Anna Hazare learn from Osama, Beni and Jin? Can his apparent bête noire Kapil Sibal learn from Vail and the seven cities of Europe? Can we self-govern ourselves and eliminate corruption?

It might shock one and all, but there is very little fundamental difference between the government and the Anna Hazare-led part of civil society as far the approach to Lokpal is concerned. Both conceive of governance as a set of institutions that create a system of checks and balances for each other and for other institutions in the eco-system so that provision of services to the people, who have given their inalienable liberty, equality and trust to these institutions on lease, is of the highest quality.  Lokpal is one such body in this carefully constructed framework of institutionalised policing. The quibbles are more in the nature of the scope and extent of this policing. Let's call this form of governing Governance 1.0

Corruption is any opportunity for leverage and arbitrage for an individual or an institution, usually an individual located in an institution, that allows for the circumvention of the due process of law leading to illegal transactions not necessarily restricted to monetary exchange. In short, it could be money or favours exchanging hands. Corruption exists because people, like you and me, allow our trust to be betrayed by institutions by not knowing enough about processes of governance and the tools and weapons to prevent it. Since we as a people have bought the logic of institutional policing lock, stock and barrel we have cast ourselves as individually autonomous agents without having the capacity for collective intelligence. Just like birds, ants and Osama's terror modules.

What can trigger off our inherent collective intelligence? It's the exchange of relevant information between each one of us that will make as effective as a colony of ants or a flock of birds.  If I know as much as the person next door about every single process of governance or the way institutions of governance are supposed to serve as, there is empowered communication between us. Imagine every single Indian empowered like this. The sum of all Indians will be greater than India itself.

The governance challenge before all of us today is less about Lokpal and more about access to relevant information. How do we achieve that? It's easier said than done, but the key breakthrough lies in beginning to take four steps:

  1.  Digitising every single piece and process of government business in content formats that are understandable by literate, semi-literate and illiterate Indians.
  2.  Making the entire digitised content accessible and searchable across all keyword and voice parameters
  3.  Allowing people to complete governmental transactions - like applying for and getting a certified copy of land revenue receipt - across digital platforms and devices.
  4.  Progressively eliminating leverage and arbitrate opportunities available to bureaucrats and institutions by widely accepting electronic signatures. In short let people get their certificates and gazetted copies in triplicate without ever needing to go to a bureaucrat.

Does Lokpal fit into this scheme of things? Yes. Lokpal becomes the final recourse to set things right. Almost like when your computer fails to respond to anything you do, and you end up reformatting it to the factory settings. In cases where institutions of governance fail to respond to requests made by collective intelligence press Lokpal for reverting to factory settings. Call that Governance 2.0.

(R. Swaminathan is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: Governance Now

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