How to build Agra-cities

While essential services are in place, people in government managing cities are in limbo. A vast majority of state employees are in ineffective mode because they are working from home and cannot access their systems remotely. It’s time to plan digital transformation in the government.

Amrita Chowdhury

[Agra Integrated Control & Command Centre]

Like the rest of India, Agra district is under lockdown. But concerted and coordinated activity is on at the Integrated Command and Control Centre, built for Agra Smart City under the Smart Cities Mission. 

It has become the war room for the district’s emergency response management to the COVID-19 crisis. Agra Smart City CEO Arun Prakash is overseeing the command center and technology teams. Senior Superintendent of Police, Babloo Kumar and SP Police Traffic Prashant Kumar Prasad have deployed a small emergency team to man the control room. 

Health department teams have moved in as well, with external public health experts supporting with scientific tracking and tracing techniques. District Magistrate Prabhu N Singh and Divisional Commissioner Anil Kumar are on the move, coordinating relief activities.

At the core of this effort sits a close-knit set of private sector professionals—on-ground consultants and vendors—and their remote, digitally-enabled teams. They are working alongside the district administration to plan, coordinate, and deliver last mile information, services, permissions, and distribution linkages.

The “Agra Model” of coordinated teams and digital tools for containment, tracking, healthcare delivery, and citizen relief response management is currently being hailed as a national example every district and city should follow.

Similar scenes can be envisioned in other cities.

Last mile government workers in healthcare, sanitation, police, transport, railway cargo, and other essential services sectors have emerged as the true heroes of the moment. 

It is estimated that there are 50 Lakh sanitation workers in India, of which 20 lakh work in high risk conditions on a daily basis. Most of them are contractual staff. India has approximately 19 Lakh police officers in service, one of the lowest police to population ratios in the world. A study by the Indian Journal of Public Health indicated that India has 26.7 Lakh healthcare workers.

What is striking right now is that a majority of those absent from work right now are those employed by the government and placed in the bureaucracy and public sector enterprises. They are in work from home mode. Because they do not have laptops and isolated servers, their systems cannot be accessed remotely. In any case, their regular work requires wet signatures and notations on paper files to approve decisions or raise queries. To place that in perspective:

It is inevitable then that routine citizen services, contractor coordination, and vendor payments remain in limbo, and will possibly continue after the lockdown—exacerbating the economic slowdown.

Can India energise and utilise the missing middle—indeed, the bulge in the public system workforce—once the new normal presents itself?

Yes. By investing in true digital transformation in the entire backend infrastructure—systems, processes, decision making models, workflows, transaction management, people and team management, budgeting, billing and payments, ERP approvals, and document management.

Individual Excellence, Not Institutional

COVID-19 has exposed the inherent inefficiencies of Digital Governance. Sure, front-end transaction portals that allow citizens and businesses to pay bills and taxes, raise issues, and track status online have been built. And the backend for certain departments, such as the commerce and tax, are automated so as to link data from different sources (which helps tax authorities track defaulters).

But, the backends of many other departments are not interlinked, sophisticated, or intelligent. Moreover, only a few officers can access these systems, which need special workstations. The underlying systems and servers are not set up for remote access. The entire work process remains manual, paper-driven, mired in inefficiency and opaque.

The government system has always relied on the efforts of a few committed individuals. That is what is working well in this crisis as well.

  • Praveen Prakash, Principal Secretary of Andhra Pradesh, is ensuring effective food and critical supplies across the state. He is on the move, coordinating with his teams, vendors, and partners to produce sanitisers and masks, enabling food supplies, and setting up distribution locations. He is on the phone communicating the state’s efforts on social media. Transport of migrant workers, in the news for poor coordination in many states, has been relatively seamless in Andhra Pradesh through coordinated management of permissions and transport services with neighbouring states.

  • Within a couple of days of the lockdown, the Smart City Mission, under the leadership of Joint Secretary Kunal Kumar, put together a working document of all COVID-19-related initiatives from different smart cities. It is a quick reference guide for cities to pick up ideas from each other. Cities are regularly reporting activities and sharing ideas on response initiatives. 

  • Secretary of Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Durga Shanker Mishra, has been overseeing the efforts of cities in managing essential services. Despite lockdowns, senior teams responsible for water and waste management continue to work in each city.

  • Union Health Secretary, Preeti Sudan, has set up a daily call with state health secretaries to understand, coordinate, and manage current status and what the response ought to be.

Abhishek Singh, CEO of MyGov, is busy coordinating with international and national experts, overseeing a team informing citizens on how to take care of their health and manage life during a lockdown. A few days after the lockdown was announced, MyGov created a digital app, Aarogya Setu, to map a citizen’s risk to COVID-19 based places they visited in the past and people they met recently.

Bureaucrats like them are also liaising with individuals, especially doctors, and private sector companies. In turn, they have teamed up with local governments to ensure delivery of critical services and goods. Companies such as Mahindra, Reliance Industries, Diageo India, Nesco, among others are offering their facilities as quarantine centres or retooling factories to manufacture masks and sanitisers. Even startups have come forward to contribute.

The Gaia team is working with the Agra administration to support emergency relief activities and ensure smooth functioning of the command center. Gaia repurposed its digital solutions to create online tools and platforms to manage the physical linkages and health screening efforts.

As opposed to that, large numbers of government and public sector officials remain incapacitated. They do not have the digital tools or systems. And there’s no culture of digital workflows and decision making.

Whether it be power, water, gas, sewage, telecom, and other essentials created by public sector enterprises, core operational teams are at work to ensure cities and villages receive basic essentials. Last mile delivery or support continues through well-established networks of private contractors and concessionaires.

Requesting work from the local government at any city right now is infeasible. Yet, crises have often provided the impetus to improve systems.

India overhauled the power infrastructure backbone after national blackouts in 2012. This enabled dynamic supply of power to cities and states. New digital and cyber systems were deployed after the 26/11 crisis for better crisis response management. Since then, through the Smart Cities Mission, many cities have deployed safety and surveillance infrastructure. Their systems connect to national databases to detect known perpetrators, building Artificial Intelligence-led engines to identify persons or properties of interest.

Similarly, COVID-19 could be a trigger to transform the government and the public sector. Just like the private sector continues to discuss, debate, work, and plan during the work from home phase, the government must do it as well.

Glimpses of Smart Agra

How to build Agra-cities by Founding Fuel



Playbook of the Future

In his book Rules of the Game, Sumit Chowdhury posits that action-reaction cycles improve individual performance. Everything we do is a reaction to some event in the world. It has some component of physical action (or work) and another component of thought and intent, he says. Both the action and the intent have to align for an optimal outcome. When the action-reaction analogy is extrapolated to government and public sector enterprises, replace it with infrastructure and intent. What does that mean?


In normal times, citizen-facing services such as passport services and digital payments have been transformed.

One outstanding example is Indian Railways. It uses a unified system that connects last-mile workers, officials and the Railways Board. This has made it easy to govern and monitor housekeeping services in trains. The benefits are immense. 

  • Improved visibility

  • Accountability

  • A complete paperless process to improve contractor services and passenger experience.

In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, before the railways shut down, passenger services and sanitation in trains was being managed using this system.

Now is the time to build out the backend infrastructure for other government services—so that services can be provided over “any screen, anytime, anywhere”.

As things stand, cloud capability, where implemented, supports disaster recovery, rather than ongoing enablement of  “anytime, anywhere” services.

This level of digital transformation will require a few things.

  1. Hardware: Laptops and personal digital devices for government and public sector officials to manage daily operations.

  2. Cloud-based document and process management systems: There’s a reason why a system of creating files and moving them through multiple stages of approvals, inquiries, audits, and decisions exists. It is to ensure that decisions of big importance and big impact are scrutinised and discussed in detail. However, it is inefficient because it is manual. This delays execution and impact is lost.

  3. Cloud Enterprise Systems: Systems exist for collections for income tax, GST, TDS, and other citizen-to-government and business-to-government payments. It is now time to expand this for service delivery, execution, and payments of all government-to-citizen (or G2C, such as applying for services or transferring services) and government-to-business (or G2B, such as helping businesses navigate regulations, electronic tendering and procurement, invoicing and payments) activities.

  4. Processes and technologies for logical access controls: To manage role and level-based access to systems, documents, and data. And a checker-maker process to manage multiple levels of approvals.

  5. Rigorous cyber security and data encryption/decryption: To ensure sanctity of the system, documents, and data—so that classified information remains classified. 

  6. Digital meeting platforms: Many government offices have video conferencing facilities. And by extension, personal mobile devices have been provided to enable meetings and decision making on the move. But it has to be extended across levels and departments.

  7. Bi-Directional Governance Monitoring Tools: NITI Aayog recently stated that the government needs to focus on the quality of expenditure through better monitoring of outcome-output based performance using real time dashboards. This will enable accountability in public spending. While the Centre is moving in that direction, change must come at the level of local bodies. To do that, bi-directional governance monitoring tools, like in the case of the Indian Railways, are needed to bring government officials, staff, multiple vendors, and their staff onto a common platform to ensure performance. 

  8. Internal Monitoring Systems & Productivity tools: Many government departments initiated biometric attendance management systems. But it was dismantled after employees articulated their outrage. Government systems have tracked the number of responses to queries or issues, but not the quality of response. Digital tools and systems that track Government and PSU employee productivity, task completion status and time, behaviour and quality of tasks completed ought to be considered. What has been instituted in the G2C systems for passport services—again, operationally managed by a large private sector technology firm—needs to be scaled and implemented in every department.


Much has been said about creating capabilities within the government and public sector; and how it slides dramatically down the echelons where selection processes and training isn’t as stringent.

Having said that, there is no taking away either from that the intent of individual officers impacts the outcome more than the tools and training. It comes down to individual, emotional, ethical, and organisational factors that can limit or enhance the efficiency offered by machines and systems.

Government and public sector organisations around the world are characterised by hierarchy, organisational complexity, functional silos, and extreme focus on rules. Every process has complex workflows and every decision needs multiple tiers of approvals. Risk aversion, not efficiency, is the critical driver of process design. In India as well, the threat of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) is the stick that moves most officers and employees, rather than the carrot of performance, impact, or transformation.

A report by McKinsey suggests that governments and public sectors simply do not invest in developing the skills and capabilities of people employed with them. While many improvement initiatives are well-designed, well-led, large-scale implementations fail because of cohesive skill building measures.

This, in spite of much evidence to show that building specialist expertise in challenging sectors can enhance the capability of mid-to senior-level officials. Examples?

Hong Kong’s rapid transit railway system, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), developed deep expertise in core mass-transit capabilities such as operations, maintenance, and property management.

The US Department of Homeland Security is collaborating with universities including Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland to train a pipeline of approximately 30,000 professionals in cybersecurity.

However, deeper efficiency and productivity is unlocked by focusing on employees across the ranks. Governments and public sectors can combine a series of process improvements, new managerial routines, and intensive coaching on problem solving skills. Such measures have been used by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Germany’s Federal Labor Agency, and the Swedish Migration Board.

When all these examples are examined closely, some threads that bind all of them emerge on how to create an effective, efficient and impactful government.

  1. Tone at the top: This phrase is typically used to articulate corporate governance and agility in the private sector. It is more important in the government. In normal times, we see this through the individual efforts of senior bureaucrats, in pulling together multi-stakeholder teams to deliver complex projects. It becomes even more critical in disaster and emergency response management. At the other end of the spectrum, “tone at the top” can lead to utter disaster of the kind seen in Chernobyl. There, the team’s inability to question processes and workflows set at the top, led to unimaginable human catastrophe.

  2. Process redesign: Current systems support the manual process of the government. Processes, workflows, and standard operating processes will need to be simplified to deliver, not hinder, service. Risk management cannot be the only lever in designing systems.

  3. Capability building: While government processes have their own cadence, government documents have their own language. Few people have the ability or authority for independent thought, analysis, or action. Massive effort is needed to improve the skill sets and digital capabilities of employees at all levels. This can be done using contemporary technologies to defray the cost of training a large and distributed workforce.

  4. SOP documents: So that employees have the knowledge, information, and guidance to work with the new digital processes.

  5. Culture of agility: Businesses operate on the principle of survival, and respond to market pressure, compete, differentiate and collaborate if need be. Government entities, on the other hand, operate from completely different principles: Avoid risk and vigilance prevention. This mindset has to change.

  6. Culture of responsiveness: Customer is the king in business. However, citizens have been much neglected by governments. For the first time ever, Smart City Planning processes encouraged cities to think of citizens first when they design systems and solutions that cut across departments. While responsive senior officers and Smart City CEOs have adopted this approach, the organisations supporting them cling to old practices and paradigms. It is inevitable that those who continue to stay that way will die.

  7. Culture of measurement: Die they will because Smart Cities use monitoring and measurement systems in areas such as waste collection, transportation, and traffic management. This allows them to view current status, optimise operations, even as they improve performance and impact. While it is early days yet, these principles of measurement, consciousness, and continuous improvement will find itself being applied to every department and function in the government.

While intent, the real driver of performance, may follow slowly in the aftermath of the pandemic, infrastructure will need to be imagined and implemented differently. The government remains one of the biggest spenders on technology. A Gartner report estimated the technology spends of the Indian government to be $8.5 billion in 2018, which included data centres, devices, internal services, IT services, software, and telecom services.

Government and PSU IT spending in India, in itself, needs to increase. The quality of that spend also needs to be examined. The tools and systems that enable improved delivery of services must become the prime focus, and not just tools and systems that improve government collections.

Public sector enterprises are the biggest employers in India. It must focus on effective delivery of services through an energised workforce. Lessons that emerge from better performing entities can be deployed to scale the non-performers.

As that old saying goes, never waste a good crisis.

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About the author

Amrita Chowdhury
Amrita Chowdhury


Gaia Smart Cities

Amrita Chowdhury is Director of Gaia Smart Cities, an urban technology firm providing wide area Internet of Things (IOT) and data automation solutions for enterprises and cities. 

Amrita is a business strategist, engineer and innovator, and brings high-energy leadership to the businesses and people she interfaces with. Her experience with strong brands—whether heritage or reinvented—allows her a unique understanding of growth, digital spaces and brands.

She was President of DY Works (Future Group), a brand strategy and brand design firm. She was the Country Head for Harlequin, where she expanded its overall India business and significantly grew its local content portfolio. She served as Associate Director, Education for Harvard Business School for India. Prior to moving back to India, Amrita provided board advisory and strategy consulting for ASX and FTSE 100 clients with Oppeus in Australia and strategy consulting for Fortune 100 clients with AT Kearney in the US. During her consulting career, Amrita worked across a variety of industries including engineering, mining, legal and professional services, insurance, technology, government, education, auto ancillaries, waste management, and more.

Amrita holds seven US patents for semi-conductor manufacturing for work done at Applied Materials in California. That initial work in innovation lets her view new products and services through the business lens. She has led high velocity, early growth stage businesses, looking at India entry and growth strategies.

She is an independent director on the board of Simmonds Marshall, a BSE firm, and on the board of Drishtant, a tech startup for the social sector.

She is passionate about content—spoken, written and visual. She has written two books of fiction: Faking It (Hachette), an art crime thriller, and Breach (Hachette), a cyber crime thriller, and is a contributing author to Chicken Soup for the IITian Soul (Westland). She writes on business, technology, marketing and lifestyle issues in mainstream media, magazines and electronic platforms. 

Amrita holds engineering degrees from IIT Kanpur and UC Berkeley, where she was a Jane Lewis Fellow, and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon - Tepper Business School.

She loves art, music, travel, literature and baking, and supports various causes related to healthcare and education.

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