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The social contract between the citizen and the state in developing democracies is characterized by arbitrariness, lack of accountability, and absence of transparency. Bureaucrats regularly demand bribes for approving citizen requests and can use their discretion to delay the processing of citizen applications. The face to face interaction between the citizen and the bureaucrat is often seen as the site where this unequal power relationship is (re) produced. The use of information technology to allow online submission of citizen applications, thereby removing the need for physical interaction with bureaucrats, is viewed as empowering the citizen and making the state more accountable.
Over the last few years, the Indian state has rapidly expanded the role of information technology in governance, by mandating biometric identification of citizens, creating online application portals, and providing information related to welfare schemes on websites. These attempts at making governance ‘transparent’ target traditional bureaucratic procedures and aim to use information technology to change how field level bureaucratic functionaries engage with citizens. Does a change in bureaucratic procedure, through the use of new technology -- enabling online processing of citizen requests and removing physical processing based on paper applications -- improve how the citizen experiences the state? Or can the use of new technology in an environment with existing social inequalities further exacerbate the power asymmetry between the citizen and the state? I explore this question by focusing on the field level bureaucrats in the state of Odisha, India which mandated online submission of citizen welfare applications.
By taking advantage of a pre-post panel data along with the staggered rollout of the technology intervention, I examine how a change in bureaucratic procedure impacts the citizen-state interactions. Specifically, I look at how the reduction in transaction costs for accessing the state due to advent of the new technology are conditional on the socio-economic characteristics of the applicant. I explore the role of existing caste and class hierarchies and informal norms in shaping how the gains due to the rollout of technology aimed at improving governance are distributed. The research has important implications on understanding the extent to which changes in bureaucratic procedures using information technology can improve citizen experience in developing countries.