The Solutions State: Why the digital needs the humanhttps://indianexpress.com/article/explained/the-solutions-state-why-the-digital-needs-the-human-5625290/

The Solutions State: Why the digital needs the human

Leveraging technology for effective program delivery poses unique challenges. Technology is a tool that requires a capable state to be effective; also, it creates new power asymmetries. Three well-known economists weigh in.

Digital India, Direct Benefit Transfers, got schemes, PM-KISAN scheme, BPL system, indian express
We need to be clear-eyed about what problem we expect a particular technology to solve, and consistently assess the efficacy of the tools deployed. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar/File)

Written by Yamini Aiyar, Shrayana Bhattacharya & Lant Pritchett

Across successive governments, India has emerged as a pioneer in building digital tools to improve program governance at the state and national levels. Has all this technology helped? Robust evidence is mixed and limited.

Leveraging technology platforms for effective program delivery poses unique challenges. For citizens, the use of new tech-savvy tools can be alienating and intimidating. Using technology requires learning new ways to make demands and withdraw benefits, and new norms and modes of local behaviour.

Tech-optimists suggest that problems faced by local governments and citizens in using technology which manifest in reports of delays and exclusion due to poor infrastructure and connectivity are teething pains — side-effects of the transition to digital ways of interacting with government.

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Others fear that the side-effect could become the outcome, seeing the rapid deployment of new technologies as attacks on past improvements in delivery and giving rise to new forms of corruption.

Should the state curb its enthusiasm for tech? Three design principles are key if technology is to truly and effectively help transform India’s social protection systems.

* First, technology must be seen as a tool, not a solution. We need to be clear-eyed about what problem we expect a particular technology to solve, and consistently assess the efficacy of the tools deployed. Solutions such as Aadhaar and Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs) are often touted as gamechangers for Indian social protection. Are they? Depends — what problem are they solving? If the problem is payment leakages emerging from “ghosts” or fake beneficiaries siphoning off monies, then as some early studies indicate, Aadhaar and DBT can make some difference.

However, evaluated from the perspective of inclusion and citizen satisfaction, the evidence paints a different picture. In particular, the role of Aadhaar in delivering benefit transfers has come under significant academic, legal and civil society scrutiny for privacy concerns, delayed payments, and triggering exclusion through authentication failures. Recent process assessments from Union Territories where governments are transferring food subsidies through electronic cash payments highlight the significant challenges posed by limited financial literacy and banking networks, even in urbanised environments.

Importantly, what Aadhaar-enabled digital payments cannot do is ensure that benefits reach the most needy citizen. The 2019 Budget announced the widely debated PM-KISAN scheme for farmers. But how will administrators identify and prioritise the small and marginalised farmers for whom the scheme is intended?

Reviews of various programs highlight how exclusion continues to plague cash transfer programs such as social pensions in India. Identification of the poor whom the social protection system seeks to prioritise has historically been problematic in India due to the poor design and execution of the BPL system. While biometrically authenticated DBTs can verify if a certain person received a certain amount with maximum accuracy and minimum leakage, these tools cannot tell us if the person receiving the benefit is most in need of it. Aadhaar is proof of identity, not eligibility or priority. DBT can only provide a secure pipeline to transfer payments. Neither solves questions on who should be given greater priority for transfers. The problem of eligibility determination requires a very different set of interventions such as social registries. Without clearly identifying the problem, we can’t analyse performance of technology tools — as these are simply enablers, parts of a larger solution.

* Second, while technology is seen as a tool to enhance state capabilities, the effective use of technology requires a far more capable state. In social protection, a core motivation underpinning many tech-based reforms is the idea of removing the human interface from the delivery landscape by making processes as automated as possible. This idea is rooted in how Indian policymaking often casts ‘last-mile’ cadres as apathetic — powerful, corrupt entities who barely show up to work, are indifferent to the needs of citizens, dispense patronage, and use power for personal gain. Yet the experience with various IT innovations suggests that the skill sets, capabilities, and size of the local bureaucracy is critical to ensuring benefit transfer systems are inclusive, timely and citizen-friendly.

For example, within many poor states in India, the challenge of implementing electronic payments through DBT is exacerbated by weak last-mile capacities, reliance on paper registers in view of poor presence of reliable banking outlets in the interior rural areas. The four crucial steps to undertake DBT — digitising beneficiary databases, collecting the correct and functional financial address of a person, seeding the beneficiary database with identification information, and ensuring mechanisms which deliver payments to beneficiaries without exclusion or delays — are fairly transaction-intensive and non-trivial. Camps have to be organised, citizen information and consent for data sharing must be sought, program users need to be informed and counselled, bank accounts and identification proofs need to be produced — all these tasks require various agencies to coordinate at the local level.

In various states, private players and state IT cadres have emerged to support routinised aspects of this work such as data entry, system development, and digitisation. However, tackling citizen claims and disputes on personal authentication, financial address information, payment settlements, and other technology related pain-points rest with an understaffed, unmotivated, and overtasked Panchayat and block office.

Given the hetereogeneity across India’s villages and cities, identifying problems clearly requires a state that is able to deliberate with local stakeholders, while capturing and absorbing citizen feedback. Countries such as Brazil and Mexico have invested in large cadres of social workers for case management and citizen interface. So, technology changes the requirements for human resources, but does not make the need for strong local staff obsolete.

* Third, policy makers need to be mindful of the new power asymmetries created by the use of technology. Programmers, government IT agencies, and system developers are increasingly powerful in the new tech-savvy welfare state. These agencies hold vast amounts of private data on transactions and attributes. At the same time, the very language, nature, and production of technology makes it opaque and distant from ordinary citizens, thus less tractable to local politics and activism.

Many of us are often bewildered at the acronyms and terminology used in discussions on social programs. While you can perhaps find the truck driver who has diverted the PDS ration truck and agitate against local shopkeepers or Panchayat officials, fighting against weak connectivity, a slow computer, or a malfunctioning point-of-sale device is an alien concept for many Indians. If you thought your local Panchayat official was corrupt, you can complain to his superiors or politicians. But complaints triggered by misuse or errors in the use of tech tools can be difficult to pick up, comprehend and process, even for the three of us, much more for citizens unfamiliar with technology.

Thus, it’s critical that governments invest in methods to balance these asymmetries. Robust regulation and legal regimes, which are a main focus of the debate in India following the Aadhaar judgment, are only part of the solution. These laws must be complemented by systems that allow citizens to query and update their information through online and offline methods. For example, clearly codified data exchange, privacy and consent frameworks, are necessary prerequisites to safeguard largescale collation of private data. This also requires building systems that can help channel and absorb feedback from citizens and local administrators into the design process for tech tools.

Reaping maximum gains from digital resources needs complementary and fairly sophisticated investments in regulation, laws, and human resources. After all, program governance involves deeply political and peopled landscapes; these can’t be engineered in a social vacuum.

Aiyar is President and Chief Executive of Centre for Policy Research, and earlier worked for The World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program and Rural Development unit in Delhi. Bhattacharya is Senior Social Protection Economist, The World Bank. Pritchett is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School who earlier worked with The World Bank.

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Aiyar is President and Chief Executive of Centre for Policy Research, and earlier worked for The World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program and Rural Development unit in Delhi. Bhattacharya is Senior Social Protection Economist, The World Bank. Pritchett is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School who earlier worked with The World Bank.