The year 2021 produced 44 Indian Unicorns with about $38 billion in funding, placing the country only behind the US and China. These Unicorns have been able to deliver a product to the end-user — a collection of features, technology and an underlying narrative capable of delighting the end-user repeatedly. The word ‘repeatedly’ here is critically important.
The best products embed the expectations of the user, where possible, into the design or technical features of a software or tool, thereby placing the core product functionalities beyond the vagaries of human discretion. For example, when one uses a UPI app to pay a bill today, the experience depends very little on any human intervention but the integration with banks and the responsiveness of the interface that is baked into the experience.
This is in contrast to the traditional modus operandi of citizen service delivery in many cases — wherein delivery of services still requires the discretion of a public official for its discharge.
The launch of Digital India by the Prime Minister in 2015 has brought into focus the delivery of of digitisation, analytics and use of technology for citizen service delivery. All the successful digital products and platforms such as Aadhaar, UPI, Government eMarketplace (GeM), GeM-SAHAY, Ayushman Bharat, CoWIN, Passport Seva and the like have one thing in common — discretion and bias give way to transparency and efficiency accompanied by customisation in service delivery at the level of an individual.
So what does it take to create successful digital products for delivery of government service to citizens? How can learnings from start-ups help government in product design and development? How can more and more successful digital products propel India’s digital economy to an estimated $1 trillion by 2025 with digital equity and inclusion?
These questions can be broadly answered by working through the following nine key levers:
One, the paradigm shift in the nature of the government-citizen interaction in service delivery, where interaction will increasingly begin to be mediated through well-designed software products and applications rather than people, needs to be understood.
Two, instead of developing products itself, the government should aim to provide platforms that enable creation of products.
Three, the government should adopt a product mindset and aim to build repeatable processes.
Four, it is often seen that product development is outsourced through Request for Proposals and once contracted, there is very little scope for any major change in scope, architecture, technology choices, design, timelines and roll out approach even though requirements of customers keep changing all the time.
A typical contract will include a one-year transition from the existing operator, an additional year of new system development followed by five years of maintenance and support. If one adds the 6-9 month time to complete the contracting process, we are essentially saying the product that gets implemented was conceived and specced-out 18-24 months ago.
A product champion at the top is, therefore, required in the organisation who can ensure that precious time and resources spent in product development are productively spent in collaborating closely with all the stakeholders and painstakingly detailing their requirements and priorities. This is time well spent.
Five, product development in government necessarily has to be anchored in a radical change in mindset — from a department-centric approach to a citizen-centric approach with a clear product definition and relentless focus on the needs of its stakeholders and their priorities.
Six, the right atmosphere where talented private sector product managers, engineers and designers can serve in government needs to be created. The issue here is not just one of hiring talent with an “engineering” or a “technology” mindset but one of identifying and engaging talent with imagination, creativity and a passion for human-centric design for social impact.
Seven, the dimension of velocity in product ideation, development, testing, operation and maintenance has to be constantly kept in mind. For this, a dedicated team for rapid prototyping and testing of features and functionalities through an agile process is required as changes only become apparent after user feedback is received and a product matures towards near perfection through an iterative process.
Eight, technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI)/ Machine Learning (ML) and analytics needs to be deployed for delivering functionalities such as anomaly detection and deviation management at scale.
Nine, information security at all levels needs to be implemented as many well intentioned software initiatives often fail on account of loopholes in maintenance of confidentiality and data integrity and gaps in proper authentication and authorisation of users.
The country is ready with some of the foundational layers of the ‘India Stack’ as part of its Digital Public Infrastructure and more and more applications such as open health platform with digital registries and a unique health identity are now going to leverage these platforms to bring the government to the people.
With India taking significant strides in the implementation of Digital Public Infrastructure and with the words “digital” and “technology” receiving added emphasis in the Union Budget for FY 2022-23, a product mindset will play a critical role for developing successful products with shorter and shorter times to go live.
The writer is Member (Finance), Space Commission, Atomic Energy Commission and Earth Commission. Views are personal