Vijay (name changed) is a senior citizen living in an informal settlement in Anantapuramu, Andhra Pradesh. He faces the usual challenges of living in India’s urban slums — sewage backups, rusted water lines, and erratic power supply, among many others. He knows that the municipality can fix some of these problems, but it’s hard for him to get on their radar. It involves him going to the local municipal office, standing in a queue to file a complaint, possibly offering a bribe, and then following up repeatedly, hoping that something is done.

This is where ‘Digital India’ comes in. Now, imagine the Anantapuramu municipality launches a municipal services app. The vision for this app is to bring the municipality closer to the people living there. This will allow a person to file a complaint within minutes, all done from the comfort of their home through a smartphone. More importantly, it ensures that there is an auto-generated electronic trail, with a key performance indicator (KPI) that ensures that the grievance gets actioned within a stipulated timeframe. In theory, this makes the system more efficient and transparent and enables redressal without greasing palms or seeking favours.

However, municipal apps and platforms are not silver bullets in improving every citizen’s experience. As recent research by Aapti Institute and eGovernments Foundation, based on fieldwork with residents of informal urban settlements in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab shows, relying heavily on digital platforms can leave out a large number of citizens from the purview of government services.

Those who get left out are disproportionately the more vulnerable and marginalised: senior citizens, women, lower castes, and the poorest. These people are either not aware of digital platforms, or don’t have the ability or means to engage with digital interfaces (due to cost or lack of digital literacy), or simply don’t trust digital platforms.

It is clear that digital solutions need to be implemented in the social, economic, and political context of the communities they seek to serve. What does this mean in practice? The one learning from decades of ethnographic research is that people prefer relying on mechanisms they trust and are comfortable in using. In the context of urban services, the Aapti study uncovered the key role played by trusted intermediaries or community anchors. These encompass a vast range of individuals and institutions: from local NGOs and community-based organisations to local politicians and trusted community leaders. It is these intermediaries that often function as the ‘last mile of service delivery’ in many parts of India. One respondent put it eloquently: “these people help us see the government”. What drives these intermediaries is a mix of social conscience, altruism, and political ambition.

The role of community anchors

Whatever the reason for their existence, people show a degree of comfort and trust in approaching these community anchors to resolve issues. In fact, these community anchors have become the informal human interface of the municipal apps.

These community anchors focus on providing an operational link between the digital services and their beneficiaries.

Citizens go to them to file complaints on their behalf on the municipal app because they do not have the knowledge or technology access to do this. Often, these local intermediaries also proactively collect complaints and submit them to the decision-making authority in a digital format.

A second key function that these intermediaries serve is to spread awareness of the various digital solutions offered by local governments.

When citizens are more aware of the digital solutions and entitlements due to them, they are more likely to use these.

To be sure, the government does promote its various schemes and apps using media and other outreach methods. But, as the Aapti study shows, many in the community tend to trust local intermediaries and community anchors. They are more likely to go to and listen to them about using digital solutions and seek their help to handhold them in their early digital journey.

Therefore, we believe the key next frontier for digital India should be about empowering and engaging these community anchors so that the gap between the State and the most marginalised communities can be bridged.

In particular, these community anchors could be proactively trained by the State to spread awareness about using digital apps, and their feedback could be used to improve the user interface and user experience (UI/UX), for example, making the UI/UX more customised to the needs to new-to-smartphone or feature phone users.

The State could also consider rolling out ‘assisted apps’ that allow intermediaries to formally enroll and register complaints and requests on behalf of citizens.

If governments want the power of technology to serve every citizen, especially the most marginalised, they need to engage the “trusted human face” anchored in the community as a brand ambassador and facilitator of this journey.

The writers are with Omidyar Network India