Opinion

Welfare delivery in the digital world

Deepro Guha/Aishwarya Viswanathan | Updated on September 27, 2021

Well-designed social registries are key to ensuring that the development gains promised by technology are realised while enabling transformative innovations for welfare-delivery at population scale

With increasing digitisation of our lives, we are now witnessing a paradigm shift in the way digital solutions are being deployed for welfare delivery and societal impact. Open Digital Ecosystems (ODEs), or population scale platforms, are increasingly being built and mainstreamed by the government to streamline welfare delivery by helping establish identities, digitising record keeping, tracking progress and aiding grievance redressal. If well-designed and well-implemented, ODEs can help fix the many gaps and inefficiencies that plague our current systems of welfare delivery.

Fundamental to the success of such initiatives is the crucial element of ‘social registries’. A social registry essentially attempts to harmonise information systems to create a registry of citizens to establish their eligibility for social welfare programmes.

Countries across the world are building social registries that have a wide population coverage and provide a number of welfare schemes through them. India too has been swift to embrace this development. The 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) helped in facilitating targeted interventions under various schemes and consideration to undertake the SECC again is currently underway.

The national effort towards creating a social registry is now also being bolstered at the State level. The ‘Samagra Portal’ in Madhya Pradesh, the ‘Parivar Pehchan Patra Yojna’ in Haryana and the upcoming State Family Database in Tamil Nadu are all similar State- level initiatives.

However, given India’s digital divide and lack of awareness about the nuances of digital solutions, the dangers of exclusion of eligible candidates from such social registries is very real. Additionally, in the absence of privacy preserving safeguards and other suitable measures, these social registries can be a risk to civil liberties as well as to informational security.

In this context, we examine diverse frameworks of social registries in countries around the world and build on research by the Centre for Internet and Society to outline key principles and practices that can help reduce potential dangers, while accentuating benefits of using social registries.

Lessons from other experiences

    Openness: Given the high cost structure and dependence on developer support that proprietary software entails, using open software for the creation of social registries is more desirable. For instance, Malawi’s Unified Beneficiary Registry (UBR) information system was built entirely using open-source software components which has facilitated independent audits, and improved transparency and accountability in the system.

    An idea worth exploring in the Indian context is the creation of a ‘National FOSS Alliance’ — where a network of stakeholders can facilitate FOSS projects, including using FOSS to develop the framework for social registries. This will allow for peer review and participation, which in turn will increase innovation and improve security and transparency in the system.

      Data collection: Data collection is the single most important step in the process of creating a social registry. Apart from ensuring population coverage to avoid exclusionary errors, data collection protocols must be established to inform citizens of their rights. In Senegal, during the data collection phase for the National Unique Registry, special efforts were taken to inform households about its purpose, potential users, right to not respond, etc.

      Similar efforts are needed in India to build awareness around consent and mainstream privacy consciousness among the masses. Additionally, where possible, we should leverage existing databases to identify beneficiaries, instead of using the traditional census sweep or demand registration approach where exclusionary errors are more common. The effort by the Government of Odisha to link 20 State scheme datasets to identify authentic beneficiaries for its KALIA scheme is one such example.

      Decentralisation: The institutional arrangements for managing social registries vary across the world. For example, in the Philippines the database Listahanan is managed and operated by a central agency, but in Brazil control of the Cadastro Único registry and overall database management is shared between central, state and municipal authorities.

      In India, given the number of beneficiaries, unique development contexts across regions and multiples welfare schemes, a decentralised model where responsibilities and vulnerabilities are shared across the system will be more prudent and secure. The State and local government could be responsible for linking the welfare schemes with the social registry, and oversight and implementation efforts could be entrusted to the Centre.

        Independence: Instituting independent administrative bodies can help detect and deter delivery gaps and leakages, and also serve as a source of subject-matter expertise. In this context, in Kenya a Social Protection Secretariat was established to provide technical expertise required for the maintenance of a digitised social registry.

        In India, along the lines of the National Health Authority for the health sector, creating other bodies which could provide independent sector-specific expertise and evaluation of the programme must be considered.

        Incorporating the principles listed above into the design of social registries will ensure that we realise the development gains promised by technology while enabling transformative innovations for welfare-delivery at population scale.

        Deepro Guha is a Manager and Aishwarya Viswanathan is an Analyst at The Quantum Hub, a public policy research and advocacy firm based in New Delhi

        Published on September 27, 2021

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