A young man at Delhi’s farmer protests was holding a sign that read: “Jitna bhi digital India banalo, roti Google se download nahi hogi.” (No matter how digital you make India, you can’t download a roti from Google.)
All the basic services that we expect from a government — roti, makaan, bijli, sadak, paani (food, house, electricity, road and water)— are physical things. We have no doubt that technology— especially mobile internet— can help ensure these services reach every single person. What digital technology enables, however, is better governance; as our friend with the sign reminds us, the internet alone is not sufficient to ensure delivery.
Delivery job is complete only when the recipient actually enjoys the service. An old joke says it best: A politician asks for votes by saying “you voted for me last time, and I got taps installed here. Vote for me again and I will make sure there is water coming from those taps”
When we speak of digital delivery of services, what we actually mean is digital governance. Governance is the ability to oversee and manage the processes, institutions and persons involved in the delivery. One cannot download water from the internet; one can, however, file a water connection request or pay one’s water bills online— and the water department can view all connections, repair requests and manage billing and receipts online, as well.
Can some services be delivered online? Definitely. Information of any kind can be digitally delivered: Certificates, licences, permissions, receipts etc. Even money is just a piece of paper with numbers on it, so those numbers could be delivered digitally instead. Moving from paper-based systems to digital ones is a great way to boost productivity and reduce the amount of sheer drudgery involved in service delivery, for citizens and government employees alike.
In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, the 2019 Lean Data Survey found that the e-governance system saved, on average, 11 hours of work every week for local government employees. Most of this was the time they had spent on recording or reporting data— a dull and repetitive task, prone to errors when done manually. Automating the process improved data quality and made employees more productive; between 2015 and 2019, the time taken to address a service request shrank from an average of 24 days to just 5 days, and three in five citizens reported that it was easier to receive services from the city government.
The gains are not limited to efficiency or satisfaction alone. Andhra Pradesh more than doubled revenues collected from property tax by urban local bodies (ULBs), from approximately Rs 540 crores in 2015 to nearly Rs 1,150 crores in 2019. In Punjab, citizens logged more than 14 lakh transactions in just two years, totalling nearly Rs 520 crores in swift and convenient revenue collections.
Making digital delivery and governance work is India’s next big employment opportunity. Even when a service can be delivered digitally, the citizen receiving it has to be comfortable with the medium; many are not, and this is where a digital assistant comes in. Just as our primary health system relies on ASHAs to be the last-mile connect, we can have a whole cadre of workers whose job is to enable the delivery of services, by facilitating enrolment, requests, follow-ups etc. All in the citizen’s language and from the comfort of their homes.
The next wave of improvement in citizen wellbeing and government efficiency alike will come from efforts like these, as more and more cities adopt digital governance platforms, basic steps like data reporting, performance management and identifying inefficiencies will be built into the system itself. Ensuring that delivery is complete— that a citizen actually enjoys the service— requires the “screen” and the “street” to work together.
We have already seen examples of such collaboration in action. For instance, Andhra Pradesh’s new ward secretariat program and the Delhi government’s efforts towards doorstep delivery. As citizens who care about equity, agency and last-mile impact, we should study such initiatives, and find ways to apply them in every state, district, and city across India.
(Tyagi is CEO and Naik is Senior Manager at eGovernments Foundation)