Contextual Readiness for Reaping Digital Dividends

Countries are more likely to reap ‘digital dividend’ if they pay as much attention to five contextual aspects 

A lot is being achieved with the help of digital technologies. Businesses are becoming more nimble and competitive, and governments are becoming more transparent and service oriented. But that’s a journey, which has just begun. As per the World Bank’s World Development Report 2016- Digital Dividends, a lot remains to be done.

“The world’s greatest digital revolution is transforming businesses and governments, but the benefits are neither automatic nor assured,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. “We must ensure that the benefits of new technologies are shared widely, particularly for the poor. Evidence suggests that we can do this by improving competition among businesses, investing in people – starting with pregnant mothers, to ensure that all children have the cognitive ability to later connect to the digital revolution.”

Yes, technology cannot provide benefits directly; it needs the right context for doing that. Building on what Jim Yong Kim has said, I’m discussing here five action points that must receive simultaneous focus for the digital initiatives to deliver the intended results to all the stakeholders.

#1 Closing the digital chasm

While internet users have tripled in a decade to an estimated 3.2 billion, nearly 60% of people globally – some four billion people – are still offline, says the report. And despite the rapid adoption of mobile phones, nearly two billion people do not use one. Almost half a billion people live outside areas that have a mobile signal.

How does the digital highway reach these billions without internet or mobile? Some lessons can be learnt from the Citizen Service Centers (CSCs) in India, which provide internet connections to those who do not have the access. Inspired by the PCO initiative for bringing telephony to the masses, the CSC initiative ensures that multiple citizen services can be availed by the masses. The initiative fetches services from the same engine as the one used for online provisioning. The Digital Dividend report says that bridging the digital divide should be a global priority to generate growth and jobs, and to improve services.

#2 Building the internal capacity to deliver

Digital may bring in benefits by ‘flirting’ with it at the periphery where citizens interface. But flirting cannot provide services that are real, deeper and sustainable. For that, the internal capacity to deliver needs to be enhanced. This capacity is created by a trio of process automation and integration; people development and change management; and new structures of administration. Take any success story like the passport services in India, these three have been adequately addressed.

A Coeus Age study of 1,600 e-governance initiatives in India has found that only 21% of those have the capacity to enable transactions or citizen participation. The majority 79% are focused just on providing information, or, at best, facilitate an interaction.

3 Enhancing citizens’ digital participation

It is one thing to provide digital services to citizens and another thing that citizens are able to avail those services as well. Issues such as awareness, ability to use, and ease of access become equally important. A lot is being done today in India to promote the basic purpose of or the PMGSY app but a lot more still needs to be done. Using technology may not come naturally to many, and the real challenge is to bring them onboard. The urban youth may be quite ready to use these services but what about the older generations and those in the rural areas.

#4 Developing institutions

Institutions provide the structural resources for building and delivering services digitally. They represent the legal and administrative dimensions of the required structures. New institutions may be required or existing ones may need overhauls via policy reforms and amendments. Examples include bringing the Aadhar bill to make UIDAI as one of the core element of the JAM trinity in India or making a constitutional amendment for the General Goods and Services Tax (GST) for making India a single-tax market. Examples of institutional overhaul include the reforms in the financial markets, taxation, agriculture, telecom, social benefits, law and order, health, women and child development, government procurement, education and GIS technology. A strong and digital-friendly institutional environment helps generate digital dividends.

#5 Building platforms

Platforms are containers of technology services, which can be used to connect a large number of users. E-commerce is a great example of a platform where thousands of buyers and millions of users interact and transact. That’s an example of a market platform. In case of digital governance, platforms can be used by multiple projects simultaneously; they are not specific to any project. There could be multiple other types of platforms. Making digitization truly work and deliver requires plethora of platforms such as eMandi (for building markets), NSDG and SSDG (enabling process and services level integration), eGRAS (payments), UIDAI (providing database support for authentication), MobileSeva (technology services), DigiLocker (specific information), and (participation), among others.

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