India is now recognized as a leader in digital government service delivery, enabled by the Aadhaar unique identification platform which has registered the equivalent of almost 15 percent of the world’s population. Many service delivery programs have been deployed at the state level, providing a rich comparative context. Some states have struggled to move towards effective and inclusive digitized programs while others have seemingly achieved a sophistication that is on par with, or surpasses, many developed countries’ capacities.
In a new CGD study, we survey beneficiaries of social transfer programs in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. Andhra has been a leader in the digitization of programs and services and Krishna has been its leading district. The state and district are often visited by government delegations from abroad. However, as of 2018 no independent assessments of the new systems had yet been carried out to understand how they were viewed by their beneficiaries and clients. We wondered if the hype had exceeded realities on the ground.
Together with our implementing partner MSC (MicroSave Consulting), we surveyed beneficiaries of three programs: the Public Distribution System (PDS rations), social pensions, and digitized land records. We also surveyed Fair Price Shop owners and banking correspondents and conducted focus group meetings. Together, these help to construct a 360-degree picture of how the implementation of Andhra’s programs are experienced by people in Krishna on both the supply and demand side.
The digitized programs have sought to embody four principles: provide universal access; establish clear accountability, including to help beneficiaries in cases where technology fails; enable beneficiaries to choose between different service providers; and monitor implementation closely through a combination of real-time administrative data and user surveys. That last dimension has been evolving into a comprehensive real-time governance framework.
For all three programs the survey responses are positive. Users prefer the new digitized systems to the previous ones, generally by quite large margins. We fail to find evidence of systematic digital exclusion or any sub-group which does not prefer the newer systems. In addition, digitization of the PDS ration system appears to have resulted in considerable fiscal savings. This is not to say that things are perfect; there are several areas where implementation can be improved but the problems do not reflect the digitized aspects of service delivery.
The four principles underlying Andhra’s digital reforms—access, accountability, choice, and voice—provide powerful guidelines for other cases. Is Krishna/Andhra then the model of the future? From the technology perspective, maybe so. Many countries could move in a similar direction, although the full model would be beyond the current capacity of many poor countries. More debatable is the question of political priorities and will; whether other jurisdictions will place a similar priority on using technology to improve service delivery. Krishna shows what is possible. It does not prove that it is inevitable.