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Saurav Jha
Tuesday , November 05, 2013 at 16 : 14

Guest Post 4 : UIDAI is neither really universal nor unified... yet by Sarajit Jha


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In today's guest post, we have Sarajit Jha looking at the current pitfalls of IT enabled citizen services in India and the state of the back-end as it were.

Although India certainly has seen an improvement in overall customer experience associated with utility services, universal access to the same has remained elusive. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) created over four years ago is being touted as the one project that has the potential of providing unified access to citizen services in a convenient manner. But as we shall see there are still a few very important issues that need to be ironed out with the program before it lives up to its billing.

For those who came late, UIDAI issues an Aadhar card carrying a 12 digit code to citizens in the country that can be verified against biometrics. The Direct Benefit Transfer project and some other local government initiatives have already accepted this card for verification and validation purposes. By the end of 2014, it is expected that some 600 million Aadhar cards would have been issued to an equal number of citizens creating a single verifiable identity for various validation purposes.

Notwithstanding, a citizen today still has to call up different government agencies for various public services with its attendant time and other costs. Let us take the case of a hypothetical Mr Sharma who calls up the MEA passport helpline number in the morning to find out the status of his daughter's passport and in the afternoon rings the UIDAI helpline to verify whether his Aadhar card has been issued and if so when. In both cases Mr Sharma is dealing with the Government of India (GOI) and is a customer for citizen services that the latter is supposedly beholden to provide. However truth be told, he 'waits in queue' for both services, the information he receives is often what is already present on the respective websites (i.e mostly waiting updates) and he probably disconnects in frustration after a long wait only to try later. Service delayed is service denied in today's environment.

But why should delays occur at all? For that one must look at back-end considerations. The fact is    government rates paid to call centre vendors today hardly cover the cost of providing such a service. Most bids for such services of late seem to go unanswered or end up with vendors who think they can 'manage' the government (i.e cut corners) as opposed to providing greater service to citizens. The technology of the CRM software in the backend for most players is frankly neither truly integrated nor really up to date. What is more, low rates are actually preventing potential service providers from either training the best recruits or providing process and technology assets of high quality. Motivated officers who understand these problems (but wouldn't want to go on the record) don't have the flexibility - or the budgets - to rectify the situation.

But were an alternate situation possible, if say the government decided to approach these projects a little differently despite the current fiscal environment? The answer would be yes. Citizen services of the future in India can have the following look. Let's call it the 'one form, one platform' service. In this conception the citizen is indeed identified by the 12 digit Aadhar ID, which he punches into the IVR of whichever 'helpline' he is accessing. The call centre executive will greet the person and ask specific verification questions and will subsequently be able to pull out all relevant government interactions of the concerned citizen. Do take note that this will not mean that a citizen will not carry or need other cards. Passports, Driving licenses, bank account passbooks, PAN card etc will not become redundant since they have other uses. However they can all be integrated with the Aadhar ID which is ultimately just a platform.

What has been delineated above is not very difficult at all from a technological perspective. Government departments can integrate their back end systems into clusters of connected call centres and operate from a unified IVR with a unique identification system (Aadhar). There are of course regulatory hurdles with respect to inter call centre transfers which would need to be legislated upon before such a scheme can be deployed. There is no denying that a national debate on the trade-off between the government's ability to provide a uniform citizen service experience vs citizen's security rights needs to be held. Indeed this entire issue ultimately falls within the realm of public policy and a white paper evolution with a hard-stop in terms of time could be a potential mechanism worth exploring as well. Professionally run call centres on their part can always optimize resources at the back end through economies of scale and adaption of standard practices like 'work flow management', 'agent sizing', etc but they must first get a clean charter so to speak.

Now till such time GOI opens the way towards greater economies of scale, it can also do its part in identifying credible players that have the necessary 'staying power' in today's economy. Some Indian companies have indeed shown promise in this domain while working on connecting citizen services to various affirmative action programs at lower than usual rates through the use of rural call centres and energy conservation programs. Pilot schemes have actually proved effective even in remote locations. However as experience shows, there are intra and inter-departmental issues within the present government structure itself that need to be addressed in order for larger projects to see light of day. For example, the National Skill Development Council (championing employability) and various citizen services wings can definitely act in tandem, especially in terms of injecting crucial start -up funds. At the end of the day, connecting citizen services to affirmative action needs focused attention and genuine advocacy from within the government, which is sadly lacking at the moment.

Sarajit Jha is COO and interim Managing Director of Tata Business Support Services. He tweets at @sarajitjha

The views expressed by the author are his own.


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More about Saurav Jha

Saurav Jha studied economics (and debated politics) at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy and security issues and is a regular contributor to publications such as World Politics Review, The Diplomat and Le Monde Diplomatique, and has written for Deccan Herald, The Telegraph and Hindustan Times. He is the Consulting Editor of Geopolitics magazine. His first book, The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power, was published in March 2010 to excellent reviews. He is presently working on The Heat and Dust Project, a quirky travelogue, based on an intense budget journey through India, co-authored with his wife Devapriya.

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