Technology can aid state capacity, not replace it

Authors: Harsh Vardhan Pachisia and Sharmadha Srinivasan 

This piece was written was for the Data Governance Network Blog.


The current vaccine rollout has displayed that technology is not a silver bullet for governance, especially in a developing country like India. Solving other structural governance issues is key to unleashing the potential of technology in effective delivery of services. 


The current vaccination programme for a significant proportion of its population - age 18-45 years - requires compulsory registration on its online platform, CoWIN. There are no offline options to register for an appointment. Using technology in such a way only serves to exacerbate the issue of access to vaccines by the general population, given the country’s digital landscape. 


While the CoWIN website was able to book appointments for citizens, on-ground realities are often different. For instance, technical glitches caused the platform to confirm appointment slots for the vaccine when there was no supply for them on the particular day. There is also a larger issue when it comes to the app-based approach to vaccinating people. One of the main drawbacks of using technology such as this is its deployment without keeping in mind the context. India’s internet penetration is less than 42 percent of the population, and approximately 500 million use smartphones. India’s actual digital literacy measured through a survey by the Digital Empowerment Foundation in 2018 reports that only 10% of the population is digitally literate. The technology, by default, becomes exclusionary while the intent of the state may not be so.  


The CoWIN initiative has added a large number of extraneous problems to the state’s capacity to deliver. However, technology when employed in the current context, can serve to solve the larger primary problems of the state. For this, it is crucial for policymakers to gain a critical understanding of how and when technology as a tool must be effectively deployed. Policymakers need to undertake a thorough cost-benefit analysis of technologies that governments wish to adopt - from facial recognition cameras for law enforcement to complete end-to-end digitised systems for social welfare schemes. The deployment of such tools and the policies created must be grounded in an understanding of the biases and exclusions the technology may perpetuate, and weigh it against the benefits it provides to society. 


Another issue that often comes about when the Indian state uses technology is an incorrect identification of the problem that needs to be solved. For instance, there are digital tools that can help speed up vaccination production across the globe - from processes such as digitising and sharing the data flows of vaccine development batch reports, and enabling the easier transfer of the necessary technology across borders, to the use of automation via robots at manufacturing facilities. While production of raw materials is a significant hurdle in vaccine production, technological knowledge and data transfers can help improve vaccine production capacity in the long run. 


The focus for policymakers in India seems to be on employing technology in a more outward facing visible role, when it may not necessarily be helpful to solve the issue at hand. Past vaccination drives including the Polio National Immunization drive have vaccinated 170 million children without the extensive use of tech tools.  The use of an online app to vaccinate more than 350 million people in India does little to address the more pressing problem of vaccine shortage. However, if the state provides for an offline option in addition to the online registration process, tech can be seen as enhancing rather than limiting. Here, the government could do well to rectify policy on compulsory registration on the app to signal that it is not only technology friendly but also willing to employ it in a manner that serves the purpose. 


It should be noted that simply adopting data collection tools such as mobile phone surveys or using Geographic Information Systems for analysis will not solve the problem by themselves. Without tackling the structural capacity constraints to collect such data such as lack of skilled personnel, multiplicity of data collection systems across initiatives, etc., no technical system can be successful in improving service delivery. We saw this happen during the first wave of the pandemic when India’s policy response was stymied due to a lack of know-how and skills to use data correctly across all levels of the bureaucracy. Going forward, technical training modules and skill development sessions for bureaucrats to learn such tools need to be set up. Further, lateral hires of trained experts in such areas should be considered and major policy focus brought to bear on integrating the multiple data systems currently at play. 


Pointing out the flaws of technology as a tool is not to downplay its usefulness. Many problems of the future - from further pandemics to climate change - will involve the right tech tools to collect, better analyse data and provide solutions. But the focus right now needs to be on how to solve the underlying structural problems of improving digital literacy and building the necessary state capacity - so technology can truly be effective on the ground.