Eavesdropper: Aarogya Setu is losing relevance – Why the govt must be more innovative to push it through

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Published: July 6, 2020 6:30 AM

The idea of a nudge is simple, push them to do something in their self-interest, and wait and watch. It’s been used oft knowingly or unknowingly.

Although health and self-preservation should have been reason enough to download the app, privacy and security and the social stories were not highlighted enough for uptake.

There was a simple study conducted a few years ago. A group of monkeys were chosen for an experiment, and the scientist made sure that there was little monkey business. Every time they wanted monkeys to do something, the monkeys would get a reward, and over time they started doing so as a force of habit. The idea was to nudge monkeys to do the right thing, instead of punishing them for doing the wrong one. Decisions for humans are not as simple, but you’d be surprised to know how similar we are to monkeys. A more recent study involving capuchins shows this.

They can gamble and work as per laws of economics. Just type capuchin, Jell-O and gambling, and you’d know.
In fact, Thaler’s idea—the nudge theory—for which he also won the noble has worked well with humans. Monkeys, I believe, were never his consideration or focus group. A prime example of this is India. Remember, during the demonetisation, when the government tried to introduce digital, it did not work so well. While one reason was the availability of technology, the other one was forcing people to do something that they do not wish to do. So, while digital payments did pick up for a few months, after a while, they started declining. However, during this time, private initiatives caught up, and they knew what to do.

Millions, rather billions, were given away in the form of cashback and rewards, and people just lapped it up. The levels of digital payments barely dipped afterwards. One, it was simple. Two, it had become part of the behaviour. Even the government understood the importance of cashback and rewards and introduced its cashback programmes. But given how things are with the government, they barely worked.

The idea of a nudge is simple, push them to do something in their self-interest, and wait and watch. It’s been used oft knowingly or unknowingly. However, surprisingly the Indian government seems to have unlearned what it learned during demonetisation and after, or perhaps it believes that there is little nudge required in a pandemic.

The case we are talking about is Aarogya Setu. Although health and self-preservation should have been reason enough to download the app, privacy and security and the social stories were not highlighted enough for uptake. The government failed on that count. Initial success was tremendous with the app garnering over 10 million users within days, and then things slowed down. There weren’t enough tests, data concerns were not addressed Downloads, now, have only hit a 100 million. That is phenomenal, but given there are close to 500 million smartphone users, and nearly everyone needs to have the app, it is certainly not enough.

So, what has the government missed? One, there were not enough social stories to drive adoption; there still aren’t. The government promoted what Aarogya Setu had achieved, but this was limited to a press conference and a few tweets. No life-changing tales were shared, no person was put on TV saying how Aarogya Setu had saved her or her family’s life. Two, the government forgot the most significant incentive—money. Had it started giving money to people to download and use the app, it could have driven adoption. Sharing could have been another source of cashback. Remember, the Tata Sky commercial. Share the app with your friends; ask them to download and get money in return. The incentive structure could have worked.

Even if the government could not do this, it could have easily made achievements and rewards game-like to drive adoption. But it hasn’t done any of it.  Are there problems to this approach? Nudge theory is criticised for being too paternalistic, and if you start giving things to people for money, they do tend to demand money each time. This, however, is a one-time special case scenario, and it would not have hurt to try something new. There’s still time. As the economy is clawing back to normality, the government can work towards driving adoption.

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