The right platform for governance

April 7, 2021 5:45 AM

Platform governance can usher in an era of decentralised and personalised government services

Taxpayers benefit from rule-based, transparent and streamlined public procurement which enhances transparency and positively impacts the economy and governance.

By Talleen Kumar

In its Gandhian conception, the decentralisation of political and economic power is fundamental to a democracy which is based on individual freedoms and initiatives. Gandhi’s vision of such decentralisation also saw individuals actively participating in the government. Nearly seven decades later, perhaps digital technologies can actually deliver on this vision of decentralised government which enables individual participation and engagement. True decentralisation of government means moving from a fragmented and complex system guarded by gatekeepers and legacy processes to transparent, responsive, flexible and user-friendly platforms.

The past 150 years have seen populations and economic complexity grow manifold. In a country like India, for example, each district may have local industries and supply chains that surpass the economic complexity of entire nations pre-Industrial Revolution. With the amount of heterogeneity, it quickly becomes acutely apparent to an administrator that policies need to be shaped to the contours and idiosyncrasies of smaller and smaller administrative regions—eventually, one would require personalised governance.

Inevitably, the confluence of decentralisation and personalisation will lead to conflict: In order to craft policies that are tailored to the situation, one will have to give the government more power to decide the merits of each decision separately—this sometimes creates a situation where people start seeking ways to ‘influence’ the decision-makers to achieve their goals and all this ultimately creates a culture of queue jumping. How does one provide a government that is at once personalised and fair at the same time? In the past, the delivery of personalised services also meant placing more power in the hands of bureaucratic processes, and the consequent and inevitable erosion of fair and unbiased decision-making over time. To resolve this dilemma, a new paradigm of governance is needed which replaces a monolithic, rule-bound, centralised hierarchy with competitive, citizen-centric and decentralised platforms.

We use platforms everyday—to shop, hail cabs, book tickets, make payments and get and share information. By 2023, it is estimated that nearly two-thirds of Indians will have both a mobile device and internet access. Applying for a government-issued licence online is likely to be easier and less expensive than travelling to a bricks-and-mortar office to meet an officer and fill out several forms. This growing digitally-able population is an opportunity to revolutionise legacy government processes. The platform approach has already been used with success in India. For example, according to the State of Aadhaar Report (2019), 95% of Indians currently have Aadhaar and on an average use it once a month. The NPCI’s UPI has triggered a revolution in the digital payments ecosystem in India by providing a single platform for customers to access seamless fund routing, payments and banking features. UPI’s success is attributable to its structure as a highly scalable platform bringing together different sets of users or stakeholders (customers, banks and merchants). The Prime Minister’s call for all government procurement to be on the Government e-Marketplace (GeM) has led to Rs 1,16,000 crore of cumulative transaction value as on March 31, 2021.

Fundamentally, digital platforms create and provide the open participatory infrastructure to enable different sets of users or stakeholders (like buyers and sellers on Amazon or the GeM) to interact with each other in various contexts. Unified platforms enable robust interactions between these stakeholders who generate value for each other. Platforms also benefit from positive network effects, i.e. the additional value generated through robust interactions between different users and the freedom to innovate. In GeM, for example, the primary users are government buyer organisations and sellers/service providers.

Through an open, easy-to-use and accessible platform, GeM has transformed how public procurement is conducted by enabling a competitive and transparent marketplace which delivers more and more value as it scales. Government buyers benefit from a diverse ecosystem of sellers competing with each other to provide higher quality and cost-effective goods and services. Sellers benefit from the ease of doing business with the government (such as by the incentivisation of timely payments and more opportunities) on the platform.

Taxpayers benefit from rule-based, transparent and streamlined public procurement which enhances transparency and positively impacts the economy and governance. Platforms replace ad hoc, case-by-case decision-making with policy-based, system-wide consistent decision-making. For example, GeM has replaced typical tendering practices with transparent and automatic bidding—a government buyer can still set standards for what they want to buy and its features, specifications, terms and conditions, but cannot select the seller based on extraneous considerations.

Due to digital technologies and constantly increasing connectivity, platforms scale far more efficiently than traditional linear forms of government. This can put more power, access and autonomy in the hands of citizens. For example, 49% of those registered on Aadhaar used the platform to access services for the very first time (for example ration, MGNREGA, social pensions, SIM cards, and/or bank accounts). Platforms remove traditional information asymmetries and streamline bureaucratic processes and functions. Think of the transparency and efficiencies driven by the economies of scale, uniform and consistent rule-based system of the Goods and Services Tax Network (GSTN) for taxpayers and both the central and state governments. The eNAM platform is a pan-India electronic trading portal which networks different APMC-mandis to create a unified national market for agricultural commodities, allowing farmers to benefit from real-time market signals in marketing and selling their produce. Platforms eliminate gatekeepers (like middlemen in the transfer of government benefits, as in the streamlining of the DBT through Aadhaar).

Advances in cloud computing and technology allow for continuous improvement of platforms through feedback loops based on data generated by users on the platform. At GeM, we are piloting the use of advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify deviant behaviour on the platform and introduce incentives to induce behaviour change for buyers and sellers in an open and transparent marketplace. The power of platforms can be further augmented with technologies such as AI to deliver efficiency gains and personalisation and also blockchain to empower entities to self-regulate. The GeM platform recently conducted a pilot leading to transparency in the conditions of transport of pharmaceuticals. Similarly, advanced analytics and AI are heavily used on the platform to power search as well as flag suspicious transactions.

To leverage the power of platforms in government, firstly we must develop a robust consent and privacy framework to assuage citizen concerns about how their data will be treated. Secondly, an SPV should be set up that is charged with incubating platforms in concert with start-ups and the innovation ecosystem. This SPV must be managed by a professional team and while it may be provided initial funding, it should have a path to self-sustainability. Thirdly, a whole of government process examination must be done to understand which interfaces can be ‘platformised’. The legacy processes that cause friction and lower the bar for the experience of citizens can be immediately discarded.

Fourthly, all states can and should be brought on board through participative and innovative governance mechanisms such as the GST Council and empowered to develop change with this paradigm. Fifthly, the growth of private platforms and public-private platforms should be encouraged and there must be a roadmap for interoperability between different platforms and secure data access between platforms. Sixthly, a coherent and unified strategy towards e-governance and platform adoption across departments through a whole of government approach can be conceptualised in consultation with the central and state government organisations.

There is no doubt that India is poised for a digital transformation with the government leveraging platforms to collect taxes, distribute benefits, deliver services and build infrastructure. We must, however, remain thoughtful while reinventing government functions as platforms. To develop effective, efficient and sustainable platforms that benefit citizens, it is critical to enforce digital security and adopt robust legal frameworks and global best practices.

The author is CEO, GeM. Views are personal

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