Covid-19 has driven nations inwards and its people apart, literally. Yet, as citizens and civil servants stay home, the need to connect e-government services has only become more apparent.
India has set its sights on more connected digital services. Citizens “will not be required to go from portal to portal or app to app”, says Abhishek Singh, CEO of India’s National e-Governance Division.
Singh is the man helming India’s efforts towards integrated public services. He shares with GovInsider India’s vision for post-Covid digital government.
Interconnected and accessible
Integrating public services across ministries will be a huge priority for India, Singh says. This would make government interactions a lot more seamless.
For instance, the health records of a child with learning disabilities would be shared with the education ministry. Schools can then prepare to give them additional help in class. Citizens looking for employment support could also be linked up with other forms of government benefits, such as health insurance.
As public services go digital, India is careful to make sure they remain accessible. “Our strategy is always to be conscious of the fact that going online means creating more digital divide,” notes Singh.
Many people may not have the skills to navigate e-services. India plans to solve this with voice-based tech for citizens to access all government services. Instead of having to fiddle with onscreen buttons, they can simply ask for what they need.
This will be built on top of the UMANG app, a one-stop app for all government services. Users can use this to check information on pensions, education, and even which hospitals have the blood type they need.
The tool will support the many languages spoken across India, Singh says. He expects the project to be ready for use in three to six months.
The building blocks of India’s e-government
Most of India’s existing digital services are built upon three tools, Singh shares. These are its digital ID, digital cash transfers, and e-document verifier tools.
These have transformed various public services, such as healthcare. Citizens can be easily identified at clinics, buy medicines online, and store digital health records securely.
Farmers across India have also benefitted greatly from these digital tools. The government has built a mobile app that pulls together data on land ownership, the type of soil in that land, and the weather. The app then suggests when to sow and harvest crops, and how much fertiliser to use. When the harvest is ready, farmers can even access market prices and sell their crops online.
India’s Covid tech
No nation could have foreseen the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it helped that India already had some of the necessary digital tools in place.
The digital ID and cash transfer system, for instance, allowed the government to directly distribute support funds to millions of bank accounts. “That helped the real poor and the real needy to tide over the crisis,” says Singh.
Other types of tech were adapted to serve new needs. India’s own contact tracing app, which maps and predicts hotspots, now allows citizens to book vaccination appointments.
Local startups even got creative. The government launched an open call to build new video conferencing tools to address security concerns with existing platforms such as Zoom.
Four projects have since launched, and are used across government offices, including Singh’s. They boast interesting features too – one platform uses AI to automatically filter out background sounds, such as a barks or a passing vehicle.
Social media for policymaking
Singh also heads MyGov, the Indian government’s social media platform for communicating with citizens. This was very helpful at the beginning of the pandemic, when authorities had to explain new concepts such as “quarantine” and “social distancing”, he told GovInsider.
Besides relaying key messages from the government, MyGov allows citizens to have a say in policies. While drawing up the recent annual budget, India invited citizens to share a “wishlist” of things they wanted.
The government collected more than 40,000 proposals. All of these were processed, and some did make it into the budget, Singh says. For instance, one of the “big ticket announcements” – that the private sector would be more involved in government processes – came from citizens.
The future of smart cities
India plans to bring tech transformation into the heart of its cities. 100 of them have already been named smart cities. Their operations are run from a central command centre – from traffic management right down to switching on its streetlights.
India will now bring the lessons and tools from these 100 forerunners to 500 smaller cities in a plug and play model. “Very often the systems that are developed for one city can easily be customised for other cities,” Singh explains.
Take the garbage collection system, for instance. A ready-built geospatial system can be used in various cities to plan the movement of trucks. The same is true for tax management, as the rules for collecting property taxes are mostly similar across states, he notes.
“Every city need not reinvent the wheel,” says Singh, and that will ensure the remaining 500 cities can adopt these new tech quicker.
As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, India will focus on linking up its government to deliver seamless e-services. This will be crucial as it heads into a digital-led future.