Building the 21st Century Government

How the Government of India is reinventing itself through Technology

The Government of India (GoI) is a behemoth. ~400,000 employees across 90 Departments serve a country of 1.2 billion people. In addition to legislation, GoI runs some of the world’s largest programs and services. For example, the Public Distribution System is the world’s largest food distribution system serving 180 million families across 29 states [1]. The Indian Railways transports 23 million passengers (equivalent to the population of Australia) every single day [2].

Given this level of complexity, technology has been a game-changer for all Government-related services, transactions, and interactions, becoming a defining component in how the organization operates and creates value for its customers.

There have been two distinct themes of change in how GoI has begun using technology today.

Leveraging Big Data to make smarter decisions

Digitization of Government services has led to the availability of a vast amount of data to Ministers and officials. Some Ministries use live implementation data of Government programs to make smarter decisions and prioritize reforms. Other Ministries develop detailed data-backed dashboards to share their progress and increase accountability. Three illustrative examples are:

1. The Ministry of Power runs a dashboard that tracks its implementation of rural electrification – a program designed to bring electricity to 20,000 villages across India. The dashboard is now shared publicly to hold the Ministry accountable for its customer promise [3].

Exhibit 1: Ministry of Power Rural Electrification dashboard

2. Ministries are crunching data from 1 million+ complaints from citizens to understand what customers around the country are thinking about their services [4]. For example, GoI can now automatically see that 45% of Railways customer complaints are about delayed refunds and 90% of these complaints are concentrated in 3 states. This is powerful, specific information that officials can now use to target reforms.

3. The Ministry of Commerce now tracks exports and imports live [5]. Information like annual commodity imports by port and exporting country is now instantly available on the dashboard. Such a data request would typically have taken a few hours in the past.

Exhibit 2: Ministry of Commerce dashboard – Imports from the US in FY16


Using Technology to deliver services effectively and efficiently

In addition to using data, GoI uses technology to deliver better public services . In many ways, GoI is one of the world’s largest services companies – its objective is to create great customer experiences at low cost. There are numerous examples, but two significant ones are:

  1. Direct Benefit Transfers: The advent of Financial Technology is creating a paradigm shift for Government services. Over the last decade, GoI developed Aadhaar – the world’s largest digital authentication program (like the SSN). Now, GoI is linking Aadhaar to bank accounts, to be able to transfer subsidies directly into the bank accounts of the 800mm citizens who access Government aid (like a Venmo for aid programs), removing leakages in the system. In addition, the move sets up a powerful “India Stack” that allows businesses to use the Aadhaar platform to perform digital transactions. The program (currently being rolled out) is expected to save the Government billions of dollars.


Exhibit 3: Aadhar and India Stack – digital authentication [6]

2. Mobile One: The Bangalore Government developed a mobile app that integrates 4,000+ services onto a handset-agnostic portal. The services range from utility bill payments, income and property tax payment and healthcare. Since its launch in 2014, the app has been downloaded 200,000 times and has replaced numerous physical Government touch points for the average citizen [7].

That said, the Government can still do more. Some ideas are:

1. Building strong in-house capability: GoI can leverage technology better by hiring high-quality talent, similar to what the United States is doing. The US has a Chief Technology Officer reporting to the President [8]. The US also has a Presidential Innovation Fellowship, where talented young technologists build technology products for Government [9].

2. Engage the larger technology community better: GoI needs to review its procurement protocols to make it simpler for officials to work with startups and tech firms operating at the cutting edge. In addition, sharing large data-sets with the larger tech community through Hackathons and better Open Data portals [10] will also jumpstart public data usage.

3. Ensure availability of data: Most of these solutions are only possible if high quality data is available. GoI must consciously ensure data is being captured at every stage in all new programs to ensure such products can be built.

Over the next decade, Indian citizens will be able to access even more Government services from their phones, with none of the pain that one typically associates with the public sector. A vast network of middlemen profiting from leakages in public programs will lose their role in the economy. Aid programs will become more efficient and cost-effective. And the foundation of all this change will be built on Technology.

[798 words]

[1] “Functioning of the Public Distribution System”, PRS India, 2013

[2] “18 interesting facts about Indian Railways”, Business Standard, 2015

[3] GARV Dashboard, Govt. of India

[4] “How Ministries are using suggestions from a PMO prompted study to address citizen grievances”, Economic Times, 2016

[5] Commerce EXIM Dashboard, Govt. of India

[6] “The Bedrock of a Digital India”, Sasi Desai, 2016

[7] “Mobile One eliminates hassle of having to endure long wait for services”, Times of India, 2016

[8] “Unleashing Government’s Innovation Mojo”, McKinsey & Company, 2012

[9] Presidential Innovation Fellows, The White House

[10] Open Data Portal, Govt. of India


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Student comments on Building the 21st Century Government

  1. The reason I attribute to many government-related issues is the lack of skilled people working for governments because these institutions are the face of bureaucracy and slow-pace – things that frustrate and drive away skilled people who want to see results.

    I think that the innovations in the operating model of the Indian government are going to produce a virtuous cycle: More talented people who see this change and the positive results with this new way of operating are going to be early adopters joining the governmental workforce and eventually help attract more people into these jobs. Since government is the institution that invests in education and infrastructure that influences the long-term growth and prosperity of the country, these initial steps will hopefully lead to a much bigger effect.

  2. Quite interesting post. In my previous experience as a consultant, I supported a large benchmark about innovative initiatives of governments all around the world. Digitalization is a clear lever for increased efficiency and better performance across a wide variety of government services. However, given the sensitivity of information, oftentimes cyber security is also a critical dimension to be managed. Imagine if one could break into one of these systems and retrieve information that is highly confidential? Going forward, the evolution of the portfolio of digital services will highly depend on the ability of companies and governments to match security/confidentiality requirements with the technology available to deliver these services. I would love to understand how the Indian Government has dealt with these security requirements.

  3. Thank you for this post! I was impressed by the magnitude of the change and how transformational digitalization will be for the population. It seems that the GoI has mobilized to use digitalization as a way of being more transparent and improving individuals’ lives, but I share ecanabarro’s concern about data security, as all these tools involve dealing with high-sensitive information.
    I also saw a lot of value on the initiative of the Ministry of Commerce. Having worked for an exporter in the past, I was impressed by the “live” data on exports. This information can be a good indicator for companies to monitor and act upon, especially if they are granular as they seem to be.

  4. That’s great that India is moving so much of its government services online. When I was there, the tricky part wasn’t just the infrastructure limitations of the country, which is still developing, but lack of awareness of how those infrastructure limitations would affect me. I think the availability of this data to the citizen will help solve this.

    For example, trains were frequently late, and sometimes by a matter of hours. It would have really helped to know this in advance through an online portal, so that I wasn’t sitting on the track.

    Another example is power outages. When I was there is 2007 there wasn’t enough power in Bangalore to power the whole city, so they would shut off the power to one section of the city at a time in order to allocate it equitably across different neighborhoods. Each day the lights would turn off randomly in our office for a half hour at a time. One day we sat for hours and the power didn’t come back so we all went home. It would have been nice to have a schedule of planned power outages so we could plan around this.

  5. As mentioned in a previous post, increases in government use of technology also requires increased cyber security. I wonder how the general population of India has reacted to government making a push to make more data driven decisions and as a result acquiring and tracking mass amounts of data on its citizens. Do people generally fear whether or not this information will be used for good or for more questionable activities? In my opinion, there seems to be a mixed reaction in the US. Americans generally do not like feeling “watched.” It will be interesting to see if sentiment around the government’s harnessing of data/information changes as cell phones and other tech become more penetrated in India.

  6. Thanks for the post, Vinay. I would be very interested to learn how the GoI coordinates these efforts and resources across the federal, state and local levels. On the very local level, the government might consider a tool like PublicStuff (link below), which is billed as a “civic engagement platform” to connect residents and government agencies. As an example, if a resident sees a downed power-line, the resident can take a picture, submit a service request and track progress toward resolution. At the same time, the platform’s back-end routes the request to the appropriate government agency (e.g., department of public works), schedules tasks and reports back to all stakeholders.

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