Inclusivity in digital services

In this guest post by Anushka Srivastava, an intern with Public Digital in Summer 2022, we examine inclusivity in digital services across two case studies. We would like to thank all interviewees whose contributions helped inform the research for this post.

Image: flickr

At Public Digital, we believe digital is a process, not a destination. It must be user-centric and, crucially, focused on inclusivity. For instance, limiting the definition of digital to online services and one channel risks excluding people with limited access, connectivity, literacy skills, and motivation. To lower exclusionary barriers to digital services, the question to answer is this: how can we enable people without digital resources or knowledge to engage with the service in new ways?

Digital transformation has the power to bridge inequalities and save time, cost, and effort for all citizens. The world witnessed the impact of digital exclusion during the pandemic. A lack of mobile bank accounts to transfer money to low-income families, lack of literacy to register for vaccinations online, and lack of devices and connectivity for online learning. The World Bank suggests that the pandemic pushed an additional 88 million people into extreme poverty. People are excluded not only because of income but also their gender, location, ability, age, sexual orientation, and migration status. We need to account for these divisions and design digital services that are accessible to all.

In this blog post I have looked at two case studies - an assessment of digital inclusion through digital payments in India, and digitised government services in Bangladesh.

Digital Payments in India

The campaign for Digital India was launched in 2015 with a vision to transform the country into a digitally empowered society. Unified Payments Interface (UPI) was launched in 2016 with the aim of reducing the procedural barriers to making an online payment. UPI is a real-time payment system to facilitate person-to-person and person-to-merchant transactions. The use of UPI still required users to have a mobile money account, smartphone, stable internet connectivity, digital literacy to make payments, and the motivation to use the payment applications.

In a country as diverse as India, with 69% of the population residing in rural areas, it was false to assume that 1.3 billion people can access UPI. Yet without access to digital payments, people had to travel to banks to withdraw cash or deposit money. During the pandemic this wasn’t possible. Social security payments were transferred to digital accounts. This required access to digital accounts and the agency to use them. So how did India manage 40% digital transactions in 2021 and the integration of UPI in day-to-day expenses?

The introduction of cheaper phones by indigenous companies like Jio and widespread internet availability increased mobile users in India to 1.18 billion people. However, not all users can afford or have access to smartphones. UPI123 Pay was launched in 2022 to cater to India’s 400 million feature phone users. Payments on a feature phone can be made through a missed call, interactive voice response system (IVRS), and sound-based technology.

The literacy rate in India is 77.7% with a gendered difference of 14%. To reduce the barriers to literacy, payments can be completed by scanning a QR code that automatically fills in the recipient’s information. The sender only has to enter the transactional amount, avoiding the need to input names, account numbers, and other details. Audio notifications after each payment help vendors keep track of their payments even if they cannot read or understand screen notifications. The application interface uses pictorial icons for actions like sending money, and logos of different merchants, reducing the need to read names and instructions.

India is a diverse country with numerous languages and cultures. While 500 million people can speak Hindi, there are 121 languages spoken by at least 10,000 or more people. Recognising the limitation of English as the app’s primary language, BHIM (a payment app designed by the Indian government) supports 21 languages, and other private apps like PhonPe support up to 11 languages.

BHIM government payment app. Image:

To spread awareness about the use of UPI, the Government of India launched the ‘UPI Chalega’ (UPI works) campaign in 2020 on social media platforms and television advertisements in multiple languages. The videos explain the registration and payment process and showcase use cases for consumers like electricity payments, online food delivery, and transferring money to family across the country. The apps include cash prizes and reward vouchers in order to increase uptake.

These interventions to make digital payments more inclusive have significantly increased the volume and value of transactions through UPI. As of 2022, 323 banks are live on UPI, recording 4.5 billion transactions per month with a volume approaching $111 billion. Most of these transactions were below Rs 200 ($2.35). Beyond the ease of payments, UPI developed proper infrastructure and trust in the financial system, helping to promote financial inclusion and economic development of under-served citizens. From an individualistic perspective, an inclusive digital service took away the need for people to travel long distances to banks, or forgoing their daily wages. And it empowered everyone to make payments irrespective of their location, education, gender, or income.

UPI Advertisement. Image:

Digital Centres in Bangladesh

The campaign for Digital Bangladesh was launched in 2008 with a2i, the digital unit of the government of Bangladesh, leading the digital transformation of the country’s public services. In the past 14 years, 600+ government services have been digitised, saving the country an estimated $11.22 billion and 9.26 billion workdays for citizens.

However, using these services also requires an internet-enabled device, stable internet, digital literacy, and the motivation to switch from traditional to digital services. Many of these are not available for the average Bangladeshi. A citizen living in a village would often travel 20-30 km to a government office to use services like birth or land registration and mobile banking. This means forgoing wages for the day if they are a daily wage earner, as well as paying for transportation and possibly childcare too.

To cater to the needs of every Bangladeshi, the government set up 4554 Union Digital Centres (UDC) in 2009. These centres are available in every union council, the lowest tier of the Bangladeshi government. A typical UDC is about 4km from the average citizen’s home, reducing their costs and effort to access online government services.

UDCs are managed by local entrepreneurs who have adequate IT skills to operate equipment provided by the government. The most common services provided are mobile banking, filling birth certificates, providing information about public sector jobs, and welfare services. The entrepreneurs support people who do not have access to electronic devices or the internet, or those who lack the literacy, confidence, or motivation to complete the service themselves. These centres are also a hub for other complementary services like getting digital photos, improving computer literacy, and seeking support to write emails.

A Union Digital Centre in Bangladesh. Image:

Bangladesh, like many countries, is a long way from achieving gender equality. Women still lack the agency provided by work and financial independence. According to research, most women in rural areas send a male family member to collect welfare payments on their behalf. To ensure women have an equal opportunity in accessing government services, one of the local entrepreneurs at the centres is always female.

In some cases, citizens are unaware of the government services available to them. The National Helpline Number 333 was launched in 2018 to counter this problem. It provides citizens with information about government services and contact details of public representatives. The number is also used to register complaints and was helpful during the pandemic to inform symptoms and provide health updates. The availability of the helpline also enabled people to prevent social malpractices like child marriage: a use case even the government had not anticipated.

The design of Union Digital Centres catering to regional and gender diversity has led to an uptake in the use of government services digitally. In 2016, 40 million birth registrations were completed electronically through Digital Centres. Since 2014, 30,000 young people have received IT training and 1.4 million rural workers have been registered for government-to-government migration.

The case studies of India and Bangladesh are a testimony to the possibilities of inclusivity of digital services beyond providing access to the internet and mobile phones. These countries devised solutions specific to their context, catering to the needs of a diverse population. Despite the success, their replication in different countries will have to be context-specific and people-centric. India and Bangladesh have both walked a long path in raising internet presence in remote areas, enabling access to cheap mobile phones, including digital literacy in school curriculums, and building trust in these services.

While the case studies serve as an exemplar for digital inclusion, there is still a long way to go to bridge the digital divide. Digital transformation has made governments and services more efficient, but we need inclusive digital transformation to reduce entrenched inequalities.

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