In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman launched the PM eVidya Programme, an online education platform, in May 2020. This represents yet another step towards embracing ICT for governance in India. However, citizen engagement with ICT-based services has tended to be low.
Shortfall of engagement with Mobile governance (m-governance) can arise from various reasons, including its design, which doesn’t take into account factors that foster user demand — awareness, recognition and acceptance of benefits by potential user. Other key issues influencing m-governance access and usage have been infrastructure challenges, regulatory frameworks and multiplicity of overlapping services.
M-governance utilises mobile technology — SMS, mobile applications, Interactive Voice Response Systems (IVRS), geo-location and others — to improve access to public service delivery and enhance accountability and citizen participation in policy-making and execution. Globally, the ubiquity of mobile phones has been channelled towards enhancing supply and efficacy of government services across policy domains – from opening up telemedicine, to reporting corruption.
In India, government actors have been capitalising on the rapid rise in mobile penetration and internet service provision. India now possesses a tremendous user base of wireless and mobile telecom subscribers, with almost half located of it located in rural areas. The government introduced Mobile Seva, a country-wide initiative, in 2011 to facilitate central, state and local governments by extending a variety of mobile services.
Catering to over 3,500 government departments, Mobile Seva presently offers 944 mobile apps in domains that include healthcare, agriculture, sanitation and education. Collectively, these have seen over 81 million downloads so far. Other m-governance initiatives include: the Aarogya Setu (tracking COVID-19 exposure and vulnerability), eNAM (connecting farmers and traders with agri-markets) and SDMC 311 (South Delhi Municipal Corporation’s flagship service) apps.
Despite these seemingly impressive statistics, m-governance is not a routine feature of government-citizen interaction in India yet. For instance, a closer look at the services offered on the Mobile Seva app store shows that downloads usually range to a few thousand, with active usage likely to be lower.
Given that usage statistics for m-governance apps are unavailable, app downloads can serve as a proxy indicator for user awareness and uptake. The average number of downloads per app from Mobile Seva is presently around 86,000. The download count for MyGov — the Centre’s flagship participatory governance platform launched in 2014 – exceeds one million. Contrast this with the recent uptake of Aarogya Setu, which already has over 100 million downloads and is a mandated download. These aspects underscore the significance of responsiveness to demand.
Experience from other countries suggests that this is not just an Indian phenomenon; in general, e-governance initiatives suffer from short-lived successes, followed by a dearth of scalable and sustainable engagement. Lack of citizen awareness has been cited as a factor that can diminish the potential of the m-governance programme in India too.
Delving deeper, m-governance uptake can broadly be influenced by ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, as outlined in the figure below. Push factors create an enabling environment and foster m-governance service provision. These include the level of technological and infrastructure development in a country, the role of governments and telecoms, business models and legal frameworks. For instance, engendering access to mobile phones, internet and electricity facilitates the supply of m-governance services. Hence, these qualify as push factors.
Concurrently, pull factors influence demand and adoption of m-governance services. These are centered on individuals — particularly, citizens and government functionaries — who need to be informed of these services. They should be able to access them easily and cheaply, possess the necessary skills for usage and can perceive advantages. An example is the prevalence of mobile literacy, as it would enable potential users to pull into usage m-services on offer.
Acceptance and mainstreaming of m-governance relies not just on the availability of these services, but also on overcoming pull-side deficiencies that affect user demand and acceptance.
The lack of knowledge and infrequent use of m-governance suggests that in line with global experience, India too has overemphasised activating the push side of the equation. This includes leveraging mobile technology, setting up infrastructure, and making m-governance services available, without understanding or strengthening user demand.
To overcome this, focus should shift to developing services wherein citizens can readily recognise value of using such services, which would then simplify and foster greater engagement with governments. Improving awareness of m-governance initiatives and digital literacy are also crucial.
Thus, while not discounting their significance, the government would benefit from moving beyond its focus on infrastructure and supply-side issues to adopting a more demand and user-centric approach. This will help us move closer to a ‘Digital India’, and prevent m-governance from becoming just another buzzword in the policy-making landscape.
About the author: Udit is a Senior Research Associate at Accountability Initiative. The article was originally published here.