Life Insurance Corp of India (LIC) recorded a net profit of ₹9543.7 crores (about $1.2 billion) for the quarter ending June 2023. The previous quarter’s net profit was ₹13,428 crores (about $1.67 billion). Visit your regional LIC branch office and you might see an alternate reality – no one at the front desk, busted chairs, broken fans, and desks piled high with files.
Public sector companies in the financial sector are reporting record profits. However a visit to any of their branch offices shows that not much has changed since the 80s. What explains this dichotomy?
The Indian government has done a saturation outreach to ensure that banking and insurance services are available to all. Over 500 million new bank accounts have been opened under the government’s flagship financial inclusion program, with deposits totaling over ₹2.03 lakh crores ($25 billion). The Ayushman Bharat Health Insurance scheme insures over 400 million of the most vulnerable.
The World Bank reported that India achieved financial inclusion goals in 6 years which would normally have taken 47 years. This feat was attributed to Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) and targeted national policies for achieving saturation coverage. DPI transformed the public sector and private enterprises with improved efficiencies and a significant reduction in costs related to verifying identity and fraud detection (read our article on India’s success with deploying digital public infrastructure – Is DPI the next Y2K?). Saturation coverage allowed companies to significantly scale their customer base.
The key enabler for this scale of transformation was the Digital India Stack. The Digital India Stack provided the building blocks for the digital transformation enabling public service delivery at population scale. Significant savings were achieved by eliminating the middlemen who siphoned off money from the delivery system. Many government services like birth/death/marriage certificates, property tax payments, driver’s license applications, etc. are built on the Digital India Stack and are now available online. This has enabled those with digital access to dispose of the middlemen for public services.
Public sector companies and private companies have significantly scaled up their customer base and benefited from enhanced efficiencies provided by DPI. These benefits, however, have not trickled down to the grassroots. While the leakage problem has been addressed, last-mile access problems remain. It is when a beneficiary tries to access the money in their accounts, benefits that they are eligible for, or government e-services that the hurdles show.
To address this digital access gap, the government has established common service centers (E-Sewa Kendras, Akshaya Centers) in urban areas and deployed Bank Sakhis in rural areas. However, there are not enough of these access points for a beneficiary to access the benefits that they are entitled to. The middlemen have now moved to the last-mile offering access at a price that many can’t afford.
Broken chairs and a ‘Systems are down’ message greets visitors at an E-Sewa Kendra in Kochi
DPI and digital transformation has allowed companies to scale out their operations. The initial focus and incentives have been on customer acquisition. However, a singular lack of attention to the last-mile customer experience has ensured that e-service adoption rates remain low.
What we have today is a Hotel California – we have enrolled the customers, but the customer journey is fraught with hurdles. This explains the dichotomy – financial inclusion has significantly expanded the customer base for public sector banks and insurers, with local branches incentivized to acquire new customers. Receiving remittances and renewals is straightforward; disbursals, changes, claims, redemptions, and cancellations require a visit to the local office that signed you up.
‘Relax,’ said the night man, ‘We are programmed to receive. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!’ — Hotel California
For the digital economy to succeed at the grassroots, we have to move beyond customer acquisition and apply customer-centricity across the customer journey. We have to ensure that customers can make payments, change plans, update information, and even close accounts without requiring a trip to the local office. How do we ensure this? By developing a customer-friendly delivery system for a frictionless last-mile customer experience. By reforming the offline service model to a digital-first experience that is faceless, paperless, and cashless.
A measure of the success of a city’s digital transformation is the rate of citizen adoption and the drop in in-person visits to the local office (read more in our article – The HTML Form that cost ₹5 crores).
For a successful digital transformation, three questions must be answered in the affirmative.
- Is the service faceless?
For the service, does it require a trip to the local office? A service built using Aadhaar APIs can confirm identity with an OTP confirmation on the registered phone number.
- Is the service paperless?
For the service, does it require photocopies of documents to be submitted? Aadhaar APIs will allow verification of identity and address. Aadhaar linking allows ownership to be established without the need for any paper.
- Is the service cashless?
For the service, can payments be made online? UPI APIs allow a service to be cashless.
While these are necessary conditions for customer adoption, they are not sufficient. Digital transformations fail in the gap between customer expectation and customer experience. To close this gap, one last question needs to be answered in the affirmative.
- Is the service frictionless?
Are there hurdles in navigating the digital experience? A lack of focus on the customer experience is what trips most digital transformation initiatives.
Friction is what leads to customer drop-offs. In an earlier article (The HTML Form that cost ₹5 crores), I wrote about how friction in the customer journey was the reason for a lack of adoption of government e-services. Kochi Corporation terminated the TCS contract and adopted the Govt of Kerala’s Sevana e-gov services, implemented by the Information Kerala Mission. Was it an improvement?
The figure below shows the Sevana form to access and download a death certificate. A user has to select the District, Local Body Type (whether Corporation, Municipality, or Panchayat), and the Local Body where the death was registered. This takes you to another form, where you enter the Name, Date of Death (which defaults to the year 1948), select gender, and enter a CAPTCHA. The form has 5 other selections that can be optionally entered. In addition, the form is not responsive and not easy to navigate on a mobile device.
Digital friction leads to customer drop-offs
A well-thought-out query form for a death certificate should just need the Name, Date of Death (with a date picker defaulted to the current year), and the District where the death occurred (Read our article On Customer Experience – 3 Lessons, on upgrading the CAPTCHA). The Sevana web form is a good example of how a badly designed form with significant digital friction can affect adoption.
In November 2023, my mother passed away in Kochi. Two weeks after she passed, I accessed the Sevana website to retrieve the death certificate. I started with the Quick Certificate Search, entered my mother’s details and the system responded with a ‘No Data Found’ message. A few days later, I drove down to the Kochi Corporation office to enquire and was told that I would have to enquire at the municipality office where the death occurred (this is despite the data being digitized and accessible from anywhere). I made a trip to the Thrikkakkara municipality office to be told by a lady that the person assigned the case was on vacation and would be back only the next day. A few days later, I made another trip to the Thrikkakkara municipality office where the employee who allegedly had been assigned the case pointed me back to the lady, who then assured me that the death certificate would be processed the same day. When I reached back home and entered the details in the Quick Certificate Search on the Sevana website, my mother’s record was listed and I was able to download the death certificate.
The biggest obstacle to any digital transformation is never the technology; it is not addressing the local office employee’s fear of change. Technologists leading digital transformations rarely account for the human element. An uninspired, unmotivated, and unincentivized data-entry operator is all it takes to derail any digital transformation.
When you sell change, you must first overcome the internal friction against the change. Digital literacy must start with the last-mile employee. Once you have their buy-in, it makes on-boarding customers to the digital platform that much easier.
Several millennia back, Thrikkakkara was the capital city of King Mahabali. The King was righteous and just, all were treated equally, and there was no poverty or crime. King Mahabali’s citizen-friendly policies were the envy of even the Gods. It can be safely assumed that birth, marriage, and death certificates were issued on time, bearing the King’s seal, and very likely delivered home. It is unfortunate that today, several millennia after the rule of King Mahabali, and despite the deployment of DPI-enabled e-gov services, it is middlemen who still facilitate access to these services.
Despite DPI-enabled e-gov services, Thrikkakkara Municipality has significantly back-tracked from the citizen-friendly administration of King Mahabali
Digital transformation requires reforming the physical world experience to ensure an improved customer experience and better outcomes. Digitally duplicating the offline experience does not leverage the benefits of digitalization. A successful digital transformation must fundamentally rethink the offline model and practices of the physical world.
Reform, Transform, Perform
A successful digital transformation must not just ensure operational efficiencies and scale, but guarantee adoption (read our article Digital Transformation Guaranteed). How do we get digital transformation right?
We have seen that digital transformation is not just about digitizing information and creating a digital twin of the physical world workflow. It is also not a linear process that has a fixed start and an end that completes when the transformation is done. A successful digital transformation must ensure adoption and deliver sustained value over time. It is a cyclical process of continuously managing change while closing the gap between customer experience and customer expectations. It requires continued investments, continuous training and up-skilling, user feedback, and continuous monitoring of adoption rates.
A successful digital transformation guarantees customer adoption and delivers sustained value over time
On January 1, 2024, the Kerala government announced a groundbreaking initiative named K-SMART (Kerala – Solution for Managing Administrative Reform and Transform) to ease digital access to government services. Instead of visiting government offices or navigating different websites, K-SMART would be the single stop for Keralites to access government services. The press release mentioned that K-SMART was developed by the Information Kerala Mission (IKM) using advanced technologies like blockchain, AI, ML, chatbot, GIS, and IoT. Will this alphabet soup of technologies decrease digital friction and increase citizen adoption of public services?
Unlike the earlier websites, K-SMART forms are designed to be responsive and render fairly well on mobiles and computer screens. The figure below shows the form for accessing a death certificate on K-SMART.
A Smart Search and an Advanced Search tab for retrieving a death certificate on K-SMART
The default Smart Search tab appears to be for official use as it is unlikely that a citizen will have any of the Search By numbers handy. The Advanced Search tab again forces a user to provide the Local Body Type and Local Body name, which are unnecessary for retrieving the certificate and adds to the digital friction. How do you make this form user-centric? By understanding user expectations – District, Date of Death, and Deceased Name are the only data that are required; all other fields are superfluous.
K-SMART also has an option for Quick Payments. Before K-SMART, property tax payments could be made online through the Sanchaya website. The figure below shows the form for paying property tax.
Sanchaya website for paying property tax in Kerala
The form required you to select the Corporation/Municipality/Panchayat office to make the payment to, and identify the property using Ward Year, Ward No, Door No and Sub No (read our article On Customer Experience – Three Lessons, on why internal structures should never be exposed in the user interface). Ward No, Door No, and Sub No can be found on a payment receipt. The Ward Year is a coin toss – you try each option till your property is found. If you successfully make it through this form, it asks you to select a payment gateway with a single option South Indian Bank (this is an implementation detail that should not be exposed in the UI). It is only after you navigate beyond the payment gateway that it provides you payment options – UPI, Bank Transfer, or Debit/Credit Card.
The Sanchaya property tax form is not responsive and can be challenging for most except the determined few. How do you make this form user-centric so that anyone can use it? The one information that a property owner is sure to have is their address. To make it user-centric, provide an option to search for a property by address. There are enough examples of cities that do this right. The figure below shows the property tax payment form for the County of Santa Clara in California.
Santa Clara County’s property tax form
The Santa Clara property tax form allows for a property to be searched by address and parcel number. The address box has an autocomplete feature that reduces keystrokes and typos and improves the user experience. Unlike the Sanchaya form, the parcel number’s internal structure is not exposed. Paying property tax is a two-step process – locate the property and select how you want to pay; a true faceless, paperless, cashless, and frictionless experience.
The new K-SMART Quick Payment form is responsive but now makes it even more difficult for most to pay property tax. The property tax form shown below now only requires a phone number as input.
K-SMART property tax payment form
The form authenticates the phone number using an OTP, uses an Aadhaar API to retrieve the Aadhaar number linked to the phone number, and then lists all properties linked to that Aadhaar number. Technologically, it is a very smart implementation, but not very practical when it comes to paying property tax. In my case, the property is in my father’s name, but I pay the property tax on it. The old Sanchaya form allowed me to pay.
K-SMART can take a lesson from the Santa Clara County property tax form. Give four options to retrieve a property – Search by Address, Search by Parcel Number (Ward No/Door No/Sub No), Search by Aadhaar Number, Search by Phone Number. This will allow for backward compatibility and at the same time give time for property owners to ensure that their Aadhaar number and correct phone number is linked to the properties they own.
K-SMART is an abbreviation for Kerala Solution for Managing Administrative Reform and Transform. What is missing is the third corner of the triangle – Perform. The Perform phase is where you solicit user feedback, collect data on usage, and track adoption metrics. Without Perform in the loop, any Reform and Transform initiative is running blind heading for failure.
Information Kerala Mission (IKM) oversees the development of K-SMART
IKM, on the K-SMART website, lists their mission is to deliver digital happiness and create joyful citizens and joyful employees. Visit any corporation/municipality/panchayat office and it will be tough to spot a joyful citizen or joyful employee. As a current and future user of your services, here are a few tips that will help you towards your mission.
- Integrate the Perform phase into your development flow. Without user feedback and a focus on the customer experience, you will not get customer adoption. Have your product managers spend time in the E-Sewa Kendras to understand service requests, processing times, and how the system is being used. Product management is not about managing the product but about managing the problem the product is trying to solve. Integrating the Perform phase into your mission will take you from K-Smart to K-SmartApp (Kerala State’s Management of Administrative Reform, Transform, and Perform Platform).
- Create a data-driven culture with specific success metrics. Measure and publish data on user migration to online services. As more residents migrate to online services, in-person visits will go down, queues and processing times at the E-Sewa Kendra and the local office will reduce, traffic and pollution will go down, and citizen perception will go up – it will have a multiplier effect on operational effectiveness and improve the city’s ease of living. The only success metric that matters eventually is citizen perception.
- Leverage the Digital India Stack open APIs and micro-services wherever you can instead of trying to roll your own. As a client of the APIs, you can demand enhancement requests where needed. If a reverse geocoding micro-service is not available, put in an enhancement request. It will allow you to take an address and retrieve the corresponding ward and block, take an address and retrieve the corresponding corporation/municipality/panchayat, and even take an address and return the parcel number for the property. This will not just improve the customer experience but ensure that the experience is consistent across states.
- Prioritize online and offline customer experience. If you have the authority, have the customer-facing employees take staggered lunch breaks. For most working folks, lunch times are what is most convenient for in-person visits to the corporation/municipality/panchayat office.
- Change is never easy. The biggest challenge to a digital transformation is the internal friction against the change. Invest in up-skilling and making customer facing employees digitally literate, and customer-focused.
- India is making a major push to finance and support development of DPI in the Global South. If IKM is successful in its mission to deliver digital happiness and create joyful citizens and employees, it will provide a unique opportunity for IKM to provide global leadership in DPI-enabled government e-services.
- Read our articles on Digital Transformation, Sustainable Development, and Customer Experience. Any help or support that you need, contact us at https://hawkai.net or email us at email@example.com. We will be glad to help.
Expect More, Accept Less
A helpful adage that was given to residents trying to navigate government services was – Expect less, Accept more. India today is different. #NewIndia is aspirational and a technology powerhouse. The Digital India Stack has been a spectacular success bringing its benefits to the most vulnerable and can potentially provide uniform and frictionless access to government services. An aspirational India must expect more and accept less.
It is time to not downplay expectations. Customer experience must rise to match customer expectations. In urban areas, those who can afford it, routinely engage agents for accessing public services. This penalizes the person who cannot engage an agent by pushing them further back in the queue, which translates to longer wait times and potentially lost wages. The real success of the Digital India Stack will be when citizen services and benefits are not just available but easily accessible and frictionless for all.
The government has initiated the Sankalp Bharat Viksit Yatra to raise awareness about the various government benefit schemes to achieve saturation coverage. A similar campaign is needed to sensitize front-line bank, insurance, and government staff for ensuring that benefits and services are delivered to the beneficiary seamlessly, without delay and costs. The campaign must motivate and incentivize the staff to deliver quality customer care to everyone regardless of socio-economic status.
Financial services companies must be commended for their efforts in financial inclusion. Field agents have been trained on sales and marketing, and incentivized to sign up beneficiaries. Company profits show that the saturation outreach program has been a success. It is time to start the next stage of reforms, where field agents are now trained in customer service and incentivized to ensure that beneficiaries and residents can access services seamlessly and friction-free. This will eliminate the need for middlemen, ensure that customer experience meets customer expectations, and deliver digital happiness.
* K-SMART website is available at https://ksmart.lsgkerala.gov.in/
* Sevana website (for birth/marriage/death certificates) is available at https://cr.lsgkerala.gov.in/. Service is being migrated to K-SMART.
* Sanchaya website (for paying property tax) is available at https://tax.lsgkerala.gov.in/epayment/index.php. Service is being migrated to K-SMART.
* To learn more about Thrikkakkara, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thrikkakara_Temple
* Header background images were created using generative AI in Adobe Firefly.
Left image used the prompt – Futuristic conference room, with people & presentation chart showing progress with laptops
Right image used the prompt – Messy old style office with files stacked on tables, chairs, people and a ceiling fan
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