Building institutional support systems to drive technology adoption amongst rural women collectives

"Policy problems are wicked problems..", is the proverbial wisdom passed on to policy students across the globe. I would rather disagree. I believe policy problems have a lot of integrity. They have an innate moral responsibility to remain a problem, true to their blue. The deeper you cave in to solve them, the more complex they’d mould themselves. It is rather safe to say that policy problems are "layered problems".

These layers can be visualized as stages that a policy change must pass through for successful implementation. In our democratic system, stakeholders at all levels serve the purpose of gatekeepers. These gatekeepers have unique problems, almost like the moral puzzles that Yaksha throws at Yudhistir in the Mahabharata. He must give correct answers to get each of his brother’s lives granted back to them. These gatekeepers or Yaksha(s) exist at various levels: national, state, block, gram panchayat, village, and household.

While working on a digital transformation project that seeks to digitize the financial transactions of women collectives (self-help groups) managed under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission aka NRLM; we fenced through unique challenges that a new technology must go through before getting accepted and adopted by the community; and systems that manage it. This blog post would attempt to highlight these unique challenges at various stages of policy implementation and roll-out for a digital transformation project. The stages or “layers” can be visualized longitudinally starting from idea conceptualization by thought leaders, product development at national level; implementation and training by the states, district and block administrative bodies; and finally, acceptance at community level.

“To scale or to sprint”: When a government system becomes a mobile app

LokOS or “Lok” as in people, and “OS” referring to Operating System is an ambitious project of NRLM. It seeks to build Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) exclusively for the rural economy. There are nearly 10 Cr SHGs (self-help groups) members across all states/UTs. By digitizing their records with the data of their education levels, livelihood, and other socio-economic aspects, the first “building block” of the “rural DPI” has been paved. The gargantuan task was carried out through rigorous training and reviews anchored by the “Institution building and Capacity building” (IBCB) team at NRLM and iterative product development by a conglomerate of tech partners.

This forms the first layer in the LokOS roll-out. It is important to note here that the moon is in no way as big as Jupiter but its proximity to earth makes it appear like the king of all celestial bodies. As product development was managed centrally, they invariably had the most accountability to make the community adoption a success. No one wants to be wrong when they are the mouthpiece of more than 10 Cr individuals, or at the receiving end of angry state officials calling out errors in reports. And hence, the insatiable quest to be “perfect” characterizes this top layer. The software developers on the other hand walk the line, albeit the line can become a circle and then a spiral. As the user base increased with the scale-up, so did the “bugs” that needed to be addressed. These iterations would take time to fix, and often a fix would cause another error in functionality. Rome might not get built in a day, but it must be “fixed” in an hour at max. This juggle of sprinting through development while scaling up created one steep hypotenuse our Sisyphus had to climb every day.

“Whose target is it anyway?”: When people and processes align

The real soldiers of this battle in implementing LokOS on-ground are the state administrations that include respective SRLMs at the top with a complex web of district-block-gram panchayat level holding everything together. Often, these bodies have overlapping responsibilities that allow flexibility for the states to delegate tasks to officials at different levels – in the form of targets.

To navigate such a system, one requires more than just bar charts (which honestly, is the laziest data visualization of a single data point). One must award the “best scorers” and highlight the “laggers”. When it comes to one’s pride, epic battles have been fought over the history of the human race. The users would relentlessly call out the application for its glitches, slow pace, and sometimes poor choice of the colour palette for the UI/UX of the application. As Elizabeth tells Mr Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.”

Now, it may seem like a dismal tale of “your fault not mine” cooked in the cauldron of the ire of state machinery; but there were many bright stops. Something, indeed, was burning. Despite technology glitches and challenges in mobilizing households, the successful implementation of the ‘profile module’ is owed to the hard work of officials with high levels of integrity and honesty.

In many states, the bookkeepers collected and digitized the data despite a lag in the disbursement of monetary incentives. Unlike its name, there were no “blocks” in the processes set by states as the roll-out was driven largely at the block-level as the block program managers were the approval authority for the entered data. From the cold deserts of Ladakh to the pristine beaches in Lakshadweep; the LokOS roll-out characterized the “union of states” in its true essence.

“Why can’t you make it like the Facebook app?”: When social-behavioural change requires stable internet

Honestly, LokOS is in an unfair competition. If it had the option of sharing reels, maybe it would still show face against the mighty Facebook and Instagram. But in its current shape, the community perceived it as an assignment.

Albert Camus famously writes in his nouvelle, ‘The Plague’ – “The truth is that everyone is bored and devotes himself to cultivating habits”. But what if the habit is boring itself? Then you tell yourself to keep faith and continue running the gauntlet - till the new UI/UX build is released. LokOS brings great promise for an SHG member in unleashing the power of aggregated data towards deploying targeted interventions. It brings along private players who get the visibility of a market that was invisible to them earlier. It can attract emerging technologies to build DPIs on its building blocks. The community continues to comply and learn to use this new mobile application, as long as they have a sight of these end goals.

At its final peel, the fruit often reveals the seed – that grows beyond its parent plant if nurtured the correct way. Innovations built on LokOS are that seed and the community, the ground that must hold and nurture the seed. As the tree grows, the ground is held more tightly. As LokOS takes its final shape, the network of community-based organizations becomes fertile ground with an appetite for more innovations.

There is a natural symbiosis between the community and positive socio-behavioural change; and a shared inertia that doesn’t allow it to change. The toughest challenge of policy implementation lies here. It is imperative that community engagement speaks the language of the masses effectively and clearly. LokOS is built as a multilingual platform with 14+ languages in its user interface, training material and collateral. The next steps include a plan to create engaging vernacular content in the regional languages for evangelising LokOS across the country and amongst the community.

In the end, I would like to leave the reader with words that echo the ethos of the LokOS national roll-out:

“There are many things that seem impossible only so long as one does not attempt them.”

― André Gide, Autumn Leaves