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Platforms succeed when people trust them

23rd August 2021
Digital Platforms and Trust
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Shifting mindsets, adding skills, and seeking inputs on governance can make the difference

From identity to payments, India has been a first mover in driving digital platforms for all. And it seems like the government is just getting started. One-stop-shop platforms for agriculture and healthcare are in the pipeline. The ‘Agri-Stack’ includes an ID for all farmers (and some entities, products and services). And the National Digital Health Mission is creating an ID that will link an individual’s health history and test results.

Just like Aadhaar and UPI, these new platforms are like public utilities. They will lead to meaningful changes in the lives of over a billion people in India. Not all of these changes can be understood today. But that doesn’t mean that platforms can be fait accompli. Digital utilities are likelier to achieve their objectives if they begin from the premise that user trust is the key, not just an ‘effective’ roll-out. Making things mandatory doesn’t inspire trust, and may create more resistance, as historical vaccine roll-out has shown (see this WHO report for an example).

Is it even possible to build trust with a billion people? The evidence is promising. We share three ingredients and tested ideas worth building on.

Mindsets

Building with users and not for them. Tech products in business often involve customers as participants in the process of problem-solving, and not as passive consumers. Involving users as participants is different from building with them in mind. Melinda Gates describes this human-centred design approach as ‘meeting people where they are and really taking their needs and feedback into account. When you let people participate in the design process, you find that they often have ingenious ideas about what would really help them. And it’s not a one-time thing; it’s an iterative process.’ Simple, an open-source, free digital platform for clinicians to manage patients with high BP provides a great example. It’s now used by over 2500 hospitals in India and beyond.

Providing users control over their data, including transparency about what is collected and how it’s used. Users care about this. When WhatsApp made it mandatory to accept its new privacy policy recently, user resistance made them change course. And a recent behavioural economics study showed that people would participate more on digital platforms and share more data when they had a greater sense of control.

There are ready-to-implement, tested approaches to establishing trust and control over data in India. A simple summary factsheet, privacy rating, and a friendly norming message build trust, according to research by The Centre for Social and Behavioural Change at Ashoka University and Busara Centre for Behavioural Economics, supported by Omidyar Network India. The approaches should be tried at scale.

Skills

Getting the right skills on board. There are several product, process, and system designers that have the training to build trust that brings usage. They can push the thinking of SteerCos and Secretariats, and join implementing teams in iterating on platforms towards

Designers can help governments avoid traps, e.g. of additive thinking that leads to platforms bloated with information, which have users stuck in loops. They can help get the simpler things right. For instance, making sure that a government app is designed for a phone, and not just a copy-paste job of the website for computers.

Most of all, they can see that the user-centric approach can permeate every touchpoint, be it an app, website, or physical enrolment centre. See an example from Janalakshmi, CGAP, and Dalberg here.

Governments can hire design expertise, provide training to current staff, and include it as a requirement in tendering processes for gov-tech.

Governance

Establishing transparent, predictable and fair regulations that inspire trust, among both users and service providers. It took centuries for countries to figure out the right policies for institutional stability and consumer protection in finance. This yielded high dividends through more trustworthy and inclusive financial services. Good regulation should be built into the very DNA of the platforms, not as a band-aid once the tech is already built.

We need to look into the mundane activities of regulation – how can we monitor a large number of players with limited resources? How can we do licensing fairly? How can enforcement be a deterrent but not result in paralysis? India has over three decades of regulatory governance history that is ripe for empirical analysis. The National Law School of India University (NLS), Bangalore, has set up a program that looks at these questions, with support from Omidyar Network India. Governments can involve them and more of India’s tech policy think-tanks, including its Data Governance Network, in active consultations with adequate time windows for inputs.

In conclusion, government processes can’t run as smoothly as business innovation in building trust. Governments look at the broader picture and accommodate diverse groups and interests. They concern themselves with problems that nobody else deals with and work on universal access, managing diverse interests, and ensuring platforms have no unintended consequences.

However, there are opportunities for improvement. For example, Aadhaar reached 95% of adults and has standard-setting digital features like a QR code, virtual Aadhaar, masked Aadhaar, and an app (mAadhaar app). However, these features haven’t yet been used by 77% of people, according to the State of Aadhaar Survey, 2019.  

With a shift in mindsets, new skills, and thoughtful governance, we believe that universal platforms can earn the trust of their users, and fulfil their promise to change people’s lives for the better.