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Friday, September 09, 2016

UIDAI's 4th big public policy innovation: Build forts, not empires

by Praveen Chakravarty.

The insightful paper, and accompanying blog article, by Ram Sewak Sharma about three big innovations in UIDAI got me thinking about my own UIDAI experience. What were the key innovations which made it work out well, especially as viewed from the lens of the private sector? What lessons can we take away? In addition to his three big ideas, I have one more.

`Asset light business' is the new buzzword among investors, especially venture capital and angel investors. The world’s largest taxi company owns no taxis – Uber; the world’s largest room provider owns no hotel rooms – AirBnb; the world’s largest movie house owns no movies – Netflix. This is the popular refrain among the fraternity of modern day startups and their cheer-leading investors. In a similar vein, it can be argued that the world’s largest identity provider owns no identity devices! To top, this was not a traditional start-up in a college dorm by a 20 year old. This is the Unique Identity Authority of India – UIDAI, a staid authority of the staid government of India manned by staid bureaucrats.

On 26 March 2004, Bharti Airtel announced a large, first-of-its-kind outsourcing contract with IBM. It essentially meant that Bharti Airtel, the telecom player will own no telecom equipment nor network hardware or software. It will simply acquire and own customers. IBM, in turn, took on the responsibility of managing all the complex hardware and software required to run a massive telecom operation. To add, IBM was to be paid a percentage of revenues that Bharti Airtel would earn, not a mere fat, flat fee as was the prevailing norm then. Bharti Airtel grew from a 6.5 million subscriber base to 250 million subscribers in 12 years, leaving most of its competitors behind. It is undeniable that this brave decision of Bharti Airtel to smart source its capital expenditure to IBM played a key role in its ability to scale so rapidly, which is probably forgotten in the annals of Bharti Airtel’s success.

It was then dubbed the `capex to opex' transformation by financial analysts such as myself, i.e. converting big sunk costs of capital expenditure to revenue generating operating expenditure, marking significant gains in efficiency and scale. When the cost of capital is high in India owing to capital controls, there is a natural gain when an Indian firm, which suffers from the elevated cost of capital in India, contracts-out the ownership of bulky capital assets to an MNC, which enjoys global levels of cost of capital.

When UIDAI embarked on providing a unique identity to a billion Indians across more than 6.5 lakh villages, the sheer scale was daunting. As the Ram Sewak Sharma paper rightly mentions, there was detailed thought behind the use of iris, field trials to test proof of concept etc. But perhaps the single biggest catalyst in converting this from a grandiose plan into reality was the decision of UIDAI to smart source identity data collection. Surely, the technology industry background of the founding Chairman of the UIDAI played a role in its decision to do a Bharti Airtel in public policy. Nevertheless, in hindsight, this decision to embrace the ‘capex to opex’ theme but adapt it to the Indian public policy environment, in my view, laid the ‘Aadhaar’ for Aadhaar to scale so rapidly.

In an otherwise typical government project, offices would have been set up in every district, personnel would have been hired, biometric scanners would have been purchased and then identity information would have been collected, all by a government body or a clutch of bodies. This would have meant incurring massive upfront capital costs of infrastructure, technology and people. The UIDAI instead tilted it on its head and decided to build an entire ecosystem of private vendors to do the data collection with costs of machine, people and infrastructure borne by the vendor. Essentially, this meant that there were ubiquitous but authorized and approved UIDAI data collection centres and camps that mushroomed all across the country in a short span of time which made it easy for residents to register. But in the public policy world unlike the corporate world, protecting downside risks are far more important than any potential upside gains, i.e. protecting data security of Indian residents is infinitely more important than any efficiency gains of outsourcing to private vendors. This was achieved by establishing strict oversight and control mechanisms that rested entirely with the UIDAI.

The UIDAI exercised stringent control of data encryption and validation. So, while biometric data of a billion Indians were collected by thousands of independent government and private agencies, all of them collected the data through a standardised software provided by the UIDAI that encrypted the data which was then sent back for validation to the UIDAI centre. The UIDAI incurred a cost of roughly Rs.65 for every successful biometric data of an individual. Thus, the UIDAI did not have to put up big financial plans and wait for funding from the Ministry of Finance before it could launch its activities across the country.

This was one of the biggest reasons that UIDAI could go from zero to 600 million unique identities in 4 years flat, perhaps the fastest of any government or even private sector initiatives in recent times anywhere in the world. This was the power of the `capex to opex' or `asset light' innovation in policy implementation. This philosophy of the UIDAI in eschewing the temptation to `build empires' but to `build forts' instead is a philosophy that can serve many large scale government project implementations well.

We in India are gradually developing knowledge about how to build State capacity. Computer technology allows us to leapfrog, and achieve remarkable kinds of State capacity which were otherwise unavailable at our level of per capita GDP. We are crossing this river by feeling the stones. We are building experience, and we are building a literature. A paper by Ajay Shah in 2006, the Tagup report, Nandan Nilekani's book from 2013, the book by Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah from 2016, the concept of the Financial Data Management Centre (FDMC) in the Indian Financial Code, the concepts of information utilities in the bankruptcy reform, the Ram Sewak Sharma paper, and my one idea in this article: these add up to the emergence of deeply grounded local knowledge on how to do this. These materials are great fodder for thinking, debate, and then actually doing things in India.


The author is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at IDFC Institute, a Mumbai think tank, and former consultant with the UIDAI.

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