Information systems for social protection: What is all the fuss?

The problem: big expectations and confusion in the terminology

Over the past few years, it has been rare to open a publication on the topic of social protection that doesn’t – at any point – touch on the role played by programme Management Information Systems (MISs) and broader, ‘integrated’ Information Systems and registries serving the social protection sector. In fact, one could go one step further and argue that many publications in our field ascribe some almost mythical ‘healing’ qualities to such registries and information systems: They will enable better coordination across programmes, more efficient delivery and better shock response. Does that sound familiar?

What has also been interesting is the fact that we have all been using a myriad of different names to refer to this mythical integration-enabling beast, almost increasing its allure. Unified Database, Single Registry, Unified Household Information Registry, Poverty Database, Integrated System for Social Information… Social Registry – there are just a few of the words commonly used. There is nothing wrong with this of course, few of us have an IT background (disclaimer: neither do I) and most of us are simply referring to the name that a specific system has been called in a specific country as a result of a specific process. Yet it can lead to confusion!

In this post, I set to clarify some of this confusion surrounding the terminology – based on a recent DFAT publication and one by the World Bank. I also try and clarify what benefits can truly be reaped via a more integrated approach to information management in the social protection sector, and – most importantly – what needs to be in place for these benefits to manifest.

 

Starting to clarify the terminology: what’s in a name?

The solution to the terminology confusion is actually quite easy: we should all focus more on what each of these registries and their information systems are doing – the functions they are performing – rather than what they are called. We should also start seeing each as a component of a broader system: an (‘Integrated’) Social Protection Information System, enabling the flow and management of information within the social assistance sector, and sometimes beyond to incorporate social insurance and other social sectors. What are the core building blocks of such a system, performing complementary functions?

 

  • (Integrated) Social Registries: information systems that support outreach, intake, registration, and determination of potential eligibility for one or more social programs. In practice, social registries centralise data integration up front, collecting/compiling data for a registry of potential beneficiaries that is then drawn upon by specific programmes and services. They can serve as powerful tools for assessing the “demand” for social programs by profiling specific needs and conditions of various population groups.
  • Beneficiary Registries: supporting benefit administration systems (what we often label ‘programme MIS’) to perform the decision, enrolment and notification phases along the delivery chain for a social program, as well as the broader management of information on beneficiaries. They also incorporate or work alongside information systems for the management of payments, grievances, case management, etc.
  • Integrated Beneficiary Registries: integrating data from programme beneficiary registries/MIS of several different schemes. In practice, they provide a consolidated overview of data collected by different programs, showing “who receives what” benefits and focusing on beneficiaries alone. They can serve as powerful tools to monitor and coordinating the “supply” of social programmes, assessing gaps and duplications in coverage of key bundles of benefits and services that could be tailored to the typical needs of profiled groups.
  • Interoperability or data sharing with other government registries and information systems (ID systems, tax registries, land cadastres, etc).

 

While most countries these days have a digital system for managing programme administration, (Integrated) Social Registries and Integrated Beneficiary Registries are less common – but are on the rise. Moreover, while the full benefits (see below!) of a Social Protection Information System requires a combination of these approaches – fulfilling complementary functions – few countries have achieved this in practice (see Turkey and Chile as common examples). This includes famous registries, such as Brazil’s Cadastro Unico that serves several programmes beyond Bolsa Familia but does not yet receive data back from them. 

Bottom line? Don’t get stuck on the terminology and on what a registry/system is called, but look at the function and where the data is flowing to and from! Also, where possible, let’s avoid the use of the term ‘single registries’ as this does not focus on the function performed (noting some colleagues use this term to refer to Integrated Beneficiary Registries).

 

So what benefits can really be reaped by social protection information systems? And how?

Unfortunately, this is where things get complicated again. For example, despite performing similar functions, different Social Registries around the world are set-up in very different ways – affecting what they can and cannot achieve and the benefits and risks they entail. We summarised this in an Infographic here, comparing across a set of key variations in Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia, Chile, Brazil, Kenya and Turkey (you can read more about these variations in other countries here and here):

  • Population coverage: this varies from around 5% in some cases, to around 40-50% in many cases, to over 90% in selected examples (e.g. Pakistan).
  • Data collection and updating approach (see here): this varies from census-survey approaches mandated every 2-3 years (but often conducted over 5 years apart) to continuous on-demand approaches (posing other challenges). These are sometimes used in combination and occasionally associated with data sourcing from other government databases (in Chile and Turkey). Also, variations abound within each model (see useful Box)!
  • Number and types of programs served: 1 at a minimum, over 80 in others (Chile); often only cash transfers and basic social assistance, sometimes a much wider variety of services (e.g. legal)
  • Types of data flows from/to programme and other government registries: very limited in most cases, sometimes because of issues establishing a unique identifier to link data across registries, sometimes because of very legitimate data security/privacy concerns (see Sepulveda Carmona’s thoughts on this here)..
  • Other important variations include: variables collected; institutional arrangements; levels of data privacy/security guaranteed; structure of data management – these all affect what can and cannot be done!

 

Let’s remember that social registries do not operate in isolation and that many of these variations apply to Beneficiary Registries and Integrated Beneficiary Registries too. And also, that many of these are intrinsically determined by a country’s context and constraints – there is no ‘perfect model’ that we should be aspiring to based on other countries’ best practice.

More generally, the list of benefits of information integration for the social protection sector is broad: including the potential to enable a more equitable, responsive and inclusive distribution of resources, while also increasing efficiency and effectiveness of delivery and, most importantly, better serving citizens (see full ‘list’ of potential benefits here).

However, this ‘wish-list’ will be affected by these variations discussed above and is most certainly not achievable via a ‘technological fix’ outsourced to consultants via a quick and ready TOR, or by Social Registries alone.  We show this in a second important Infographic here, which illustrates what features of a social protection information system will help to achieve desired policy and operational outcomes.

Ultimately, countries moving in this direction should focus on their objectives and ensure their system is truly set up to respond to those… and when developing Social Registries specifically, they should remember that:

  • Social registries are only a part of a broader information system serving the sector - each piece plays an important function!
  • In order to fulfil their ‘gateway function’ without generating exclusionary forces (see e.g. concerns here), they need to be set up as dynamic inclusion systems that explicitly address the barriers to access of those who are most marginalised and vulnerable (see more here, here and here)

Still confused? Try and listen to our webinar on the topic here and have a look at these additional resources by the Bank (here and here). Or take a look at the presentations from this recent GIZ event and video. Also, join our Online Community on socialprotection.org to participate in discussions, hear about recent events and have access to a broader repository of documents on this theme!

Comments

I am assuming this will be reviewed before publication?