By Anita Mittal (GIZ), Veronika Wodsak (ILO), Rodrigo Ortiz d'Avila Assumpçao (ILO) and Ines Rodriguez Caillava (WB)
How can social protection systems effectively identify and support those in need? The answer involves a complex interplay of different programmes, delivery mechanisms and information systems. As countries transition away from manual processes and paper-based records, they have never been closer to achieving this interplay than they are today. Increasing digitalisation is rapidly enabling countries and programme administrators to enhance coverage, efficiency and achieve economies of scale.
Uncoordinated digitalisation carries many risks
However, uncoordinated digitalisation can present a new hurdle, due to lack of seamless communication among the different components of a country ‘s digital social protection as well as the broader e-governance ecosystem. Adopting a custom-built software from a vendor can be another kind of trap, locking a programme into dependency on the same vendor for increasingly costly updates and adaptations, while creating a barrier with systems that do not share the same digital “language”. As a result, different programmes and agencies serving the same people can find themselves functioning in silos rather than collaborating to better address the different dimensions of their beneficiaries’ lives.
Digitalisation in silos is therefore not enough to attain the ideal of neatly interlocking elements, together ensuring optimal delivery of social protection services, as represented in the cube above. On the road to achieving the goal of USP2030 of a “world where anyone who needs social protection can access it at any time”, it is necessary to go a big step further and focus on convergence of digital systems and processes towards internationally agreed upon standards for social protection information systems.
‘Interoperability’ is the key word
Interoperability is the capacity of different systems, or components of the same system, to communicate with each other, exchange data, and use the information that has been exchanged. Interoperability is essential for social information systems to function coherently and to interact with other related systems, e.g., a social information system should communicate with other systems such as the payment systems, identification system, civil registration system and management information systems of other social protection programmes.
The key to interoperability is standardisation – an ongoing trend in many sectors. As Veronika Wodsak of the International Labour Organization (ILO) explains, “If all vendors adhere to global standards, that will make social protection information systems so much more efficient. The vendors will benefit from economies of scale and countries will not need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and will be able to take advantage of plug and play solution components.”
Anita Mittal of GIZ makes the comparison: “The keyboards and mouses with USB standard fit into your laptop and desktop as plug and play devices. In contrast, lack of standardization among mobile chargers creates challenges.”
Open vs. proprietary standards
A major issue is how to motivate international hardware and software vendors to converge towards standardisation – rather than proposing a proprietary, non-interoperable product in view of “capturing” a market. To avoid this pitfall, many specialists recommend having recourse to open standards, which can be accessed and used by anyone. Since there is no license fee to pay for and the standards are available to all, open standards-based software promotes competition, provides an organization control of an integrated system to switch components seamlessly between different vendor provided solutions as well as adopt open-source software solutions. Examples of such open standards are the internet standards and the health domain standards.
Rodrigo Assumpçao of ILO cautions: “We hope that the big players will see the advantage of incorporating these open standards and see that there are ways to make money with service provision, and not rely so much on licences. You can have good sharing within a private license environment, and you don’t want to alienate a dominant part of the market!” Digital Convergence would enable shared standards between digital public goods (“open-source software”) and private vendors, so that countries can plug and play to meet their ever-evolving needs.
Adaptive Social Protection – responding to shocks
When COVID-19 struck and economies were destabilised by lockdown measures, all countries suddenly had to organise cash transfers to large parts of their population in a timely manner. Beazley et al 2021 emphasise that "the ability to exchange data beyond the social protection sector (leveraging broader information systems, interoperability and data-sharing agreements) was key to timely and high coverage responses” (p. 24). The need for digitalisation and for convergence in social protection was accelerated by responding to the pandemic.
Anita gives an example from India, where a compensation was announced for households which lost a family member due to COVID: “India has a robust identification system integrated with payment system for direct benefit transfer in bank accounts. Interoperability and integration with civil register using Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) can enable proactive payment of benefit when death is registered due to COVID for compensation providing timely relief to the people. Standards based integration would provide for a seamless experience for the beneficiary.”
Inspired by the health sector
Rodrigo says, “In social protection we’ve inspired ourselves greatly from the approach that health has with common dictionaries for data. E.g. medicine has reached a consensus on common denominations for diseases – Diagnosis Related Groups – so divergence on treatment is less, which makes for effective patient management. There is a broader consensus of how it is done, requiring less discussion.”
Social protection can benefit from the health sector’s interoperability architecture which links multiple registries (e.g., of health insurance scheme beneficiaries, hospitals, health personnel) and different software applications. The applications are run by different agencies (e.g., ministries, hospitals, insurance companies), and data sharing occurs via different APIs based on agreed upon data standards.
An international initiative to promote digital convergence in Social Protection
Founded at last year’s USP2030 membership assembly, the Digital Convergence Initiative is jointly steered by GIZ, ILO and the World Bank. Its objective is to ensure integrated and interoperable social protection information systems for the realisation of universal social protection.
The initiative is working on collaboratively converging standards for interoperability of social protection information systems and invites interested participants to join. For instance, among other things, the initiative is currently exploring the interfaces between the social protection management information systems and payment systems. The plan is to iteratively converge on these interfaces by building consensus around it with a broad range of countries, vendors and development partners before proposing its global adoption.
The initiative’s steering committee agrees though, that to maintain this path toward convergence, it is equally important to understand the conceptual and philosophical principles besides technical standards. Veronika sums up: “Development of standards is a long-term goal, but even so, it is important to start now, with a dialogue around its importance and preparatory steps – getting a community of practice going that actually works on these IT solutions, testing different options, seeing what is feasible. Though it’s a long-term journey, we need to embark now!”
This is the third blog post in the USP2030 blog series, part of the USP2030 campaign, which aims to increase awareness for the partnership and universal social protection more broadly, and systematically present the topics on which the partnership and its members are currently working. The campaign takes place in the run-up to the 3rd USP2030 Membership Assembly throughout the month of March 2022.