Make simplicity the aadhaar of Digital India

Simple, well-designed technology is the only way to bring to life a decrepit government system, and the only way to do it is for the government to nurture start-ups within its fold with support from the very top leadership, a la the nuclear energy programme established by Homi Bhabha with support from Jawaharlal Nehru, or the space programme and the Green Revolution under Indira Gandhi, writes Nandan Nilekani and his colleague during the Aadhaar project Viral Shah in their new book, Rebooting India, a modern-day treatise on why and how to digitalise government and governance. Nilekani and Shah say that the trick to overcome a dysfunctional, yet in-your-face, government is to reduce policies and rules into a set of algorithms and deliver them as online services. They enumerate 12 big challenges for the government and show the path to achieve them, using their Aadhaar experience and design principles. Excerpts:

Your first book, Imagining India, had a broad intellectual sweep where you engaged not so much with technology as with social issues, even controversial topics. In Rebooting India, you have plumbed down to a dozen ideas that are technology-dependent, leaving aside other kinds of intervention that might be controversial. What made you decide to focus only on things that can be solved by technology?
Nandan: When I wrote Imagining India, I was looking at the broad swathe of India’s problems and opportunities and I saw that there are many ways of bringing about change, one of them was through ideas. Societies change when ideas change. That’s what led to that book, and you are right, it had a broad intellectual sweep and I looked at and laid out the whole landscape.

Even in this book, Rebooting India, if you look at it, the sweep is there, but we came to the conclusion that technology is the only thing that can fix many of India’s most pressing problems at speed and scale, because there is a mismatch between the aspirations of people and the system’s ability to deliver on its promises. If you don’t fix the system, which is quite decrepit in some sense, then you will continue to have people unhappy about not meeting their aspirations.

Viral: The other thing is that, in fact, to bring about speed and scale, the system should only have such rules that can be encoded in software. Aadhaar is a perfect example. You can do everything in the software.

It is interesting that you have described the nuclear programme as an “early government start-up” in the book…
Nandan: Yeah, Indian history has many examples of start-ups — the nuclear programme, the space programme, the Green Revolution. In all those cases, there was a certain big idea which was not something you could do in the traditional system, so you created a group of people and empowered them to get it done.

In a sense Aadhaar is just the latest example of that way of doing things. But we said rather than just wait for the next one to happen, let’s articulate that this is the way to do things. Start-ups in government are the only way you can address new challenges in an innovative way. And so we identified those 12 challenges, two of which we have done. So, we need 10 start-ups to do the rest. It’s about getting people to think that if you are going to address these mega-challenges, you have to think differently and do it differently.

Why these particular 12 challenges that you have written about?
Nandan: It’s just that we had done Aadhaar and, actually, on the first six ideas in the book too we have done work. For example, we designed the LPG cash transfer system, which was then taken to completion by this government; eKYC for a paperless India; cashless economy using business correspondents and MicroATMs; the Goods & Service Tax Network design was done when we were there, and so was electronic tolling. So these six things were done. And then we said, let’s take up some other big challenges. So we looked at the legal system, power, health, education, expenditure and so on. These are all areas where we had done something or the other. So we thought, look, we might as well put down our experiences and some thoughts about the future so that it’s there on record. Many of them may happen, some may not, but at least our mission is to put it down on paper.

Viral: There are several things we have touched upon in the book about the design behind Aadhaar. One is, don’t put a rule into the system unless it can be embedded in software. That means, minimal Know-Your-Customer (KYC) — only name, address, date of birth, gender, biometrics.

Nandan: I think simplicity at the front-end and complexity at the back-end is a very important principle. Which is, make the customer or citizen interface as simple as possible and move the complexity back, because that’s the only way you can get speed and scale. There are a lot of design principles in Aadhaar that are applicable to every such project.

See, for example, in Aadhaar, you can enroll anywhere in the country. It’s a very powerful idea. You may be someone from Jharkhand working in Gurgaon, you don’t have to go home to enroll, you can enroll in Gurgaon. That’s a simple thing. But it is possible only because at the back-end we are able to figure out duplicates using biometric de-duplication. So there is simplicity, convenience for the user, but at the back-end there is extreme sophistication.

You also talked about a “Digital Locker” for all people when you were at the Unique Identification Authority of India…
Nandan: Actually, the credit for that should be given to this (Modi) government. The e-Sign, which is the electronic signature capability with Aadhaar and “Digital Locker”, which allows you to store documents with an Aadhaar signature and retrieve them with Aadhaar, were implemented by this government as part of the Digital India programme.

You seem to have come to the conclusion that even government policies and rules must be reducible to an algorithm. Why do you think that’s necessary?
Nandan: Well, the advantage of expressing government policy or rules with algorithms is that you can express that as logic and, therefore, it eliminates discretion. When you make rules ambiguous and fuzzy you are putting power into the hands of an individual to interpret the rules and that leads to all the dysfunctionality that you see in government. So, it is very important that as far as possible, rules should be embedded in software.

The other advantage is that you can provide service online without any individual being involved. So, in a way, that makes the government invisible, behind the scenes. It also holds you to a discipline, it forces you to think of a rule as software, it is a way to discipline you to make rules non-ambiguous.

Viral: It’s also the only way to make it scalable and repeatable a million times.

And you conclude that the way to do all this is to bring in new people from outside the establishment…
We are saying, we need to do these 10-12 projects, we need to do start-ups, but the start-up should be an amalgamation of people from within and without. People from inside are vital, because they understand government processes. No outsider can figure out how the government works, so people who have spent 20-30 years doing that stuff, navigating the Central Bureau of Investigation, Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Chief Vigilance Commission, procurement rules, Parliament, Right to Information, etc., are necessary. But you also need to complement them with people from outside to bring in domain knowledge, technology, custom-oriented thinking and so on. And you need entrepreneurial leadership, because for a start-up, whether in the government or in the private sector, you need to think like an entrepreneur. That’s what we are saying.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi were to ask you to come back into government…
Nandan: No, I have no plans…

Is it an unambiguous “no, not at all”?
Nandan: Yeah.

Why’s that?
Nandan: Well, I have done that. I am done with running companies, I am done with running government projects. Now I am happy doing things with a public change component, but where I don’t have to run large organisations.

At the book launch in Bengaluru, you talked about the risk of “digital colonisation”. Could you elaborate on that?
Nandan: What’s happening is, because of the winner-takes-all nature of the Internet, a few companies dominate the Internet. Then they try to sort of bend the rules in their favour. That’s why I am totally for Net Neutrality. And more and more, they are trying to say that the identity and authentication will be done by them. Now that’s not a good thing. Identity and authentication should be a public good, not controlled by private companies. I think India is the only country in the world — maybe Estonia also — where identity and authentication is a public good, independent of any app or platform. It’s very powerful and very strategic.