The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) put out a whitepaper seeking comments on National Open Digital Ecosystems (NODEs) on MyGov. NODEs are a set of protocols and digital systems that MEITY hopes can be used by government departments and private companies to offer services. The paper cited Aadhaar and IndiaStack as successful examples of this approach. However, the paper said that the first principle is to “use and/ or build open standards, licenses, databases, APIs, etc. and promote inter-operability.”

‘GovTech’ evolution

The paper describes the evolution of government technology in a three step process, with the third step as what it is interested in pursuing right now.

  1. Digitising documents/automatic discrete processses: This was the very beginning of automation in government in the late 1990s, the paper said, which included issuing domicile certificates and digitising public records.
  2. End-to-end service delivery: This includes services like IRCTC, where a whole range of services is completely provided online, from booking a train ticket to modifying train reservations and receiving information on bookings; this is unlike in the first step, where only some repetitive processes are automated.
  3. Enabling ‘ecosystems’: This is where NODE comes in. This third step will, the government hopes, give different public sector departments access to the same information or to the same protocols to carry out similar tasks, or build entirely new products on top of ‘rails’, as MEITY calls these ecosystems.

“Each Ministry and State can use the ‘GovTech’ 3.0 approach to build NODEs, e.g. Health NODE, Agriculture NODE, and State Service Delivery NODE,” MEITY said. The ministry cited UPI as a model example of this third model. “UPI has given birth to a vibrant community of both public and private actors in financial services, such as the mobile wallet Payment Service Providers (PSP), who are building solutions in m-commerce, bill payments, P2P real-time payments, etc,” the paper says.

Guiding principles

State-backed digital programs like IndiaStack have been under fire for their lack of transparency and sometimes walled-off access to the general public, and others like Aadhaar have been privacy red flags. This is what makes a few of the principles laid out in the white paper interesting reading.

  1. Openness and interoperability: This principle encourages the use of open standards and APIs, and the paper says this “promotes competitive behaviour and guards against potential monopolies of unfair value capture.”
  2. Reusability and shareability: Ecosystems should be usable by multiple stakeholders in the public and private sector. The paper mentions the National Urban Innovation Stack (a platform to share technology to urban areas designated as Smart Cities) as a model example of this.
  3. Scalability: This one is pretty straightforward. The NODE has to be scalable to adapt to uses of any size. The paper cites the GSTN (which has had major scaling troubles) as an ideal example of software that can be scaled with just added hardware.
  4. Privacy-enabling and data-driven: The paper says end-to-end encryption is important to ensure individual choice and privacy. Curiously, this is the first principle where the example is not Indian — the paper references e-Estonia, that country’s online platform that it built to digitise a wide swath of services from voting to filing taxes. The paper also says solutions must account for use data so that they don’t become obsolete quickly.

The paper imagines NODEs across several sectors, like MSMEs, the agricultural sector, and state service delivery. Other principles focus on issues like governance and financing.

Private sector involvement

One of the stickiest questions of such an overhaul of digital systems in government is the money. “Financing NODEs will be costly; both with respect to the upfront investment as well as sustained operations and maintenance cost,” the paper admits. “While catalytic capital from the public sector will undoubtedly need to be earmarked for NODEs, there is significant potential for innovative financing and use of both philanthropic and private sector capital.”

The government leaning deeply into private sector partners is a trend to watch, especially as it insists that the outcomes of such partnerships should be “open and interoperable”.

Questions

Here are the questions the white paper asks, condensed:

  1. What are your comments on our guiding principles? What would you change?
  2. Are there platforms from around the world you consider a model for NODEs in India?
  3. What problems might we face when we transition from providing services online to NODEs?
  4. In your opinion, should all delivery platforms be ‘open source’ or are ‘open APIs’ and ‘open standards’, sufficient? Please elaborate with examples.
  5. How should the financing, procurement and data sharing of NODEs be governed? Are there existing models that can be used? How can privacy risks to users be mitigated?
  6. How do we build a vibrant network of ‘co-creators’ to help us in this mission? What engagement methods to do this have already worked in the past? What are some innovative ways to manage grievances?
  7. If you built a NODE of your own, what would you try to address? What would be the challenges you could face? How would you get stakeholders to help?
  8. What would you need to succeed in creating your own NODE?
  9. Do you want to engage further on this subject in individual consultations and workshops as we flesh out our strategy here further?

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Read the whitepaper here. The last day to respond to the whitepaper is on March 31. Respond here.