India flag as a microchip

“India Stack”: What lessons can the UK government learn from India’s digital journey?

Much has been said in the news about ‘India Stack’ and its transformative impact on the country.

By integrating various technologies, India has empowered its citizens with digital identity, facilitated smooth transactions, and offered a wide range of services.

As the UK government strives to elevate its own digital ecosystem, what insights can we learn from India’s transformation journey?

What is India stack? 

India Stack is a collection of government-backed APIs that provide organisations access to government IDs, payment networks, and data. 

Aadhaar, India’s digital ID system, has emerged as the foundation of this public digital infrastructure. Effectively, every individual in India possesses this distinct identifier, and all products and services link to it.

This has sparked innovation across various sectors in the country. Private companies can build apps integrated with state services, which allows consumers to seamlessly access services such as welfare payments and loan applications.

A recent article in the FT mentioned how supporters of the initiative say India has found a “world-beating solution.”

The paper quotes Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s minister of information technology, saying: “This kind of public-private partnership approach is neither there in the west nor in the east.” 

India is now exporting this knowledge to several countries. It’s working with the likes of the Philippines, Morocco and Jamaica on their own initiatives. 

What can the UK learn from India?

India’s approach has led to enhanced citizen services, increased efficiency and rapid expansion of new services. The collaboration with the private sector has also created an environment that nurtures entrepreneurship and fuels innovation.

So, what are the crucial lessons we can learn from India? And what actions can we take to replicate some of their remarkable achievements? Here are some of my thoughts:

Overcome legacy thinking and improving digital literacy: We must embrace a culture of collaboration, experimentation, and knowledge sharing. This shift is vital for successful digital transformation. It requires overcoming legacy thinking and improving digital literacy among public sector leaders. The government’s 2022-25 Roadmap for Digital and Data highlighted some of these themes.

Citizen-centric services that enhance efficiencies. By combining everything seamlessly, India has created services that are easier to use and more citizen-centric. These automated and user-friendly experiences have streamlined processes, reducing bureaucracy and enhancing efficiencies. We can do this, but it requires investment in the way data is collected, tagged and stored, so it can be easily reused.

Public-private collaboration for innovation: India has successfully collaborated with the private sector to leverage expertise, innovation, and resources. It means new innovative services can be spun up quickly and easily on existing infrastructure. Public sector organisations in the UK struggle to move as nimbly because they’re often tied to the infrastructure of big monoliths like Microsoft, Oracle and SAP, and do not have an agile mindset. India’s approach has somewhat levelled the playing field, allowing smaller companies to challenge the institutional norms of these organisations. 

Breaking silos and driving change: The UK’s fragmented public sector structure makes digital transformation tricky. To adopt India’s approach, government agencies, private companies, and civil society must coordinate and collaborate and decide who is the accountable leader. Breaking down silos, sharing best practices, and embracing change are essential for successful digitalisation. Government Digital Service (GDS) and Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) are working hard to enhance coordination and create a more unified approach.

READ: “The consulting industry has infantilised government”- how do we bridge the digital skills gap?

The elephant in the room; privacy and data protection

Digital identity systems hold immense potential in enabling easy access to government services and combating fraudulent activities. But they also raise valid concerns related to privacy and data protection.

In India, the regulatory framework has struggled to keep pace with the rapid advancements made by engineers, resulting in several data breaches and associated challenges.

Having a unique ID and centralising data raises natural questions regarding policy and legislation. Public sentiment is important too — in the past, the idea of consolidating data has raised concerns about a ‘surveillance state.’

But in the UK, we already have various elements of this puzzle. We have biometrics in passports, bank cards, national Insurance numbers, and the NHS app, among others. 

So this isn’t unheard of in the UK; we just don’t tie any of this together. 

Of course, there will always be cybercriminals and the risk of data breaches. But these risks already play a part of our current digital landscape — we’re accustomed to living with data breaches and privacy concerns.

It is crucial to address these issues and implement strong data protection measures but not let them impede progress. As our CEO Aingaran Pillai said in a recent LinkedIn post, could the UK achieve the optimal balance of robust data protection legislation safeguarding public privacy and emulate India’s technological progress? This would certainly position the UK uniquely to set global standards. 

India’s transformative journey with the India Stack has demonstrated the potential of revolutionising the digital landscape and enhancing citizen services through effective integration of technologies. 

But to even begin to do all this, investment and a paradigm shift in ways of working is crucial. A successful digital transformation can’t be accomplished on a limited budget, separately in different organisations or by disregarding the need for adequate resources. 

It necessitates financial support and a commitment to restructure the existing infrastructures.

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