Digital technologies are involved in different aspects of social protection delivery, the main ones being information systems, financial services, and grievance/accountability mechanisms.
Digital information systems
Much recent attention has been on digital management information systems (MIS) for social protection, defined as ‘online platforms through which citizens can interact with welfare bureaucracies; automated systems which collect and analyze data to determine eligibility for social protection benefits; biometric identification of beneficiaries; and artificial intelligence tools to identify the risk of potential benefit fraud or to assess the need for social assistance’. An ever-increasing number of low- and middle-income countries are embarking on a process of integrating their management information systems (Barca 2017: 2). Full integration involves establishing ‘a direct (web service) link – e.g. using each citizen’s national ID number as a unique identifier – to (a) all social assistance program MISs; (b) social insurance MISs; (c) any other relevant government MIS’ (ibid.). For example, Kenya’s Single Registry consolidates information for five social assistance programmes (the Hunger Safety Net Programme; Persons with Severe Disability Programme; Older Persons Cash Transfer; Urban Food Subsidy Programme; and Orphans and Vulnerable Children Programme) on the key processes of ‘(i) targeting, registration and enrolment; (ii) payment; (iii) change management; (iv) complaints and grievances’ (Barca & Chirchir, 2014: 25).
Digitalising social protection information has the potential to reduce fragmented, isolated social protection interventions, supporting a systems approach to universal social protection and linking social protection recipients to other services and support. ICT innovations can support more accurate and efficient service by automating and improving data management (reducing workloads and enabling more informed management decisions) and providing convenient, faster, and more secure service to beneficiaries (Handayani et al., 2017). However, trade-offs, challenges and risks can emerge, including increasing costs and complexity, risks to data privacy and security, and risks of multiple exclusion from all social sector schemes – as an integrated approach to intake/registration could lead to a systematic exclusion of certain households; for example, if there is a problem with data collection or administrative requirements such as the lack of an ID card (Barca, 2017: 1, 53). Barca (2017: 43) highlights that ‘certain categories of data may be more contentious than others when it comes to data privacy and security concerns’. Information on citizens’ identity, address, health, asset-holding and bank accounts (among other things) could easily be abused (whether obtained unduly by third parties or used unduly by government) if sufficient safeguards are not ensured (ibid.). Biometric-technology data – such as fingerprints, iris structure and face topologies – can be uniquely sensitive. However, social protection programmes are often implemented without mechanisms to protect the rights of the individuals whose information is being collected or the data itself (Sepúlveda Carmona, 2018: vii).
Digital financial services
Digital financial services for social protection are ‘delivered via digital infrastructure (mobile or Internet) with low use of traditional brick-and-mortar branch infrastructure. Digital financial services include the full range of products (digital transfers, payments, stored value, savings, insurance, credit, etc.), channels (such as mobile phones, Internet, or automated teller machines), and providers including mobile network operators, banks, nonbank financial institutions, and electronic money issuers, retailers, post offices, and others’ (ISPA, 2015: GN-95).
Electronic payment delivery systems improve transparency and accountability and reduce leakage compared with cash-based manual mechanisms (ibid.: GN-52, 86). Digital payment services still require high-quality procedures and controls including management oversight and continual monitoring, both when delivered by government or programme staff and when outsourced to one or more third-party (private or public) payment service provider (PSP) (ibid.: GN-83, 86). A key recommendation is to build ‘a data bridge’ between the information system of a social protection intervention and any PSP, to prevent errors and fraud on payment lists (ibid.: GN-84) while ensuring data protection. Authentication of recipients must be secure (using a variety of methods), while noting that a highly secure payment mechanism may, as well as increasing costs for the government, increase cost of access for recipients (ibid.: GN-85). Approaches should be appropriate for the programme objectives and beneficiary profile: for example, PINs may be a new concept requiring beneficiary training while fingerprint biometrics may not be suitable for elderly people or manual labourers with worn fingerprints (ibid.) and ATMs may not be appropriate for visually impaired beneficiaries.
Digital grievance and accountability mechanisms
Barca and Chirchir (2014: 24) note that most social protection grievances are linked to programme targeting, and therefore ‘it is essential to develop an integrated process for response that could be managed through a Single Registry and IMIS [integrated management information system]’.
Looking more broadly at the increasing use of new information and communications technology (ICT) to facilitate citizen feedback to state service providers, a review by the World Bank found that this ‘can make a technical contribution to increasing the capacity of policymakers and senior managers to respond to citizens, but only where the commitment to respond already exists’ (Ayliffe et al, 2017: 39 citing World Bank, 2016). Moreover, any move to digitalisation needs to consider that in some countries (e.g. in sub-Saharan Africa) there is a marked digital divide, with access depending on gender, income status, location and age (ibid.).
Barca, V. (2017). Integrating data and information management for social protection: Social registries and integrated beneficiary registries. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
This report reviews recent evolutions in integrating data and information management for social protection, looking at shifts in terminology and innovative best practice, to provide practical guidance for policymakers and practitioners. The findings are based on a literature review of academic and grey literature on the topic; on extensive interviews and discussions with key informants; and on five in-depth case studies (Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Kenya and Turkey).
European Commission. (2017). Peer review on ‘Social Protection Information System’: Synthesis report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
Government representatives and independent experts from eight countries (Bulgaria, Finland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and Spain), as well as representatives from the European Commission, discuss the current and future use of data and information management tools in the context of social protection policies and the challenges related to their implementation.
Leite, P., George, T., Sun, C., Jones, T., & Lindert, K. (2017). Social registries for social assistance and beyond: A guidance note and assessment tool (Social Protection & Labor Discussion Paper 1704). Washington, DC: World Bank.
This paper presents a ‘Guidance Note’ on the framework for social registries. It illustrates the diverse typologies and trajectories of country experiences with social registries with respect to their institutional arrangements (central and local); use as inclusion systems (coverage, single or multi-programme use, static or dynamic intake and registration); and structure as information systems (structure of data management, degree and use of interoperability with other systems).
ISPA. (2015). Social protection payment delivery mechanisms. Washington, DC: World Bank.
This Inter Agency Social Protection Assessments (ISPA) tool ‘provides guidance on how to assess a payment mechanism for the delivery of cash or near-cash social protection transfers primarily targeted at poor and vulnerable populations’. It proposes three criteria to assess the quality of social protection payment delivery mechanisms or when designing new mechanisms: ‘accessibility, robustness, and integration’ (foreword).
Sepúlveda Carmona, M. (2018). Is biometric technology in social protection programmes illegal or arbitrary? An analysis of privacy and data protection. Geneva: International Labour Office.
Handayani, S., Domingo-Palacpac, M., Lovelock, P., & Burkley, C. (2017). Improving the delivery of social protection through ICT – Case studies in Mongolia, Nepal, and Viet Nam (ADB Sustainable Development Working Paper 50). Manilla: Asian Development Bank.
Rincón, T. (2017). Digital inclusion for the ultra poor: The graduation approach. Policy in Focus 14(2), 52–57. Brasilia: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth.
Hosein, G., & Nyst, C. (2013). Aiding surveillance: An exploration of how development and humanitarian aid initiatives are enabling surveillance in developing countries. London: Privacy International.
Conference/seminar/webinar: Information systems for the social protection sector social registries and beyond. (2017). Oxford Policy Management, World Bank and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Australia). (1hr:42)
Video: ‘APPtitude – A new way to battle extreme poverty’. Use of digital apps to support skills-based training for economic empowerment and graduation-style programmes. (2016). Fundación Capital. (1m:44)
Conference/seminar/webinar: Tying the digital knots: Social protection in practice. (2018). Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg, University of Applied Sciences, Germany.
 https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Poverty/Pages/CallforinputGADigitalTechnology.aspx (Accessed 8 May 2019).