The webinar An integrated and digital social protection information system: outcomes, challenges and risks took place on March 19, 2020, and was organized by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). The session was based on a recently published Concept Paper and presented potential outcomes, key challenges, key risks and the building blocks of a digital and integrated information system including critical design and implementation choices.
The webinar was moderated by Valentina Barca (Independent Consultant), who was joined by the speakers Richard Chirchir (Senior Management Information Specialist – Development Pathways), Massimo Sichinga (Principal Economist – Malawi Government), and Ralf Radermacher (Head of the Sector Initiative Social Protection Programme – GIZ).
Why do we need a digital and integrated information system for social protection?
Richard Chirchir explored the importance of an integrated information system for social protection by dividing it into four thematic areas. He highlighted that the key is to understand the aggregation of these areas and the main outcomes generated.
- Inclusion: an integrated system needs to be able to deal with shocks and stressors. It creates the possibility to deal with certain challenges through coordination and linkages, like the ability to know equitable investments in social protection across multiple jurisdictions.
- Efficiency and effectiveness: an integrated system reduces the burden on other platforms; the workload of staff by centralising and optimising processes; it creates easier and uniform access to information needed for different purposes; and avoids the duplication of benefits.
- Accuracy and integrity: an integrated system makes it easier to deal with and filter potential problems like data errors and benefit fraud.
- Accountability and citizen empowerment: a transparent interface for beneficiaries, civil society, the government and funders creates the settings for better accountability and oversight of procedures, improves the conditions for feedback, grievances and appeals, increases knowledge about poverty and vulnerability, and enables broader digital innovations.
What are the main components and pillars?
Attention to brainware and institutional settings is needed because an integrated system requires the building of skillsets and competencies across a broad range of areas. In this sense, there are three main pillars involved in the creation of an integrated system:
- First pillar: Program operations and functions
Most systems follow a delivery chain: outreach and registration of potential beneficiaries; assessing their data to establish their conditions and needs; determining their eligibility based on programme-specific criteria; enrollment of beneficiaries; payments and service delivery; digital management of feedback, complaints and appeals; and management of beneficiaries based on the programme’s rules (such as compliance, referrals, exit etc.). It is possible to set up a process or system to support each of these operations.
- Second pillar: Integrated operations and functions
Every element can be integrated into a greater setup that can welcome multiple programmes. In relation, for example, to eligibility, registration and conditionalities, a tool called social registry enables the registration of multiple households, ranking them in terms of their needs and crossing that information with several social protection programmes, yielding better results.
- Third pillar: Broader registries and information systems
A linkage between social protection systems and broader registries (such as a national ID system, a tax and land registry, GIS system etc.) within a digital eco-system could help social protection programmes by enabling verification of applications for benefits and services, providing critical information for determining eligibility, and extending the services and benefits for the beneficiaries.
Moreover, the panellist emphasised that some important questions need to be taken into consideration in the conceptualisation and implementation of an integrated system in order to avoid error, fraud, the exclusion of potential beneficiaries, and to guarantee the accuracy of knowledge generated by the data stored, compliance with the law and the protection of citizen rights.
What are the challenges and risks?
- A phased approach to the implementation of an integrated system, instead of “thinking big”, may be more beneficial to ensure efficacy and durability.
- Planning in relation to the costs and complexity of implementing an integrated system needs to be studied in order to avoid defection.
- Coordination among systems and actors, as well as knowledge about data policies, are important to ensure that the system will function.
- The capacity to implement and to maintain the system is necessary to avoid the involvement of stakeholders that will handle the information in different terms and may require certain conditions, thus threatening the sustainability and ownership of the system.
- Digital regulations, albeit positive in many aspects, may be used to sanction and refuse investments in the social protection segment.
- The use of integrated systems may create a loss of human interaction and the role of compassion, which is associated with manual processes.
- A digital system may create automation of the process that excludes some applicants based on profiling, affecting their rights.
- Data privacy and security are key issues, since digital systems always come with risks, as the exposure of social protection beneficiaries.
A case study of the Malawi Unified Beneficiary Registry (social registry)
Massimo Sichinga contextualised the aspects outlined by Richard Chichir through a discussion about the Unified Beneficiary Registry (UBR) programme in Malawi. The UBR’s goal is to capture, store, process, retrieve and share household data to social protection implementers, thus strengthening the coordination of programmes and harmonizing targeting approaches and processes.
Key features of UBR:
- government ownership;
- data-sharing protocols and procedures to assure privacy and security;
- IT security protocols and procedures;
- data-quality checks to assure quality parameters are met; and
- collaborative in-house approached that used existing government organisms to develop the system.
Data collection and selection of variables:
Malawi has opted for an en masse registration census every four years. Engagement with the community happens through outreach and campaigns. The data-collection method is mainly an app integrated with the UBR database that counts with 56 questions on social and economic data, used on tablets.
In order to create a database that attends to the needs of different stakeholders, some variables were prioritised in data-collection:
- basic household characteristics like members, disability, age, gender, and whether they are already beneficiaries of an existing programme; and
- household characteristics and assets, like home ownership status, house material, sources of water and basic services available, other asset ownership.
UBR was implemented through a phased approach. Phase 1 started in 2016 with 11 districts out of 20 in Malawi, collecting around 50% of households’ data, which were appointed at community meetings, with subsequent registration. This decision was informed by the fact that poverty in Malawi affects around 50% of the population. Phase 2, which started in 2018, reaches for national coverage using a new approach to assess and sweep, having collected around 900.000 households so far and aiming to reach the remaining districts by 2020.
Integrated framework for social protection
The unified beneficiary registry (a social registry) is attending to the social cash transfer programme and to the social public works programme, among other smaller programmes upon request. Also shared with the humanitarian sector and piloted to the humanitarian response in one district. More analysis of feedback and reporting is still needed. ID numbers are being collected alongside the data variables and the system is being scanned backwards in data collection to create a link with the national ID system. There are plans to link it to the payment system in the future as well.
The vision for the future of UBR is a fully institutionalised and strengthened system that is able to serve multiple programmes within social protection and beyond it. Two main objectives were presented: 1) to deepen integration through the access of UBR data; and 2) dynamic inclusion of frequent updates and a move towards on-demand registration, in order to accompany fast-changing variables.
Main challenges, opportunities and lessons learnt:
- Social protection programmes in Malawi were fragmented, which required many discussions to understand the view behind a social registry.
- Financial support mainly came from donors, but government ownership was assured throughout the process.
- The system is not yet operationalised to respond timely to a growing demand for requests for data.
- Data-sharing protocols are not yet fully institutionalised, and sharing apps are still under improvement.
- An integrated system needs a lot of coordination and systemic thinking.
The webinar was closed with a discussion among the panellists and an interactive Q&A session. Click here to access the Q&A document.