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Reflections from a double landlocked country on the establishment of a digital and integrated information system for social protection

21/07/2021

By Richard Chirchir and Boniface Kibicho

If you studied geography in school, then you must know that there are only two double landlocked countries in our spherical geoid: (i) Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, and (ii) Liechtenstein, in Western Europe. So, is there any relationship between access to oceans and social protection or the set up of integrated information systems? The answer is an empathic NO, at least in the case of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan makes substantial investments to social security relative to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Currently, total investment in social security in Uzbekistan is more than 6 per cent of GDP, putting Uzbekistan at the bottom of the middle-income countries.

With such a huge investment in social security, policy makers are clearly committed to reforming the sector to enhance the efficient and effective delivery of the system. The reforms are informed by the need for a functional social protection delivery system that can protect citizens (across the life cycle) from unforeseen economic shocks, particularly in the context of the ongoing socio-economic reforms, as well as contributing to economic growth.

Until recently, despite a number of policy and legislative reforms, Uzbekistan’s social protection system faced a number of challenges, including challenges within its delivery systems. While operational systems were relatively strong within the social insurance system, they were much weaker across social assistance programmes. As a result, access to data on social allowances and beneficiaries was limited and dispersed, inhibiting effective monitoring of the efficiency and effectiveness of schemes. Moreover, the social assistance information system was largely paper-based, making it difficult to analyse data for evidenced-based decision making. Importantly, the computation of an applicant’s eligibility, the processing of beneficiary payrolls and the production of reports were inefficient and consumed the time of Mahalla, a local committee (institute of civil society). It was also difficult to access historical data on programme beneficiaries and payrolls as the data was kept in semi-electronic format at the Mahalla and district levels.

One of the policy tools designed to help address these challenges was the establishment of a Single Registry for Social Protection (SRSP), a system that integrates all information management functions along the delivery chain, principally focused on social assistance schemes. A feasibility study undertaken in 2014 had established that a Single Registry would have many advantages. It would support national oversight of the social security system, enhance the administration of the social allowances and other benefits, improve reporting to policy makers, track beneficiaries who were incorrectly receiving multiple benefits, support case management, prevent error/fraud and facilitate the monitoring of programme delivery.

Single Registry for Social Protection (SRSP)

Building on the recommendations of the feasibility study, the Ministry of Finance – with technical support and funding from UNICEF – commissioned Development Pathways to scope out a suitable model for SRSP in October 2018. As illustrated in Figure 1, the entire project was divided into four phases: scoping study; design and development; piloting; and, national roll out.

Figure 1: Single Registry for Social Protection Design and Implementation Plan

Following the scoping study, in December 2018, the Ministry of Finance approved a suitable model and roadmap which was then translated into a quasi-legal statute – Resolution 308 – which outlined the detailed design parameters of the Single Registry. It set out the roles of different stakeholders and the eligibility criteria for the three main social allowances, whilst providing a strong foundation for coordinating the implementation of the scheme, in particular the linkages to various government registries and databases via Automated Programming Interfaces (APIs). Between January and March 2019 – and based on the Resolution – the Pathways team developed the detailed design specifications for an electronic, sector-wide, information management system to capture and disseminate information needs.

As illustrated in figure 2, the Single Registry was built in a modular manner (using an agile approach) with the following modules:

i. The Administration and Security Modules define the system’s parameters, user profiles, and users.

ii. The Registration Module captures the applications for social allowances from multiple channels including online, through local communities and Single Windows (a one-stop-shop for accessing government services, including civil registration, entrepreneurship support, and many other services).

iii. The Means Testing Module employs an algorithm to automatically determine the eligibility of applicants by comparing verified income against the national minimum income threshold. This is underpinned by a function that automatically pulls the information from the 13 government databases, calculates family incomes, and sends SMS notifications to applicants to inform them if they are eligible or not.

iv. The Enrolment Module produces lists of payees to be shared with the JSC “Xalq bank” (People’s bank), so that accounts are opened for recipients and debit cards are issued. 

v. The Payments Module is used for preparing pre-payroll checks, disbursing payments, and allocating funds . The module is integrated with the JSC “Xalq bank” (People’s bank) and Government Financial Management Information System (GFMIS) API, enabling automatic exchange of payment and reconciliation details.

vi. The Case Management Module records and resolves updates and enquiries and enables alert management using SMS. 

vii. The Grievances Management Module records and resolves complaints and grievances.

viii. The Monitoring and Reporting Module provides statistics dashboards that give primary information to decision makers, including regular monthly reports, geo-spatial and geo-analytics maps, and ad hoc reports.

Figure 2: Key Modules of the Single Registry for Social Protection

In October 2019, the development of the SRSP modules was completed, and the SRSP was launched in the Syrdarya region of Uzbekistan as a pilot project. It covered three means-tested social benefits for low-income families: (i) childcare benefit for children up to 2 years (ii) benefit for families with children up to 14 years and (iii) material support for low-income families. In May 2020, following the successful pilot of the SRSP, the MoF developed a plan to rollout the SRSP across the country in a phased manner. The national rollout was implemented between September and December 2020.

Vertical and horizontal expansion in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

SRSP has been a central fulcrum in Uzbekistan’s response to COVID-19 pandemic. It has supported the vertical and horizontal expansion strategies developed by the Government during 2020. Since April 2020, the number of beneficiaries receiving social allowances increased by at least 10%. That meant that an additional 60,000 family applications were processed using the SRSP platform. Additionally, SRSP enabled the Government of Uzbekistan to make a 10% increase in the number of beneficiaries by extending the duration of the childcare allowances and family allowances that were due to expire in March-June 2020 for an additional 6 months. Because of the availability of the SRSP data for decision making, the Government simplified the application process and refined the means testing to determine eligibility to family allowances. Overall, the government was able to gradually increase the number of families receiving social allowances through SRSP up to 1.2 million families by the end of 2020.

Challenges and way forward

The SRSP is re-organising the social assistance landscape in the country. In place of a registration system that used to be undertaken by Mahalla committees – voluntary teams at the local level – applications and eligibility assessments are now fully automated using a standardised means test formula. The entire payment process is automated: fund requests and payroll processes are linked to the Ministry of Finance’s Government Financial Management Information System (GFMIS), an integrated financial management system. The exchange of the payroll and reconciliation data with JSC “Xalq bank” (People’s bank) is undertaken using APIs and automated background services.

While the SRSP has been successful, it has not been without challenges. Although the Cabinet of Ministers Resolution was useful in addressing coordination, legislation, and design issues, it did not provide sufficient detail for the design of the software. Most of these design gaps had to be dealt with by a strong design team within the Ministry of Finance. In fact, the Resolution had to be revised several times, necessitating updates to the software platform. Navigating API linkages across multiple government organisations was particularly challenging; a common problem in many countries due to institutional silos and bureaucratic hurdles, which significantly slows down data exchange.

However, Ministry of Finance officials were able to deal with these challenges effortlessly by minimising bureaucracy and maximising cross-government coordination so that they could drive forward design modifications that were within the broader parameters of the Cabinet Resolution. API linkages, which can take years to develop in some countries, were undertaken in 2 months across thirteen government databases. In the end, the strong leadership by the Ministry of Finance made a huge difference, including helping to resolve competing development partner interests and other complex political economy issues.

Going forward, there are additional ambitious plans to use the SRSP as a single platform for the provision of social services across the country. Other social programmes for low-income families that have been earmarked to use the SRSP platform include the provision of free winter clothes, learning materials and extra-curricular activities for schoolchildren; free/subsidised places in pre-school institutions for children; health benefits; and subsidies for house purchases. Enhancements to the SRSP software platform are currently being undertaken to ensure that all citizens can make their own applications for social allowances using the SRSP public portal. Additionally, 17 new API linkages are being established to the databases of relevant line ministries and agencies to enable the further integration of the SRSP within the national e-government system.

With these innovations, Uzbekistan is on its way to becoming a model country on how to successfully implement a digital platform for social protection.

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