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Social protection via One-Window Operations in Pakistan

A father and son at the OWO in Nowshera

Enhancing coordination and effectiveness for beneficiaries, programmes and government departments

Assistance to the needy and vulnerable, a core value of Pakistani culture, gets a boost from a German-supported project. In the face of a deepening economic crisis, now compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, the project works on optimising efficiency and coordination of existing social protection schemes both at physical service points and through newly linked data streams.

In Pakistan’s mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Nowshera district has a new addition: a small office modestly furnished with two desks, two computers and an operator at each one. Kafayat Khan enters with a heavy step, carrying his 15-year-old son. Naveed has a lower limb injury and was diagnosed with kidney disease at birth. The father, a day labourer, lacks the means to treat his son’s injury, let alone provide for weekly dialysis. Although there actually are, in theory, many services for which they could be eligible, father and son have no idea of their existence or how to access them. After knocking on many doors, Kafayat Khan has heard he might get assistance through this One-Window Operation (OWO) for social protection, an initiative of the Provincial Government supported by Germany through the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. He hopes that here someone will be able to help them.

Assistance to the poor – one of Pakistan’s fundamental values

Charity (Zakat) – assistance to the poor and vulnerable, one of the five pillars of Islam – is a fundamental value in Pakistan that it is enshrined in Government taxation laws. Two and a half percent of each citizen’s wealth accumulated over a certain period of time is used to fund the Government’s Zakat and Ushr and Bait Ul Mal social assistance programmes. Many other Government departments, foundations and wealthy individuals have their own charitable programmes, including scholarships, in-kind support (e.g. food assistance, seeds, farm equipment), or labour market interventions, such as training or cash for work. Social protection is a particular focus of the current national government, which launched its overarching Ehsaas (‘compassion’) policy in April 2019, aiming to reduce poverty and inequality, strengthen social security, develop human capital, and improve jobs and livelihoods. 

Economic challenges

This expansive vision is however confronted by serious financial constraints. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the country was experiencing a deepening economic crisis marked by low tax revenue, high indebtedness, galloping inflation and stark currency devaluation (the Pakistani rupee has lost some 30% of its value to the US dollar in the last two years). The country’s GDP growth, after rising to 5.5% in 2018, plunged to 3.3% the following year, barely enough to keep up with Pakistan’s population increase. In 2019 the United Nations estimated that 38.3% of Pakistan’s population suffers from multidimensional poverty. 

A study commissioned by GIZ in four districts of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces revealed that people living in rural areas are twice as likely to be poor, and that poor people are twice as likely to be illiterate than the non-poor. This study also showed that a majority of poor, but also of non-poor households, are at risk of falling into deeper poverty. 

In Pakistan, most job holders, like Kafayat Khan, work in the informal economy without any social protection. These are people such as day labourers, agricultural workers, small business owners, or street vendors. These people and their families survive each day on what they earn that day, and their hard lot in life has become practically untenable with the confinement imposed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. There is no doubt that social and economic vulnerability will increase exponentially in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Challenges for social protection

The other major challenge to realising the generous vision of Ehsaas is the fragmentation and duplication of Pakistan’s social protection landscape. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for instance, seven departments – including Social Welfare, but also Education and Labour – implement nearly 40 different schemes, many of which potentially target the same beneficiaries, while the institutions which design and manage these schemes operate in parallel and rarely communicate with each other. Below Federal level, administration of almost all schemes is essentially paper-based, and the lack of digital operating systems reduces the capacity to monitor these programmes, let alone coordinate with others. There is no reliable overview of how many people have applied and which services are being provided to whom. 

Another study commissioned by GIZ in the same four districts revealed that most households had very limited knowledge of existing social protection programmes, with two exceptions: the respective province’s Health Card, and the nationwide Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), which has an office in every sub-district. Even those who had heard of a social protection programme did not know if they were eligible for it, nor how to register for it. As a result, many potential beneficiaries did not apply to these programmes. 

In a vicious cycle, because so many people entitled to support do not apply for it, government officials have no reliable evidence about real demand for social protection on which to base their planning and spending decisions. This, with the financial crisis and top-down budget allocation procedures, means that most social protection programmes, especially on district and sub-district level, remain severely underfunded. Ultimately very little social protection support trickles down to the individuals meant to receive it. 

A Single-Window Service approach for better access to multiple programmes

The two studies commissioned by GIZ confirmed an urgent need for improving access to social protection, as most households interviewed had suffered major economic or health setbacks in recent years. They also discovered that less than 20% of households in the four districts had ever benefited from any form of social protection. Based on international best practices, the authors recommended introducing a Single-Window Service (SWS) approach to make it easier for citizens to gain information about all the different schemes and have better access to their support.

In a context where, as in Pakistan, there are multiple programmes aiming to benefit the poor and vulnerable, an SWS provides a single contact point on local level enabling integrated delivery of social services. Support to potential beneficiaries can range from providing information about the different programmes and their eligibility criteria (single referral point) to assistance in applying for them (single entry point), or actual delivery of the benefits accorded by these programmes (one-stop shop). 

Two different models of integrated Social Protection service delivery

The GIZ Support to Social Protection – Social Health Protection (SP-SHP) project works with the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. The two provinces opted to pilot different models of integrated service delivery. 

Mr Muhammad Waqas, Nowshera OWO In-Charge, working in the back office
Mr Muhammad Waqas, Nowshera OWO In-Charge, working in the back office

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the SWS is called a ‘One-Window Operation’. The OWO in Nowshera and another in Lower Dir are pilot structures that the province opened in March 2019 with the aim of improving accessibility and efficiency of social protection services. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa developed their OWOs as a minimal, stand-alone structure on district level linked with the 37 social protection programmes existing in the province under the auspices of the Sustainable Development Unit in the Planning and Development Department. The OWO model functions with just three staff members: two customer service representatives/computer operators and a supervisor who ensures the liaison with the partner programmes and the district and provincial Social Protection Committees. An OWO can be described as having a ‘front office’, where citizens communicate with the customer service agents, and a ‘back office’, where through a specially developed software, links are materialised with the partner programmes.

One-Window Operation for Social Protection, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
One-Window Operation for Social Protection, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Punjab, by contrast, did not opt to create SWS as a new structure, but rather to add new social protection services to existing Citizen Facilitation Service Centres run by the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB). These imposing buildings are on division level, covering two to three districts, and provide a wide range of administrative services to citizens, e.g. delivering driver’s licences, marriage, birth, and death certificates. Fully digitalised, each channels hundreds of clients per day and has the built-in potential to integrate an unlimited number of additional services. In collaboration with the newly created Punjab Social Protection Authority (PSPA), four social assistance programmes were integrated into two CFSCs in 2019. The next step for the SWS pilots will be to pay out participants’ benefits on the spot, once the required human resources have been onboarded by the Bank of Punjab. 

The OWOs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, by contrast, each consist of just two small offices at the district level, and are limited to the functions of single referral and entry point. They do not themselves deliver benefits to their clients, but assist them by providing information on the different social protection schemes available and their eligibility criteria, and with preparing applications for relevant schemes, including forwarding them to the concerned departments. They then ensure liaison with the line departments to follow up on the applications and inform beneficiaries of their status.

The Federal Government has adopted the OWO as one of the key service delivery models for roll-out of its Ehsaas strategy

In February 2019 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa presented its OWO model to Pakistan’s Poverty Alleviation and Coordination Council (PACC), which was undertaking extensive consultations at multiple levels for development of a national policy and strategy for Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection. 

Just one month later, the Federal Government presented its Ehsaas Policy Statement with a major focus on social protection, proposing an approach largely inspired by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s OWO model. The national Ministry of Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety was impressed not only by the OWO’s function of linking individual citizens to multiple social protection programmes, but even more by its digital management information system, which gives insight into real-time performance of the different programmes.

A Beneficiary Registration System enhances coordination and efficiency

The OWOs’ core functions take place in the ‘back office’. Here the SP-SHP project is helping partners to integrate social protection programmes through the introduction of a digital Beneficiary Registration System (BRS). The BRS is the interface between the beneficiaries and the different social protection programmes offered by various departments. It brings together eligibility criteria and beneficiary information for different programmes, registers and tracks citizens’ applications for services, and generates analytical reports. It shows who is getting which benefit, where and when. Planners now have access to facts and figures as a basis for decision-making.

The system generates evidence about the demand for services which can inform planning and resource allocation by the OWO’s respective partner programmes. Through the BRS each of these departments gets a clear overview of the situation of its own programmes, but also that of other programmes, and this enables better coordination among them. Digitalisation through this system holds the potential for increasingly streamlined, efficient, bundled delivery of services, economising financial, human and material resources. 

Fragmentation and duplication of programmes, and discrepancies between the procedures of the departments become visible to all. This puts programmes under pressure to reform their administrative approaches and improve coordination. BRS thus contributes to social accountability of public administration. 

Improvements are slow, but real

Social protection schemes are still mainly paper-based
Social protection schemes are still mainly paper-based

With the exception of BISP, most of the social protection programmes are not themselves digitalised. This makes the OWO’s interface with their paper-based bureaucracy somewhat awkward, and leads to important lags in approving beneficiaries’ applications, let alone delivering benefits. In fact, in the OWOs’ first year of operation, although they registered some 3200 citizens, forwarded more than 2100 applications for services to line departments, and assisted around 500 people with disabilities to receive disability certificates, only a small percentage have to date been provided social protection benefits under various schemes. 

On the other hand, OWOs appear to improve women’s access to social protection. The data reveal that around 45% of the citizens who have registered at the centres are female, as are 69% of those who have actually received social protection benefits or enrolled in a specific programme, including 25% of those who were issued a Disability Registration Certificate with assistance of the OWO.

Furthermore, these programmes’ interaction with the BRS is increasingly inspiring them to introduce digital tools in their data management. It is planned for the BRS to evolve into an interoperable digital architecture including the OWO’s partner programmes.

By introducing transparency about individual programmes’ operations, BRS is beneficial on many levels. Suddenly everyone in the public administration could see which schemes were working, what services people applied for, how many people applied and what happened to their applications. Also, duplications between schemes became clear. Which of course got people to act on the problems. 

The second catalytic effect of the transparency relates to the individual’s application: at all times it can be tracked where the person’s application stands, who needs to act and what comes next.

Ultimately, the OWO approach aims to improve government-to-citizen service delivery and, in a virtuous cycle, can contribute to good governance. Functioning services lead to appreciation of government, reinforcing state legitimacy. Nias Ali Imran, a client with disability in Nowshera, expresses this link: ‘Before, we had to visit different offices – here we get information on different schemes. This is a good initiative by the government.’

A coordination and trouble-shooting mechanism: the Social Protection Committees

Every two months, the District Social Protection Committees come together to review and address issues arising in the course of implementation. The district and provincial Social Protection Committees, two existing structures which have been revitalised under the impetus of the SP-SHP project, include representatives of all the departments which administer social protection programmes and offer a unique opportunity for communication and coordination. 

Under-funding of social protection programmes remains the greatest constraint, rendering many programmes inactive: in 2019 only five of KP’s 37 programmes actually had funds available. Currently, OWO customer service representatives deal with this by informing potential beneficiaries only about programmes that have funding. 

In a longer-term perspective, the improved monitoring and planning capacities of the individual programmes supported by the BRS are providing a more realistic overview of their actual demand, giving a basis for evidence-based social budgeting, while the provincial and federal levels’ renewed interest in social protection appears propitious for more generous funding of this sector. Better evidence of demand for services is already making a difference. In Nowshera, more money has been directed to social protection since the launch of the OWO.

A ‘virtual OWO’ supports Pakistan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Inspired by the BRS software, the Federal Ehsaas programme has been working in parallel with the SP-SHP project on joint development of a One-Window mobile application providing individual citizens access via smartphone to social protection schemes whose data has been uploaded on a digital platform. About to be launched, this app will dematerialise the SWS, in fact making a physical office no longer necessary for many people. The Urdu version will support decentralisation by being made available to sub-district level offices and village councils, and physical offices will remain necessary to serve the many citizens who do not have a smartphone or sufficient literacy skills to use the app. 

This versatile app has already been adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing essential information to the confined population on services such as shelter homes and the nearly 400 food banks in the entire country. A special mechanism enables NGOs and private sector entities to upload information to the app, including GPS locations of some 140 service offers such as orphanages, medical support and food assistance.

Enhancing support to beneficiaries

Kafayat Khan and his son have been resting in the OWO’s waiting section. To the sympathetic front desk officer, he presents his national identity card, which the agent registers in his computer. The programme confirms the family’s poverty status, based on a 2010 survey whose results are linked to each citizen’s profile in NADRA, the Federal Government’s National Database and Registration Authority. 

Nowshera OWO customer service agent registers client data in BRS
Nowshera OWO customer service agent registers client data in BRS

Checking in the BRS, the agent advises Kafayat Khan on different social protection programmes for which his family could be eligible, including the province’s health card for cost-free in-patient hospital treatment. He fills out and submits Naveed’s application for obtaining the official Disability Registration Certificate, which is a prerequisite for applying for any kind of disability benefits. ‘We will explain to you where to go and how to apply for the different documents you will need. We will keep track of your application and let you know by telephone or SMS if you have been approved. Then we will direct you to the specific office where you can get your benefits.’ Kafayat Khan departs, greatly relieved, with receipts which will allow him to track his family’s applications.

The planned roll-out of the OWO model and the new mobile app, improving efficiency and reducing costs, could be a significant contribution to rebuilding in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.  The Government intends to focus social protection programmes more strongly towards developing livelihoods, and the expanded BRS, storing data on OWO beneficiaries’ skills sets, could be a resource in this process. The Government’s planned introduction of OWOs in every sub-district of the country will bring integrated service delivery immeasurably closer to the citizens.

Dr Mary White Kaba, June 2020

© GIZ Pakistan
© GIZ Pakistan
© GIZ Pakistan
© GIZ Pakistan
© GIZ Pakistan
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