Are We on Track? Reflecting on Our Global Survey of Digital-Government Transformation

Technology Policy Digital Government

Are We on Track? Reflecting on Our Global Survey of Digital-Government Transformation

Briefing
Posted on: 24th May 2022
Hilda Barasa
Africa Policy Lead, Digital Government Unit

Over the course of our digital-government transformation series, we have surveyed the state of progress in four global regions: sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), North America, Europe and South-East Asia. The state of progress differs between regions, reflecting the overall stage of development and democratic progress in each region. Our surveys have highlighted government priorities and the constraints facing digital-transformation journeys as well as the key factors that incentivise or hamper the adoption of global best practice. The key findings are summarised below:

  • Digital government in SSA is supported by regionwide initiatives that anchor or strategically guide national priorities and initiatives. At the same time, progress is hindered by poor digital infrastructure and a lack of underpinning regulations. This results in the slow implementation and adoption of national and regional digital-government initiatives.
  • Europe and South-East Asia are both limited, to varying degrees, by the lack of coordination between regional, national and local governments. In Europe, limited cross-border accessibility to public services can be attributed to the gap between the high level of central alignment with EU strategies and frameworks, and the slow pace of implementation at the local level. Local governments grapple with slow technology distribution, weak information and communications technology (ICT) strategies and with officials trying to manage non-interoperable databases. In South-East Asia, lack of collaboration and decentralisation to subnational governments and line ministries, as well as non-legally binding agreements at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-level, limits comprehensive digital-government transformation.
  • North America was an early adopter of digital government with Canada and the United States launching flagship digital-government programmes in the 90s. While progress is visible at different levels of government, both countries’ overall E-Government Development Index (EGDI) rankings have dropped over the past three decades as more countries around the world increase investment in digital government. To keep pace, the region is currently innovating at both the federal and state/provincial level on initiatives central to digital government, including expanding digital infrastructure, rolling out digital ID and streamlining proactive services.
  • Intergovernmental bodies and institutions have become strategically influential in the digital-government ecosystem as countries pursue single digital markets and integrated economies. These bodies provide common standards and governance frameworks, enforce change through directives and regulations, incentivise cooperation among member states and encourage adoption through funding programmes.

Governments Are the Anchor to Healthy Digital-Government Ecosystems

Figure 1 – The connections within a fully developed digital-government ecosystem

Source: TBI

The digital-government ecosystem comprises a range of actors that support the production of and access to data and services through interactions with government. At the heart of this ecosystem are national and local governments, which establish the visions for digital-government transformation, set priorities and define national and local strategies. They are responsible for developing the legal and regulatory frameworks that underpin digital-transformation strategies and they channel funding towards flagship digital-government initiatives. At regional levels, governments contribute and sign up to bilateral and multilateral frameworks and agreements that frequently have a bearing on national priorities and strategies. Finally, governments are critical drivers of both hard and soft digital-infrastructure development, financed through a range of instruments including public-private partnerships, and loans and grants from international finance institutions or other governments.

In North America for example, the Canadian and US federal governments have put in place robust strategies to guide whole-of-government digital-transformation efforts, including coordinating digital operations, modernising IT systems, advancing technology adoption and improving service delivery.

Pursuit of Integrated Digital Economies Is Increasing the Importance of Intergovernmental Bodies

Digital government is increasingly recognised as a critical enabling pillar for the development of single digital markets and integrated digital economies in Europe, SSA and South-East Asia. Setting digital policies at a regional level creates coherence within a region and provides a larger market for govtech businesses. It further enhances transparency, improves cross-border service delivery for citizens and businesses, and fosters more productive, competitive and inclusive public institutions. In SSA, the African Union, together with regional economic blocs, have developed agendas and strategies ratified by member states that identify digital government as a significant enabling factor for the digital transformation of economies in the region. Some of these include the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020–2030).

Similarly, EU institutions, including the European Commission and the Council of Ministers, have played key roles in creating cohesive digital-economy and digital-government frameworks and agreements for adoption by member states. In the EU for example, flagship digital-government initiatives and regulations include the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Once-Only Principle, digital transition of the EU public service, and the Digital Europe Programme.

When Digital-Government Transformation Succeeds

Our survey highlighted several examples of standout digital-government initiatives across all four regions. Whether located in Canada, Denmark, Estonia, the Philippines, Rwanda or Singapore, these initiatives succeeded for the following reasons:

  • Strong political leaders created the vision and developed the strategy for digital government, established legal frameworks to support digital-government initiatives, and aligned the resources both from within and outside government for transformation. Consistent political leadership was also critical in building and sustaining confidence and trust both externally with the public and internally with the civil servants responsible for implementing the necessary changes to put effective processes in place. Digital government was first prioritised in the EU during Jean-Claude Juncker’s tenure as commission president (2014–2019) with dedicated funding and policy programmes. This laid the foundation for Ursula von der Leyen’s 2030 Digital Compass, which identifies digitalisation of public services as one of four landmark points in the EU’s digital decade and sets targets to achieve them.
  • Innovating alongside technological adoption to create public worth. Governments delivered value to the public by configuring Government as a Platform (GaaP) – single portals for accessing services. Different administration sites from national and local bodies are linked to one network to enable users to find and access a range of digitalised government services. The Portalverbund (portal network) in Germany links the different administration portals from federal, state and local authorities to one network so that citizens and businesses can find any of the 575 government services currently digitised, as required by Germany’s online-access law which came into force in 2017. The portal serves as an informational signpost directing citizens to whichever authority carries out the services, regardless of their landing page.
  • High levels of private-sector involvement in the design and delivery of digital solutions. The private sector is a strong driver of digital-government transformation and has driven uptake of some digital-government tools, most notably digital ID. In many cases, governments partnered with the private sector to develop digital strategies and action plans, using private-sector efficiency gains as a benchmark of service delivery. Public-private partnerships were also used to build digital infrastructure. The rise in uptake of digital ID in Estonia was driven by a campaign led by two major banks. These banks used incentives such as limiting the amount of money that could be transacted via the old system to encourage adoption of digital IDs.
  • Transparency on new digital-government initiatives is critical to engendering public trust and buy-in. Legislators provided clarity on the services being offered and how the digital infrastructure would support them, as well as outlining how to access and use these services, and how to report issues when service delivery did not meet public expectations. Governments focused on simplifying procedures and streamlining transactions to increase efficiency. The US Department of the Treasury has implemented a detailed plan of action for each milestone highlighted in the White House Digital Government Strategy, along with a process to monitor and track the progress of digital initiatives through its Digital Government and Innovation at Treasury (DiGIT) working group. It has further formalised feedback processes from citizens through online satisfaction surveys that are regularly publicised as part of its open-data initiatives.
  • Differentiated services to ensure equitable access. In recognition of existing digital divides, governments maintained physical service centres in remote areas while also decentralising the implementation of digital-government initiatives. They adapted technology frameworks and systems to local contexts to ensure they are easily accessible online through mobile devices or unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) codes. Kenya’s Huduma Programme uses a multi-channel approach that combines physical Huduma centres across the country with the deployment of digital technologies to simplify transaction processes via automated services. This allows citizens to access and pay for a range of public-sector services both online and offline.

Common Barriers to Digital-Government Transformation Across Regions

  • Digital divides exist at both national and regional levels because of a lack of adequate digital infrastructure, limited technological knowledge and unequal access to digital opportunities. These inequalities manifest themselves not only between the connected and unconnected in a country or region, but also among the connected within one region where access to digital skills and types of infrastructure are patchy. This, in turn, limits the extent to which all citizens can access, interact with and use digital-government services.
  • Inefficiencies and the bureaucracy of legacy systems limit the effectiveness of digital government. Digitising processes and systems without adequately considering the user experience results in inefficiencies, for example forcing citizens to visit government offices to complete transactions they should have been able to fulfil online. The modernisation of legacy systems dealing with human capital, processes, data, products and public-administration functions remains a challenge for citizen-centric digital governments. Governments still rely on legacy systems for business continuity and tend to build on top of existing systems with complex operational dependencies that further complicate complete overhauls of legacy systems.
  • There is inadequate funding for digital-government initiatives globally, many of which are large and capital-intensive. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, estimates that there is a funding gap of $428 billion that needs to be overcome to connect the unconnected to the internet by 2030, with $5 billion needed to connect schools alone. Digital-ID credentials are estimated to cost between 3 per cent and 40 per cent of the total ID-system cost, depending on the type of ID credential. India, for example, which has the world’s largest digital-ID system, has spent approximately $1.9 billion so far on the Aadhaar system while the UK estimates that it would need up to £400 million for its own digital-ID system. Overall, more resources will be needed to finance digital-government initiatives at a time when fiscal spaces are shrinking globally.
  • Finding an optimal degree of decentralisation that can support digital-government transformation is a key challenge. On the one hand, countries at the early stages tend towards centralised-decentralisation of digital-government administration. In such situations, responsibility is devolved without effective power – and political, administrative, and fiscal functions and decisions continue to be held by the centre. Lack of coordination between national and local/state governments, as well as insufficient capabilities at sub-national levels of government, often means that decision-making is centralised. This hampers progress by increasing bureaucracy and inefficiencies in the delivery of digital services.
  • On the other hand, full decentralisation and autonomy for local governments can also constrain progress. In Germany, where there is a high degree of local-government autonomy, citizen use of e-government services has not grown significantly, rising from 45 per cent in 2012 to 48 per cent in 2020, because of digital immaturity at the local level. There is also insufficient interoperability between local governments and therefore transformation is currently limited to the information function of digital government while the transaction function is virtually non-existent.
  • Digital-skills limitations exist across all regions. The range of digital skills demonstrated by civil servants responsible for change-management processes in the digital-government ecosystem vary from basic to digitally aware, with few civil servants considered digitally sophisticated. Those at the lower end of the skills’ spectrum are often perceived to be responsible for underperformance of digital-transformation projects across government.
  • Existing measurement frameworks for digital government fail to adequately assess the broad range of capabilities and core components upon which digital government is built. Only two measurement frameworks have been developed to cover global progress while others remain regional- or sector-focused. Of these two, the UN’s E-Government Development Index (EGDI), with its three sub-indices, has more metrics than are needed to measure digital-government performance, while the World Bank’s Digital Adoption Index is weighted heavily towards certain key metrics such as digital ID. As a result, it is hard to get an accurate real-time measurement of digital government. Further, these indices do not reflect a measurement of outcomes, focusing instead on output. This means the impact of key principles that underpin whole-of-government transformation, such as purposeful governance, are not captured or meaningfully measured in existing frameworks.

Emerging Digital-Government Priorities

  • Implementing user-centred-design approaches to digital government with a focus on end-to-end citizen journeys. These include identifying those services that matter most to citizens, mapping their experiences in accessing these services, identifying the internal processes that shape citizen experiences, and tackling front- and back-end solutions to improve their journey.
  • Providing proactive services enabled by data interoperability across different levels of government and agencies. It is essential to establish the requisite legal frameworks for data-sharing that can enable governments to anticipate the needs of both citizens and business, and then to offer these proactively as a natural next step in service delivery.
  • Implementing multilateral agreements to facilitate cross-border services, digital trade and transactions across the ASEAN, EU and SSA regions.
  • Implementing key levers central to systemic change. These include developing regulatory frameworks for data governance, including managing availability, accessibility, usability, integrity and security of public and citizen data in government. Additionally, there needs to be better coordination and collaboration mechanisms between national, regional and local governments. Investing in broadband and internet infrastructure to close the existing digital divides between regions is essential, as are enterprise-architecture frameworks to facilitate data-driven decision-making.

We welcome feedback and engagement so please get in touch to discuss our work here: h.barasa@institute.global

Download our table that compares the most widely used frameworks to measure the progress of digital transformation.

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