The Digital Systems Every Country Needs to Succeed in the 21st Century

Digital government siloes aren't sustainable, says David Eaves. We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build digital government infrastructures in ways that support equity, justice and opportunity.

Published on May 25, 2022 

Written by David Eaves, Lecturer in Public Policy

As the world endures the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, one insight is clear: digital services built for public purpose are no longer optional. They are critical infrastructure for well-functioning societies in the 21st century. 

Governments that were able to verify citizens’ identities online; securely and instantaneously provide them cash; and safely exchange their information across agencies were able to deliver on the promise of a 21st-century safety net. Those that could not, generally did not.  

If the Great Depression of the 1930s saw a redefinition - and ascendance - of physical public infrastructure, the COVID-19 pandemic is increasingly positioning the aforementioned core systems - digital identity, online payments, and data exchange mechanisms - as the cornerstone of newly emerging digital public infrastructure. 

Our Siloed World of Government Digital Services 

Today, many governments struggle to cheaply and quickly deploy new social protection programs for citizens, particularly online, where citizens increasingly expect to interact with their government. One major cause? Governments’ tendency to shoehorn 21st-century information systems into 19th-century organizational structures. Look at almost any government in the world. In most cases, equivalents to the Department of Agriculture, Internal Revenue Service, and Health and Human Services each have their own technology solutions for identifying beneficiaries, making payments, and collecting data. They trade technology’s potential for scale and interoperability for duplication and costly fragmentation required by siloed accountability. 

This siloed online world is a reflection of how our government is organized, not how technology or services are best deployed. Balkanized service delivery frustrates everyone. Citizens must constantly share the same information over and over. Government services are confusing, hard to navigate, and citizens are easily tricked into sharing personal information with third parties. And it isn’t cheap. Governments collectively spend billions recreating parallel processes across different services.  

Silos gots us here, and they won’t get us to the Sustainable Development Goals.

If OECD countries have had limited success despite investing billions of dollars into a siloed approach of digital government, porting that model to developing countries will be a financial disaster. OECD countries spend on average $252 per citizen on IT. Emerging markets spend $14. Achieving budget parity would require a $1.4T IT budget across emerging markets—every year. Worse, given the outsized control western firms have in the digital space, this model of digitization threatens to reinforce structures of colonialism and dependency.  

From Silos to Infrastructure 

In the past decade some countries have experimented with an alternative approaches to online public services - one that seeks to adopt an infrastructure mindset. This “digital public infrastructure” is akin to creating a new electric grid, with many players - private and public - working together to solve common points of friction that impede citizens from safely and easily using online services. 

For example, in order to transact online, governments and citizens need trustworthy ways to authenticate who they are. They need to quickly and safely pay or receive money. And they need to be able to seamlessly and securely share their data with relevant parties to ensure accuracy and gain access to benefits. 

In a COVID world, and in the 21st century generally, these requirements are the table stakes for ensuring all citizens can participate in government, the economy, and society. In short, this is the new infrastructure societies need to operate in a just, equitable and fair way. Done right, this digital public infrastructure can help governments, nonprofits, and private enterprises streamline processes, providing a foundation for unprecedented social and economic opportunity. Done wrong, they can lead to dependency, reward extractive rent seeking business models, and reinforce inequity. 

Critically, this isn’t some imagined future. India and Estonia’s digital public infrastructure operates at a societal scale, leading to vast improvements in financial inclusion and service delivery efficiency. Among a range of other successes are Malawi’s national ID system, which quickly scaled to over nine million inhabitants in just three years, and Bakong payments system in Cambodia, which has already allowed nearly 6 million users to make seamless payments across a healthy, competitive marketplace of private payment providers. 

More and more countries see that this is critical. In 2021 alone, 50 countries reached out to the World Bank asking for help to build digital infrastructure cited above. 

Getting the Tech and Governance Right 

Given growing interest, we have a window to build out this infrastructure model in ways that support equity, justice and opportunity.

This means leaning towards making these systems open to help lower costs, increase accountability, and promote standardization. 

The good news is that many early adopters have adopted open-source licenses to their existing digital public infrastructure. As a result, with coordinated support, hundreds of millions of already invested public funds can be leveraged to help more countries replicate existing successes. It also means countries can leverage advances made by other countries and draw on expertise either at home, or anywhere in the world.

Moving towards open systems would mean civil society actors, governments, funders, and the private sector can audit this infrastructure to find errors or other technical problems. And re-deploying digital infrastructure in many countries could help harmonize approaches and systems, promoting standardization to further reduce costs and prevent vendor lock-in.

But ensuring trust, safety and equity requires more than open source software. Wherever possible, we should be looking to foster norms and institutions that can create policy standards to govern these systems. While this infrastructure can empower both states and individuals, it can also be used to undermine important values.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lay the foundation for a global values-based digital ecosystem that allows countries to have agency over their critical infrastructure. It’s time to get countries the support they need to build solutions for fairer, more resilient societies. Together, we can build the digital future we want to live in.