Blog: Digital government and Covid-19
Published: 22 Dec 2020
Throughout the pandemic of 2020, digital initiatives – including digital public service delivery, digital payments, and priorities such as contact-tracing – have helped to save lives and livelihoods. These tools may also prove similarly relevant as countries start taking tentative steps towards any new normal.
"The global community has made phenomenal progress this year in building and implementing solutions to tackle a truly unprecedented challenge." - Calum Handforth, Fellow
Digital transformation efforts in the public and private sectors, and across civil society, have been accelerated or catalysed by Covid-19. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted, earlier in the pandemic, we've “seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”. The pace of this change has likely only increased since.
In 2015, I was enormously privileged to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship to explore international best practice in digital government and digital public service delivery. I travelled to Estonia, Norway and Singapore, where I learnt from experts, practitioners and others in each country.
I selected Estonia as an original leader in digital government. Gaining formal independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country was faced with the challenge of building a government to serve a disparate, poor and relatively low- skilled population. Its leaders embraced the potential afforded by technology. Estonians can now undertake most civic activities online, including viewing medical records, voting and paying taxes. These foundations have been incredibly important during the pandemic, as digital ways of living and working are very much embedded in society.
Norway has a long history of using technology in government, including the development of information registers, such as the Norwegian population registry, in the 1950s and 1960s. There is a foundation of strong public trust in government. The country also has explored lighter-touch approaches to governance and market-based solutions to digital components, such as e-Identity and Digital Mailboxes. It remains a digital leader today.
During my visit to Singapore, the country was at the very start of its ‘smart nation’ journey. This pan-government mandate prioritised digital transformation. The foundations built by the country from 2014 onwards have proven enormously important this year. For example, institutionalising the skills and talent needed to develop in-house approaches to contact-tracing or to use digital channels to communicate effectively with citizens.
I now lead the ‘smart cities and digitalisation’ team at the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. We work across many countries to explore the relevance of digitalisation and smart cities in international development. This global work with UNDP country offices, and their local and national government partners, has this year confirmed the relevance of digitalisation for countries around the world. It has also reaffirmed three important priorities:
- Digital inclusion is non-negotiable. Digital channels (from payment platforms for social support, through to messaging platforms to tackle misinformation or disinformation) have played a fundamental role in Covid-19 response. With billions of people still not using the internet, including particularly marginalised groups, we need to ensure that no one is left behind.
- Covid-19 has been a truly global challenge. This expansiveness has highlighted the importance of building on best practice and learning from the global community - the very purpose of the Churchill Fellowship. In the context of digital, this also includes the need to leverage open-source solutions to accelerate or support our response to these challenges. For example, UNDP’s open-source digital toolkit has saved the Mauritius government significant money and time.
- Digital efforts should consider both ideology and technology. Efforts this year have highlighted the relevance of my Fellowship, which explored these topics, and an openness to consider the role of technology. However, it's also important to recognise when technology cannot play a role and to understand that often technology should augment and not replace human efforts. Singapore's government digital team noted that their contact-tracing app "does not replace the contact tracing process. Instead, we see it as an important tool in the toolbox of contact tracers. It is not sufficient to rely on technology alone, as we need the expertise in public health and communicable diseases to make sense of the data collected using this technology.”
Overall, digital approaches and technology – if applied thoughtfully and inclusively – can have enormous and positive impact. With this in mind, the global community has made phenomenal progress this year in building and implementing solutions to tackle a truly unprecedented challenge. Beyond this, it will be important to maintain this direction of transformation - to ensure inclusion and access, and to incorporate fundamental aspects such as privacy and human rights into everything we build - even if not at the pace that Covid-19 has demanded.