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Tanya Filer

Leads the Digital State Project at the Bennett Institute, University of Cambridge

How GovTech can become a powerful development tool

Last week, GovTech made its debut on the World Bank Spring Meeting agenda. Under the banner “Putting People First”, international policymakers, including Matthew Ryland, the UK Permanent Secretary for International Development, declared GovTech an enabler of transparency, efficiency and participation across developing economies.

They are right. Countries looking for cost efficiency and improved relations between states and citizens must embrace digitalisation. Large IT suppliers have been mired in histories of over-priced government contracting, bolstering institutional distrust. Fostering local industries of GovTech start-ups and scale-ups that create jobs, serve the domestic public sector and contribute to the economy through internationalisation may help to reverse this trend.

The growing excitement around GovTech as a powerful new development tool cannot disguise its early and exploratory stage. The World Bank GovTech goals and approach are broad-brush. Regional development banks, multilateral efforts, including UNDP Accelerator Labs, and government-led international development teams, including the UK Global Digital Marketplace, are new. They are only at the outset of understanding how GovTech can be a means for “putting people first” in practice.

Three initial approaches to GovTech in development contexts may help to create positive outcomes for citizens, including the world’s poorest, and public administrators.

First, policymakers must build the foundations for GovTech, rather than attempting to leapfrog over them. As I argue in Thinking about GovTech, to reap the possible benefits of GovTech, policymakers must prioritise four core areas: developing core digital infrastructure; building robust cybersecurity systems and talent pipelines; ensuring universal internet access; and enabling universalism in access and use of online public services, including through accessibility and digital skills for all.

No developing or developed economy can claim to have fully addressed every area. But prioritising them is key to providing the conditions for a functional GovTech ecosystem that enjoys public support.

Take internet access. More than 50 per cent of the global population, or over 3.8 billion, is unconnected. The problem is far from exclusive to developing economies, but it is acute in them. Less than 12 per cent of citizens in low-income countries reportedly using the internet. When governments shift to the kind of internet-based service delivery intrinsic to GovTech, there is a risk of disenfranchisement unless every citizen is equipped with internet access—and the skills and trust to use it.

State-provided or supported internet access is critical where the cost to the private consumer prohibits access. In 2013, Mexico became the first country to introduce a constitutional right to internet access. National governments seeking to digitalise their interactions with citizens must make a similar commitment. The promise should be accompanied by a clear, quick, and feasible plan for high-quality local implementation. The benefits of digitalisation for the poorest citizens (who are among the most likely to lack connectivity) could otherwise be unclear. Travelling to access online government services may be no easier or more productive than travelling to interact directly with a frontline civil servant.

Second, policymakers and entrepreneurs interested in GovTech should directly and publicly focus their efforts on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — a set of objectives that already enjoys global, high-level consensus, and which technology can help to address. Development professionals acknowledge digital technologies as perhaps the greatest single enabler of sustainable development in coming years, but rarely emphasise the role of GovTech firms and public sector technology procurement reform in realising the SDG agenda. The link must be made clearer.

A cohort of young companies has begun this work. Born into an international policy environment pregnant with the language of the SDGs, they are framing their services in its words — and benefitting from the approach. Odilo, a Spanish provider of content management systems with clients including the Chilean Ministry of Education and the Australian Public Library tackles SDG4 (education) and SDG10 (reduced inequality). Recognising interlinkages between the SDGs, Eidos, an Argentine EdTech company, offers a suite of products that collectively addresses four goals.

Agustin Alejandro Batto Carol, founder of Eidos, sees a direct link between this SDG framing and the success of the company in attracting international public-sector clients and grants — often challenging for start-ups headquartered in the Southern Cone. He argues that GovTech firms should be vocal about their alignment with the goals. Technology companies and policymakers can struggle with mutual understanding, requiring skilled ‘translators’ to navigate between them. But the SDGs provide a shared, mutually comprehensible vocabulary. Tell a policymaker that your company solves interoperability through reusable APIs and they may stare at you blankly. Start by telling them that you are helping to solve SDG 3 — good health and well being — and you have the basis for a productive conversation premised on common objectives.

Connecting GovTech to the global agenda should not be the work of entrepreneurial firms alone. In 2018, the Portuguese government ran the first edition of its GovTech competition, focused on the global goals. The approach educated Portuguese GovTech entrepreneurs about the SDGs and the role of technological innovation in addressing them. It also helped to raise the international profile of Portugal as a contributor to the UN agenda. Other governments could draw on the model to help to channel co-financing, high-quality entrepreneurial activity, and public attention towards GovTech.

The third approach to developing GovTech capacities for development contexts may seem counterintuitive in light of the global sustainable development agenda: starting locally. But global objectives can only be met in situated, local contexts.

GovTech as a sector can be susceptible to an overly-technocratic inclination — imagining there to be generic technological fixes. This discourse appears, unhelpfully, to be creeping into the ‘GovTech for development’ space: however technologically advanced, Estonia is not a useful blueprint for contexts that are demographically, socially and economically distinct from it.

International lesson learning is highly beneficial, but the risk of technological universalism — what Anita Say Chan calls “the sense” that “the same technology can serve as a multifunctional, universally common solution for all users” — should not be underestimated. It can lead to GovTech policies and projects that are expensive and ineffective, even harmful. The failure of One Laptop Per Child in rural Peru is a prime example.

To mitigate the risk of a dangerous techno-universalism, local GovTech industry creation is key. GovTech competitions and programmes, like the Lagos-based GovLab, can help to identify qualified entrepreneurs to meet local public sector needs.

For most developing economies, however, a skills gap stands in the way of developing a sustainable and diverse GovTech ecosystem. Inequalities of skills within and between individual countries plague the Middle East, APAC, Latin America, and Africa. Argentina excels in cyber security, but lags in data science. Granular analysis and responses to upskilling are key.

The emergent buzz around GovTech in international development settings is welcome. We must galvanise that energy to build the social and technical foundations for public-sector digitalisation, engage the SDGs, and develop local GovTech ecosystems sustained by strong and engaged talent pipelines. GovTech can be a robust vehicle for public value creation – if we build it that way.

Dr. Tanya Filer leads the Digital State Project at the Bennett Institute, University of Cambridge. She is the author of Thinking about GovTech: A brief guide for policymakers, and advises on GovTech. She tweets @TanyaFiler.