How Governments can use the Digital Principles to Enable Digital Transformation

In September 2018, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) published the SDG Digital Investment Framework in partnership with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). This framework calls on governments, donors, technology providers, and development practitioners to take a whole-of-society[1] and whole-of-government approach[2] to investing in and implementing digital technologies. The framework is a tool that governments and their implementing partners can use to plan their digital strategy, leverage existing and new investments in digital products across sectors, and ensure more cost-effectively delivery of digital services to citizens in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Apart from the practical value of this tool, the Framework also illustrates how practitioners can put the Principles for Digital Development – a set of nine living guidelines intended to help practitioners more thoughtfully and responsibly apply digital technologies to development programs – into action.

Five of the Digital Principles immediately stand out as central to the Digital Investment Framework: Understand the Existing Ecosystem, Reuse and Improve, Design for Scale, Be Collaborative, and Build for  Sustainability.

Some topics that the Framework addresses related to these Principles include:

Understanding the Ecosystem: Understanding what digital services and products already exist or are used in the community and country where you are working, so that you don’t unnecessarily create a new one.

Reuse and Improve: Adopting a digital product or service that is used by another government ministry, leveraging currently existing data, or ensuring your software product is interoperable to work with other platforms .

Design for Scale: Leveraging the use of an existing digital product or service across multiple projects, sectors, agencies, partners, and communities to engage citizens more directly and support long-term use and shared ownership.

Be Collaborative: Identifying partners from government, private sector, INGOs, and civil society who share common objectives and can utilize the same digital tools, resources, and data.

Build for Sustainability: Investing collectively in digital assets to reduce administrative costs and ensure maximum impact of a tool or product through investment in awareness of its existence, training on its functionality, and sustained use.

At the heart of the SDG Digital Investment Framework is advocacy for investment in common ICT Building Blocks – software components and products that can serve as a digital infrastructure that is used and leveraged across sectors. But what does this look like in practice?

DIAL recently developed a proof-of-concept to demonstrate a practical example of this coordinated and interoperable approach that takes cues from standards such as OpenHIE and successful product suites such as mHero (an integration of DHIS2, iHRIS and RapidPro).

The proof-of-concept deploys six ICT Building Blocks , using four software solutions, to demonstrate how investing in key digital building block infrastructure can provide services across sectors. Once the building blocks are implemented, they can be repurposed with minimal investment to deliver additional services across sectors. In this case, these six building blocks are addressing SDG 1, Target 1.3 and SDG 3, Target 3.1. When deployed together, these building blocks form a modular solution for managing hiring and making digital payments for community health workers and social workers in a sector-agnostic way that reduces the overall cost and complexity of maintaining additional, sector-specific solutions.

Using a building block or modular approach, such as this, demonstrates the power and potential of thoughtful and deliberate practice of the Principles for Digital Development and the SDG Digital Investment Framework. All too often, the standard approach in development to implementing a product would be to either develop a monolithic software product from scratch or purchase a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) product from a vendor. Understanding the existing ecosystem requires knowing what existing tools can provide basic components to lasting solutions. Instead of purchasing a new product, perhaps one can utilize a system already available to set up a new program , reusing and improving existing products in the T4D ecosystem and leveraging them across sectors to ensure longer-term sustainability and collaboration with other actors in the ecosystem. Embracing a sector-agnostic approach to technology solutions allows a scalable and maintainable product in the long term, as more sectors and contributors have a vested interest in the success of the jointly used or owned products. Operationalizing these five of the nine Digital Principles is crucial for government stakeholders to have a holistic view of technology use in their countries. This will help ensure that stakeholders are working collaboratively, financial investments in technology are made intelligently, and citizens (end-users) can be engaged seamlessly.

[1] “Acknowledge the contribution of and important role played by all relevant stakeholders, including individuals, families and communities, intergovernmental organizations and religious institutions, civil society, academia, the media, voluntary associations and, where and as appropriate, the private sector and industry, in support of [development goals, and] recognize the need to further support and strengthening of coordination among these stakeholders in order to improve the effectiveness of these efforts;” (Source: 2011 Political Declaration, (37))

[2] Refers to a cross-sectoral and cross-organizational consideration of individuals’ needs with reference to delivering digital services in a more integrated and coordinated manner.