The DPG Charter: Key takeaways on building policymaker capacity to adopt and govern digital public infrastructure

Throughout Summer 2022, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) held a series of consultations in partnership with the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) and other partners to inform the scope and substance of the Digital Public Goods (DPG) Charter. Read the introductory and first blogs of this series for more background and context.


Key Insights

1. Adopting digital public goods to fill key gaps in national tech stacks is a paradigm shift that requires significant investment in policy, legal, and technical capacity.

2. Systems integrators can have a critical role in increasing the ability of governments to adopt open-source, but often lack the capacity to deploy them and maintain those systems on behalf of governments.

3. Government prioritization of open-source solutions can spur job creation and strengthen local technology ecosystems, but deploying and maintaining such technologies is challenging without a robust, local technology workforce.


Background

Digital public goods offer significant potential to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by packaging existing (open) software, data, content, AI models, and standards for reuse by others.

Despite this promise, practitioners and industry stakeholders alike identify numerous practical challenges that must be addressed before open-source solutions and standards can play a meaningful role in digital transformation designed to improve the lives of people. To meet this moment, the DPG Charter will mobilize commitments to ensure that governments and local private sector actors are empowered to plan, regulate, manage, and evolve digital public infrastructure in line with national strategies.

Our most recent consultations brought together global organizations, the Digital Principles community network, systems integrators, and government policymakers to probe constraints to DPG adoption by governments. Insights surfaced through these consultations centered on the critical need to invest in public and private sector capacity to create the talent pools required for governments to successfully and sustainably adopt, maintain, and govern DPGs.

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Insight #1: Adopting digital public goods to fill key gaps in national tech stacks is a paradigm shift that requires significant investment in policy, legal, and technical capacity.

Every country has unique requirements and needs for their digital public infrastructure. Because of these requirements, as well as unique experiences and resource constraints, national governments end up experimenting with alternative approaches to building digital infrastructure and delivering public services digitally.

“It is very clear there is a need to raise awareness of what does open-source mean, what does it mean to the vendor, what does it mean to the people using it, what does it mean to the nation.”

Historically, most governments have been accustomed to using proprietary systems (closed systems owned and managed by private companies) or hiring a local company to build a custom system. Due to a legacy of outsourcing technology development, there is a lack of broad-based experience with using — let alone contributing to — open-source software, standards, and protocols within governments, requiring a paradigm shift around building country capacity.

While there are many issues in building country capacity, but the two that were highlighted most prominently were related to policymaking and regulation.

  • Policymaking: There are challenges in managing and coordinating open-source knowledge and capacity, often due to a lack of policies and actors to help steward open-source policies. Without national policies on open-source or bridge actors who can connect governments and other stakeholders on open-source, the capacity to build digital public infrastructure will remain low and be misaligned with broader initiatives.
  • Regulation: Countries have different legislative and regulatory frameworks in place to govern digital infrastructure, data, and systems. This makes capacity-building and use of best practices challenging, as countries vary widely in their regulation across these areas.

Moving forward, our consultations suggest that building the capacity required for countries to more easily and confidently adopt open-source solutions requires efforts on several fronts:

  • Mapping demand and capacity for digital public goods within government. Some resources, like the DPG Accelerator Guide, exist to help practitioners engage in these conversations.
  • Highlight the concrete outcomes associated with the use of digital public infrastructure. This could include support for local entrepreneurs, job creation, or increased cost-efficiency, and it goes a long way towards making the case for investing in digital public infrastructure. Similarly, assessing the opportunities costs–both financial and in terms of unrealized socio-economic gains–incurred by failing to build interoperable platforms would be a powerful argument to spur political will. 
  • Invest in setting up open-source policies and Open Source Programme Offices (OSPOs) to help manage relationships with the open-source ecosystems they depend on. Given the open-source nature of digital public goods and their centrality to digital public infrastructure, OSPOs within and outside of governments can provide crucial coordination for local open-source ecosystems, building capacity in the process.

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Insight #2: Systems integrators can have a critical role in increasing the ability of governments to adopt open-source, but often lack the capacity to deploy them and maintain those systems on behalf of governments.

Without the name of a large established private company, policymakers are hesitant to bet on an open-source platform. Even when a good investment is made, it might be hard for them to get governments to make a commitment to open, platform-based government when they are uncertain of how to deal with potential challenges in deploying those solutions.

This is why systems integrators — or service providers deploying solutions on behalf of governments — become critical. Because proprietary platforms are supported by large networks of systems integrators, policymakers often see less of a political imperative to switch to using digital public goods. In turn, systems integrators’ capabilities and knowledge of digital public goods will remain low, as they become accustomed to working with proprietary systems. 

This creates a feedback loop that is difficult to change. While we have previously addressed government capacity, equally important is the fact that systems integrators frequently lack the capacity necessary to support governments in deploying and maintaining open-source technology. Many in our consultations expressed hope that governments can play a leading role in pushing systems integrators to change, even as they recognized that change would fall to the companies themselves.

“What we hear from some of the other countries — and also the countries interested in open-source software — is that they’re concerned first and foremost that the systems integrators have adequate capability and knowledge to implement [open-source]. Likewise, they’re concerned that international SIs may not be interested in a genuine partnership with local SIs. [T]here’s a strong interest in how to develop opportunities for local systems integrators.”

Improving the capacity of systems integrators requires both changing perceptions of the role of systems integrators, and building knowledge and awareness around open-source.

  • Changing perceptions: Governments, both through relationships and through contracts, can push systems integrators to change their business models. With a nudge from government, and the corresponding financial incentives associated with that change, governments may be able to push these service providers to see themselves not just as contractors, but as experts, partners, and advisors that can help governments to meet their requirements using a wide range of solutions, including open-source technology, to add value.
  • Building knowledge and awareness: Some pointed out that service providers often simply need knowledge and awareness of digital public goods. Once they see a market opportunity and increased demand for digital public goods, the diversification of business models will actually be quite easy. Governments must show interest in building genuine partnerships with systems integrators, as well as giving them the tools and knowledge they need.

So, how can systems integrators become more suited to supporting digital public goods? Our consultations suggested the following:

  • All ecosystem actors should demonstrate a value proposition for systems integrators to support open-source deployments. By demonstrating a commitment to open-source, governments can make clear that systems integrators will continue to play a role in those digital ecosystems. Ultimately, though, it will fall to the companies themselves to make a case and provide solutions for this transition.
  • Systems integrators should develop new business models to aid with the transition to increasing use of open-source technology. While there are technical, legal, and financial challenges, leaving them unaddressed will make adoption a difficult value proposition for governments, or only an option in situations where there is no existing platform. While the burden of transitioning should fall to the service providers themselves, policymakers and other ecosystem actors can provide clear signals around the commercial opportunities associated with increasing use of open-source.
  • Governments can invest in the capacity of systems integrators to help build credibility and prepare them for contracts. This could include, for example, training and capacity-building initiatives alongside governments; better procurement guidance for service providers bidding on contracts; and continued forums for dialogue and knowledge exchange. Such steps would help to improve two-way communication and strengthen open digital ecosystems over time.

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Insight #3: Government prioritization of open-source solutions can spur job creation and strengthen local technology ecosystems, but deploying and maintaining such technologies is challenging without a robust, local technology workforce.

As policymakers increasingly put their reputations on the line and make the case for using digital public goods, it is critical to ensure they have the talent and expertise they need to make their digital public infrastructure both feasible and sustainable.

“It’s one thing to develop your solutions, [but] supporting and maintaining them if you don’t have a vibrant and developing IT industry becomes even more costly. So, you have to look at this on the other side by ensuring that your small tech IT industry is being developed and supported so that it can do that.”

Our consultations found that a robust, local digital workforce is critical for building and deploying foundational digital public infrastructure in countries. With a network of local talent that is trained to design, deploy, maintain, and grow digital systems, many believe that governments can better maintain digital public infrastructure and ensure that it benefits society.

But what are the advantages of building a local digital workforce for digital public goods and infrastructure? Investment in capacity building for local talent supports two outcomes: improving maintenance of open-source systems and strengthening job creation and local innovation.

  • Improving maintenance of open-source systems: Local capacity-building strengthens the ability of governments and their partners to ensure that local deployments are successful. It means that their employees can contribute code, better document product iterations, share product improvements or new modules, and adapt digital public goods to local needs and requirements. This also makes it easier for other governments and digital public goods to reuse these improvements — a key benefit of open platforms.
  • Strengthening job creation and local innovation: By including local universities and institutions in a new paradigm around open-source, as well as bringing in new talent and entrepreneurs, local technical support ecosystems emerge that are more diversified and better able to use digital public goods. This improves deployments and core products, but also develops the capacity of local actors, uses that capacity to drive local innovation around open-source, and spurs job creation.

How can both of these outcomes be realized? Our consultations suggested some actions for how governments and other players could strengthen collaboration:

  • Strengthening local talent pipelines by creating incentives for individuals to move into the public sector can help governments. This will help to build a virtuous cycle that will improve capacity for deploying digital public goods and infrastructure in the medium- to long-term. Work with multi-stakeholder efforts like the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) to increase awareness of this need and promote active collaboration.
  • Expand and incentivize the use of open-source technology in university training and curricula. This can lead to longer-term financial sustainability and increasing the likelihood of successful digital public goods and digital public infrastructure deployments. It will also help mature the local digital ecosystem and create a long-term pool of talent for governments and their partners to draw from.
  • Emphasize that local capacity building supports one deployment and one product, while also contributing to workforce development. A focus both on immediate needs and long-term benefits around digital capacity will help to ensure that governments get what they need while being able to sustain their investments in digital public goods and infrastructure over the long-term.

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These insights and practical next steps are invaluable to catalyzing effective commitments through the DPG Charter, which imagines  a world where everyone has access to education,  health care, and the essential services they need not only to survive, but to thrive. Digital products, particularly those that are open-source and designed for the SDGs, can help us make that a reality, if we work together.

With immense gratitude to those who participated in the consultative process, we look forward to sharing more insights through this blog series with you in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!