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DPI critical to effective digital transformation in government

DPI critical to effective digital transformation in government

Robert Opp, chief digital officer of UNDP emphasizes the importance of viewing DPI as the digital equivalent of physical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.

In a session at ID4Africa 2024, experts convened to explore the transformative potential of Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) in government digitalization. The discussion, moderated by Dr. Joseph Atick, Executive Chairman of ID4Africa, featured a multi-perspective panel discussion that delved into various aspects of DPI and its role in digital transformation.

“Digital public infrastructure consists of the digital components that facilitate the delivery of public services, business development, and data utilization,” Opp explains. He highlights digital identity as a core piece of DPI, noting its critical role in enabling interoperability and governance.

To further illustrate, Opp draws an analogy with everyday technology. “Consider how your smartphone, manufactured by companies like Apple or Samsung, runs an operating system such as iOS or Android. You use apps like WhatsApp, Signal, or Discord on various provider networks to communicate globally. This is enabled by three foundational DPIs: GPS, mobile communications, and the internet. Each has distinct governance structures but shares interoperability and innovation facilitation.”

The discussion delved into the choices and architectural options available to governments in creating integrated DPIs, examining the necessary capacity requirements, associated risks, safeguards, sustainability considerations, and interoperability constraints. Each pathway’s varying levels of effort and time were also a focal point, providing a comprehensive view of the complexities involved in implementing DPI.

Governance in DPI

Dr. Kanwaljit Singh, senior program officer, DPI, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation underscores the fundamental role of governance in DPI. “Governance lies at the core of what DPI is,” he states, stressing that it is not an afterthought but a crucial element that ensures interoperability, safeguards, and the shared usage of digital resources. He pointed out that effective governance enables different entities to build and innovate on top of the DPI framework.

Singh highlights the evolution of foundational DPIs like GPS, mobile communications, and the internet, emphasizing their governance structures’ uniqueness and the ecosystem’s ability to innovate on top of them. “When GPS was first envisioned, nobody thought about Uber or food delivery apps. The ecosystem learned to innovate on top of a DPI, preserving properties like interoperability and ecosystem innovation,” he notes.

Governance and innovation

Nanjira Sambuli, fellow, technology and international affairs program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace addresses concerns about new terminologies and their impact on existing work. “DPI is not entirely new; it’s a shift in thinking. The anxiety around DPI arises because it seems like a new concept overshadowing years of digitization efforts,” she says. Sambuli emphasizes the importance of building on past achievements and ensuring that new technologies serve citizens effectively.

The session underscores the critical role of DPI in driving effective digital transformation in government. Innovation is often a product of diverse use cases that no single entity can fully predict. According to the panel discussion, for these innovative ideas to flourish, DPIs must be accessible and designed to foster such creativity. Three key components for an ideal DPI environment include political will, ownership, and capacity building, alongside active engagement with the community to ensure the DPI is truly for the people.

The panel also discussed the governance of DPIs, looking to examples like the internet governance ecosystem, which has managed multi-stakeholder involvement. The critical question is whether DPI can enable leapfrogging, helping millions of Africans who currently lack legal identity or access to financial services.

An emerging question is whether it’s time to establish international standards for DPI governance. While not quite at the stage of formal standards, there are efforts to develop a framework for DPI safeguards, involving principles and best practices, according to the session.

Opp’s example of Bangladesh illustrates how countries can bootstrap themselves up and successfully implement DPIs. However, he also emphasizes the importance of offering countries choices in how they approach DPI implementation. Whether building from scratch, purchasing from vendors, or leveraging digital public goods, countries need options tailored to their specific circumstances.

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