Digital government in developing countries

Essay by Yasodara Córdova and Tiago Peixoto: “According to the World Bank’s Digital Dividends report, fewer than 20 percent of digital government projects are successes. Particularly in developing countries, these numbers are often associated with a number of challenges: limited funding, stretched implementation capacity, and political instability, to name a few. Yet, even in developing countries, despite similar conditions, some projects seem to fare better than others. Why is that? 

The projects we have worked with in the global south have followed a similar pattern. While there were successes, many projects have failed. We have learned a few things along the way, that we think relate directly to the success or failure of digital government projects. These are not scientific conclusions, they’re personal impressions based on what we’ve seen and experienced.   

1. Information first, services afterwards

A basic function of digital government is the provision of actionable information concerning public services, by they online or offline (e.g. opening hours, documents required for services, and so on). Even more so in developing countries, where most public services are in-person, paper-based, and often involve multiple steps. Yet, fueled by international rankings and benchmarks, governments are often eager to skip stages in their digital journey. This leads them to attempt, and often fail, to provide transactional digital services, before they can even learn  how to offer basic information about these services. The first step in effective transformation should be offering information to users in a simple and accessible manner. Done well, that forms a good foundation for the next step: delivering digital services.  

2. Prioritise the things that will make the biggest difference

Remember that public service delivery follows a power law distribution: a small number of services account for the vast majority of transactions with government. Which these services are will vary according to country, level of government, and models of public service delivery. When the time comes to decide where to start, don’t rely on cookie-cutter lists of services to be digitized. Instead, find out which ones are the most used, and will have the greatest impact. Start with the ones that can be delivered faster, and that are most likely to make users’ lives easier. 

3. Don’t digitise the mess

The fact that a process exists doesn’t mean it’s a good process. Transformation is an opportunity to radically rethink how things work. We’ve seen examples including, for instance, requiring multiple copies of a single document, or imposing more procedures on women than men to open a business. When there is inefficiency in a service, map the bottlenecks and think about how to streamline the process. Don’t just digitise the bottlenecks, they will keep on being an expensive problem. Resist the temptation to digitise things that should not exist in the first place. …(More)”.