Emerging lessons from UNDP Country Offices - Digital Public Infrastructure Safeguards

April 26, 2024
Photo: UNDP

Emrys Schoemaker, Senior Expert on Technology and Democracy
Rachel Chang, Inclusive Digital Transformation Consultant
Raja Chandrasekharan, DPI Safeguards Advisory Consultant


The announcement by the United Nations of multi-stakeholder working groups for Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) Safeguards marks a significant step in developing a framework that is safe, inclusive and contributes to the advancement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The  44 members of these working groups - six in total - are already assembled. They are focusing on designing a framework for the safe and inclusive implementation of DPI in countries, moving from theory to practice so that countries can find useful ways to integrate DPI in their current digital transformation efforts. 

As part of the in-country track (one of three areas that the DPI Safeguards initiative focuses on), consultations were held with UNDP Country Offices. Below are some of the early lessons  that we uncovered.

1. Key takeaways 

The DPI team began initial consultations with representatives from 12 UNDP Country Offices in January 2024. Out of the countries consulted, five were from Latin America and the Caribbean:  Dominica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago and Uruguay; one was from the African region: namely Malawi; and the other six countries were from the Asia Pacific region: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nauru, Samoa, Sri Lanka and Vanuatu. The initial consultation aimed to deepen the understanding of the different views of a DPI approach, the various risks and opportunities that have emerged from the use of those different approaches, and the stakeholders involved in the implementation.

One clear lesson that emerged is the importance of embedding the DPI Safeguards framework within current digital transformation efforts. There are already several of these efforts that countries have invested in. Governments are more likely to agree to adopt DPIs if they can support existing investments.

Many of the challenges in developing a useful and usable framework mirror those faced by existing, broader digital transformation efforts, and therefore a secondary and immediate benefit of integrating DPI safeguards with existing frameworks is the transfer of knowledge of what already works in particular country contexts.

Part of what makes these initial consultations a pivotal exercise are the insights gathered from questions that countries brought forth during discussions. Four pressing questions helped clarify the DPI Safeguards processes, and they are outlined below, along with the current insights gathered from consulted members. These answers will continue to evolve as subsequent consultations are conducted.

2. Critical questions 

Question 1: How should we think about the definition of DPI for the framework to be as useful as possible for countries?

There are already several DPI frameworks being used by countries, from the G20 working definition to DPGA/GovStack definitions, among others. The evolving definition of DPI brings varied perspectives which has implications for operationalizing. A core tenet of what makes DPI work is how countries can derive value from any given framework by adapting them to the country specific context. 

This requires flexibility in implementation strategies. Therefore, a strict, prescriptive approach to digital transformation will only make the implementation rigid and ineffective. DPI implementation can thus take place within existing processes, approaches and technologies, many of which have established risk, compliance and protection requirements laying out the foundation for success.

To be effective, DPI safeguards need to complement, align and support existing frameworks.

There was consensus and clarity among those consulted that there is value in learning from existing risk mitigation and protection measures that tackle common DPI risks. More importantly, these existing DPI definitions and their subsequent measures can be deployed and integrated as the working group develops the safeguard frameworks for country implementation.

Question 2:  How can the DPI Safeguards framework be tailored to address the unique needs and challenges of broader digital transformation efforts within specific country contexts?

DPI implementation efforts in countries are intertwined with broader digital transformation efforts because these initiatives do not happen in isolation; rather, they operate within existing political environments and ongoing digital implementation investments. The lifecycle is not linear and emphasizes that “no country is starting from scratch.” 

Most laws related to technology are from the 70’s and 80’s and do not cater to the full breadth of digital technologies and systems that are currently operating or being advanced. They need modernization. DPI require policies, practices, and systems, including regulations, procurement standards, and technical aspects, that are interoperable. These often have established risks. DPI safeguarding frameworks deployment are often tied to investment and procurement compliance, such as donor related investments, as well as the environmental, social, and governance dimensions of private investment. For DPIs to work they require long term investments that marry these different facets to serve the needs of the country.

A robust DPI Safeguards framework must do more than address existing needs to effectively support safe and inclusive digital transformation, it must articulate a clear value proposition for countries to want to adopt it.

It must therefore ensure it is aligned with stakeholders' priorities, offers tangible solutions for current and emerging challenges, and secures the investments to realize DPI implementation. By understanding and addressing these needs, the DPI framework can facilitate meaningful progress towards safe and inclusive digital transformation.

Question 3: What are the capacity requirements needed to support the successful implementation of a DPI Safeguards framework? 

Digital capacity gaps, from understanding new technologies to digital procurement practices, are a significant barrier to DPI adoption and indeed to all digital transformation efforts. Country offices have reported lacking the bandwidth and capacity, especially around risk management, indicating an area that needs substantial support. 

The requests for assistance are to support countries to abide by standards and get ‘DPI’s right’ at every stage of implementation.

Strengthening capacity, and developing country capability to make intelligent, informed decisions about approaches to digital transformation is a strategic way for the UN to fulfill its role as a neutral broker.

Furthermore, the UN is invested in advocating for the benefits of DPI and the adoption of a DPI Safeguards framework. 

Question 4: Who are the users or implementers of DPI Safeguards? What are their motivations and at what point in the journey can they influence/embed safeguards? 

Understanding the intended users of the DPI framework and their motivations for use is crucial for ensuring safety and inclusivity in their DPI implementation. These consultations revealed various stakeholders and implementers in digital transformation, and their involvement varies based on the project type and implementation stage, as well as their understanding and alignment with DPI. 

Recognizing this nuance is vital for effective engagement so that implementers can find specific entry points to influence and engage in the process. For example, users can include government, civil society, and private sector stakeholders as well as development actors - and each has different roles in the DPI lifecycles, as well as different interests and priorities. Identifying these are critical to successful engagement and implementation efforts.

Engage with us

The initial consultations were the first step in learning, and as we engage with a broader set of implementation partners such as CSOs (Civil Society Organizations), other multilaterals, the private sector, and others. The process is public. We welcome feedback and suggestions. 

Share case studies: Although we have compiled a growing resource repository from both the public and stakeholders on frameworks and case studies, we aim to deepen our understanding of the DPI implementation space by continuously gathering input from the community, particularly those actively engaged in digital transformation initiatives, and more specifically, in DPI. We welcome your thoughts, suggestions, and contributions. If you would like to share additional case studies or resources, please share them with us here

Share existing frameworks: With the collected frameworks, we have started mapping and analyzing the existing framing related to DPI and digital transformation by identifying common elements and gaps, to explore how the DPI framework can complement them. If you would like to share any DPI related frameworks with us, please share them here.

We also know that there is so much experience and insight from those already working on digital transformation. We are inviting inputs from implementers across the DPI implementation lifecycle to enrich the Working Groups’ efforts and align on thinking. These implementers include:

  • The International Organizations Consultative Group (IOCG), consisting of entities engaged in implementing and shaping development agendas globally, regionally, and locally, at either country or state levels. 

  • Country practitioners, government officials, policymakers, donors, CSOs, academic institutions, and the private sector through consultations, convenings, and workshops. 

The journey to develop the DPI Safeguards framework has only just begun. We know that there are many questions that need further exploration, and more questions will emerge. We are heartened by the response and interest in developing this agenda. We also know that there is so much more expertise and insight that we need to learn from. This is a journey that we invite you to join us on as we work to develop guidance and support to ensure that DPI and digital transformation is rights-based, safe and inclusive.