Implementing DPI: Key takeaways from a multistakeholder workshop in Bangalore, India

June 12, 2023
Photo: UNDP

Alena Klatte, Global Project Manager – Data to Policy, Chief Digital Office, UNDP 
Tania Zaroubi, Senior Digital Transformation Advisor, Government of Lebanon  

Digital transformation can improve how governments deliver public services, but much of the success will depend on having an inclusive digital infrastructure in place, including relevant systems, technologies and processes. A shared means to many ends, digital public infrastructure (DPI) has emerged as an enabler of digital transformation given its suite of open, interoperable and adaptable digital building blocks. But what does building such an infrastructure take?  

This was the overarching question that guided the discussions at a recent workshop in Bangalore, India focused on digital payments, a foundational DPI. It was hosted by the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore (IIIT-B) in collaboration with G2P Connect and Co-Develop. The participants included representatives from 25 countries, alongside technology providers and a range of experts working in the digital development space.

Taking a whole-of-society approach to digital transformation, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been supporting countries in designing and implementing inclusive and rights-based DPI. One of these countries, Lebanon, was also present at the workshop and reflected on its ongoing digital transformation journey. Here we recap three main takeaways from the workshop discussions. 

1. Countries need a new approach to ensure sustainable digital development  

Many countries are racing to build their digital infrastructure. However, building this infrastructure from scratch can be a massive undertaking for any government and requires significant investments. For example, the worldwide government IT spending in 2022 was about US$ 550 billion, the majority of which was spent in high-income countries. At the same time, the amount of government aid that low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) received from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for that same year was only around US$ 215 billion.  

The financial crisis that Lebanon is facing today emphasizes the importance of sustainable digital development. From software fees and hardware maintenance, to retaining a qualified team with the technical know-how to ensure systems remain secure and functional, the Government is dealing with a major resource availability challenge. This is where DPI has a huge potential to step in as a more sustainable and affordable approach for providing services at scale.

For instance, a foundational DPI such as digital payments can enable interoperability and smooth functioning between payment rails (platforms mediating the transfer of money between senders and recipients), financial custodians (e.g. banking institutions) and the digital payment applications used by people, thereby limiting service interruptions. Further integrating this payment DPI with digital ID could also facilitate government-to-person payments for those in need amidst the country’s current crisis.

2. Beyond the technology, governments and the international development community need a mindset shift

In building a digital public infrastructure, government entities must discern the appropriate technological solutions and establish suitable layers of governance. However, having the right mindset within government departments is paramount, veering away from isolated units towards transparent collaboration. Rather than developing distinct IT systems across various ministries (or even within the same ministry), policymakers need to reach consensus on a common digital framework that is open and interoperable. At the same time, this effort may introduce the challenge of unclear responsibilities and accountability among ministries.  

A good-practice approach to address this concern involves the formation or designation of a nodal agency, such as a digital agency or an ICT ministry, entrusted with the implementation. For example, in Lebanon the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform is the designated nodal agency overseeing the implementation of the strategy. Nonetheless, the willingness of all the relevant stakeholders to embrace it and come aboard did not come by default. This nodal agency has been working to foster collaboration and get buy-in from other government institutions and the Prime Minister’s Office to effectively implement and sustain this model. Their efforts have included taking a human centred design approach to ensure the needs and pain points of end users within governments are considered, as well as promoting a learning-by-doing environment for faster adoption and mindset change.  

The responsibility, however, does not fall squarely with governments. Key actors in the international development community also have a part to play. A more collaborative approach ought to be taken to break down silos and improve coordination for collective impact. As DPI gains momentum in the global arena, similarly, perspectives must shift towards more widespread knowledge sharing and coordinated financing to ensure all countries – regardless of income category -- can reap the benefits of DPI. 

3. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to DPI implementation 

Countries are at different stages of their digital transformation journey, and they exist within different political, economic and social contexts with various needs. The ambition to build better, more integrated services that are centred on people might be a driver for some countries.  

For example, where digital portals already exist or are being created to facilitate public service delivery, an interoperable infrastructure may be built for better integration. This is what David Eaves and others would describe as the ‘come in high’ model. The ‘come in low’ approach on the other hand may start from the need to facilitate data exchange between public entities, leading countries to establish a standardized, interoperable and secure data system.

Being in the early phase of its digital transformation journey, the DPI first approach is particularly promising in Lebanon. Furthermore, the need to respond to pressing issues during the current financial crisis can fast track ideas and innovations. The Government can invest in building the foundational blocks such as digital ID, digital payment and data exchange systems upon which a range of applications and services can be built. 

Looking ahead

DPI is a fast-evolving concept and is already demonstrating great potential for sustainable digital development. Governments, donors, and players in the private sector and civil society alike have an opportunity to seize the moment and act proactively. Digital transformation will not happen overnight, and implementation will surely require an inclusive approach backed by strong governance and dedicated investments. Insights from the workshop showed, as in Lebanon’s case, that commitment and cooperation across society and among countries is needed at every step of digital transformation process!

Learn more about UNDP’s DPI agenda and our global support for countries like Lebanon in their digital transformation journey.  

The authors would like to thank Dwayne Carruthers (Strategic Communications Specialist, UNDP, Chief Digital Office) for his support.