Learning and iterating together to safeguard DPI for the public interest

July 9, 2024
Photo: UNDP


Jordan Sandman, Principal - Investments, Co-Develop 

Raja Chandrasekharan, DPI Safeguards Advisor, UNDP


In every whole-of-society infrastructure project, there are risks, opportunities, and the need for safeguards and efforts to include communities. In the same way roads and bridges need speed limits, guardrails, and traffic signals for safety, digital public infrastructure (DPI) works best when it is built with the right safeguards. With both physical and digital public infrastructure, a community-based, participatory approach can enable everyone, especially marginalized members of a community, to benefit from it. 


This notion is central to the DPI Safeguards initiative, which is convening different stakeholders to learn and iterate together to safeguard DPI for the public interest. As part of developing a universal safeguards framework for DPI, the DPI Safeguards team at the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology (OSET) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) organized consultations with leaders from the community and civil society organizations at the UN Civil Society Summit in Nairobi, Kenya.  


Below are some insights drawn from discussions with the participants on safe and inclusive DPI design, implementation, and monitoring: 


1. Take time to build societal trust in DPI – it can accelerate adoption in the long run

The cadence of implementing DPI is an important consideration when DPI is being designed. For governments seeking to scale DPI to drive inclusion and impact, ensuring adequate time for adoption is important so that everyone in society has ample time to adapt to new systems. During a transition, communities need to learn about new systems, how to gain access to them, and how to use them. Taking a participatory approach fosters trust in the infrastructure and the government implementing changes. Digitizing existing practices without assessing risks, such as how to include those with limited internet access, can create barriers to access and ultimately be counterproductive to adoption. 


An effective approach may involve ensuring time, resources, and alternative parallel analog options are available to communities as they transition to digital systems. It is critical to ensure that people who are living with disabilities, those who may not yet have digital literacy, and others living in rural areas or low-income communities are included in a change process when DPI is being designed. Additionally, campaigns to inform communities through trusted civic, religious, and cultural leaders can foster trust and safety in digital tools developed for use in communities. 


2. Dedicate resources towards supporting and including at-risk communities

The per capita cost of DPI deployment and enrolment is unlikely to be equal across communities. Factors such as connectivity, digital literacy, and distance to service points may prevent access for vulnerable groups. To build trust, governments should consider being intentional about their outreach during a DPI deployment and devoting additional resources to communities that face barriers to access. Likewise, investment and finance related multilateral systems ought to give safeguards greater importance when deploying financing for society-wide development programmes. 


Access to services: The cost of accessing DPI, inadequate understanding of these systems, misinformation, and the opportunity cost of lost livelihood may prevent people from transitioning to DPI-enabled services. If countries want to drive universal inclusion, these gaps will need to be filled in a way that takes into account the local context and the realities of the communities they seek to improve. A majority of Kenyans live in rural areas, with large distances between them and various service points. When seeking to enroll in a digital ID, the cost of travel to the enrollment centre often comes with economic risks. In an instance where there may have been recent changes in the system, there is also the risk that an individual may not successfully access service upon arrival. Therefore governments implementing DPI projects should account for these uncertainties, for example, extending grace and resources for community members in certain geographies that are farther away from service centres. Creative solutions such as mobile enrollment agents may also be able to meet needs. Such investments should be accounted for in the cost and design of the overall project to ensure inclusion is deliberate and well thought through. 


Designing for the most vulnerable: Some groups such as refugees or those who experience statelessness (who are already excluded by paper-based systems) may be subjected to digital systems that prevent informal workarounds. For example, digital systems that are not thoughtfully deployed can prevent people from accessing education or healthcare services. While DPI project implementers are not likely to be responsible for policies that exclude those without local nationality, they must be given the tools to employ alternatives when they encounter exceptions in the systems to mitigate the potential impact of those policies. It is critical to design for exceptions in an effort to redress and resolve access for those who are already experiencing a myriad of other vulnerabilities such as statelessness. DPI must not cause new forms of exclusion and strong grievance redressal mechanisms should be made available for timely resolutions. These critical elements need to be thought through upfront as well as throughout the journey, upholding the dignity and human rights of people first, above all else. 


3. Bring consultation and project design to the village level

Civil society organizations representing local communities generally want to adopt a constructive approach to DPI projects. They want greater agency to speak for people they represent, working as partners with governments and other implementers of DPI. At the same time, they need avenues for engagement with government entities. Having meaningful consultations is a critical tool to successfully deploying DPI. Incorporating the feedback that representatives from local communities offer can help win confidence that is essential to build trust required for scaling DPI to the last mile. But doing so requires dedicated public resources to hold ongoing consultations in communities and a mechanism to synthesize feedback and translate it into actionable recommendations for policy change. Development partners can drive these outcomes by creating standards for meaningful consultations that go beyond process metrics, and analyze whether public engagement strategies are building trust with local communities. These can then be measured through adoption, as communities that trust DPI are also likely to use them. 


4. Promote transparency and measurement for public engagement

Public interest actors need access to information about DPI deployments to properly fill their role as advocates. Ensuring they have a view on which service providers or development partners are working on DPI projects, what their contracts stipulate, and how to continuously foster accountability and transparency throughout the life-cycle of the project in an effort to build public trust. All DPI projects need tools for measuring individuals who are excluded and an assessment of the impact of that exclusion, such as whether it is preventing access to public or private services. For example, the costs of exclusion of one system can result in one being unable to access other services. As an example, being unable to secure a digital ID may result in one being unable to secure banking services, voter ID, a drivers license, a passport, or several other services. 


5. The work to uphold safeguards is ongoing

Communities are more likely to embrace DPI deployments that include, and are perceived to include, robust safeguards. Systems that are less susceptible to leaks that cause fraud or threaten data protection and user privacy will have an easier time gaining public trust. Once built, trust has to be maintained over decades. Countries must ensure that they have pathways to redress inevitable mistakes and protect users whose information has been compromised. They must also have an agile response mechanism that incorporates emerging changes as user needs evolve and grow.


Safety and inclusion are not merely targets that can be achieved – they are reservoirs that need to be constantly replenished. Iterating based on emerging trends and experiences from countries around the world is also an intrinsic part of digital learning as exchanges of lessons and experiences in the digital sphere is inevitable. While the local context remains imperative for evolving needs, the influences beyond immediate communities invite DPI designers to think about how lessons from across the globe can be translated to enhance DPI in similar contexts. The world has a critical window to universalize safe and inclusive practices for population scale DPI, however civil society organizations were unanimous in pointing out that principles are not enough. Moving beyond principles, actors need more tools, examples, processes, and practices to assess adherence not just whether they were doing things right, but if they were doing the right things. 


As we look towards the Summit of the Future in September, the release of the DPI Safeguards’ interim report highlights the urgent need for guardrails while presenting an actionable framework to guide implementation. There are several best practices for building safeguards outlined in the report. A few of them discussed during the consultations included: user protection safeguards such as two-factor authentication and notifications to individuals when their data has been accessed, tokenization of identity numbers, ongoing data privacy reviews, and regulatory and legal frameworks for data use and storage. 


The interim report is open for public feedback and the safeguards team welcomes further opportunities to share the report and engage with those interested in furthering and improving the DPI Safeguards Framework. Adopting safeguards is a behavioral and mindset change, and civil society organizations in particular are important value-adding partners that are needed along the way. We thank the ones in Kenya and elsewhere that have contributed to the DPI Safeguards multistakeholder process.


The authors are part of the DPI Safeguards initiative, working to bring together diverse voices to develop a safeguards framework to guide DPI design and implementation around the world. ​