From the ‘business as usual’ to an innovative approach that brings new partnerships and opportunities
Since February this year, all that humanitarian organizations in Serbia need to do to collect food donations for those in need is visit a web site where all foodstuffs available for donation are visible, click and order. Yes, just like we all do when ordering a meal online. Only, this is the very first digital platform for food donations in Serbia.
So, what does this have to do with our story? The platform named ‘Plate by plate’, a joint initiative of the biggest supermarket chain in the country - Delhaize Serbia, and UNDP in Serbia, was developed from scratch by the UNDP County Office (CO) ICT Unit. We based it on blockchain technology so the whole process of food donations is traceable from the first step to the last, which makes it more transparent and secure.
But wait, you might say, isn’t ICT in the office all about fixing daily issues with IT equipment and, lately, Zoom support? Since when do we design web platforms, and why?
To answer this question, I need to go few years back, to 2017. At that time, our ICT unit had a ‘usual’ setup within the UNDP CO. We were providing services like user- and conferencing support, maintaining office intranet, local network and equipment, to name a few. Our small team of two (for a CO staff of 100+) had previous experience in software development, which we used to build in-house systems and automations, including the intranet, which we still use in our CO.
As a Head of this team, I was at the center of all programmatic and operational ICT and digital activities. I had insight into spending on various software products and, thanks to my previous software development experience, was aware of the amount of work, time, and resources our external vendors spent to deliver their digital products and services. Beneficiaries of most projects in our CO needed digital solutions, whether it was a web portal, e-learning tool, web database, ICT system or a mobile app. While supporting program colleagues to procure these products, we noticed that companies on the market are oftentimes overcharging for their services.
An analysis about spending for digital services for the 3-year period (2015-2017) showed us that it amounted to 300.000 USD per year for 20 projects, with an increasing trend. This made us think about implementing one part of these activities in-house, instead of outsourcing, to make savings in project budgets. The premise was that if the ICT unit could do the same work and be cheaper than the market - that would enable our program colleagues to do more for less.
In addition to expected savings, we asked ourselves: If we offer our services and expertise, will that inspire and empower our colleagues to be more confident in the digital area when meeting partners and negotiating new projects?
In 2017, the Government of Serbia (GoS) announced digitalization as one of its long-term core priorities, so we also wondered: could we provide digital services to the Government and other UNDP partners and become trusted Government partner of choice in the digital area?
Our idea of in-house digital services was a bit revolutionary, as it has not been tested in any other UNDP CO before. We had no way of knowing how it would go, but we felt that the timing was right and believed that we can implement it successfully.
Since the ‘standard model of working’ was to rely only on external support for design and implementation of digital services, whether through consultants or companies, there was some resistance to the idea from both within the team, and within the office. This resistance came down to one question: why would we complicate our lives by trying something new and un-tested, instead of just continuing with the ‘business as usual’?
Fortunately, experimenting with this new approach did not require investing additional resources, other than our time and good will. We tested the concept and tried it at small scale first.
The initial step was to implement some of the digital projects in-house during a one-year ‘test’ period, using existing ICT unit capacities and software development knowledge. Our first challenge was to convince program colleagues to work with us, instead of the digital service providers on the market. To overcome this challenge, we relied solely on the trust we built among the colleagues, since, apart from a few internally developed applications, we had nothing to prove that the concept could work.
In the first, ‘test’ year, our ICT unit completely developed 3 web portals and one web database for project partners and managed to cost-recover the services. We implemented these digital solutions with the same quality and for price up to three times lower than on the market, with highly positive feedback from our program colleagues and project partners. Our experiment was a success!
Soon after, the concept of in-house digital services within ICT unit was embraced and supported by the whole Country Office.
Next step for us was to scale up the team to respond to an increasing demand for our services, tackle more complex requests and offer more options. That is how the Tech Cell team was formed.
From that moment on, our team had a great flexibility to experiment with diverse digital products and offer new services to our government partners.
Fast forward to 2021: In three and a half years we implemented more than 30 digital projects, contributed to the design of new CO digital initiatives, and substantially strengthened the position of our office when it comes to the digital solutions.
The ICT team expanded to five of us and is financially completely self-sustainable. More than that, we are creating income and demand since projects within the office are more than willing to pay for our service because it is higher quality and more cost-effective than the one offered by providers on the market. What gave us the edge is the extensive experience of working on UNDP projects and being integrated into the team. This is why we understand very well the needs of our clients, from a development perspective.
In parallel, UNDP Serbia became a core partner to Government in digitalization initiatives and interventions.
Most recently, to give you a flavor of our work, we developed two mobile apps: ‘Tax Alarm’ for the Tax Administration of the Ministry of Finance and ‘Remove the illegal dumpsite!’, for the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). These apps enable individuals to report tax offenses and illegal dumpsites in Serbia easily and anonymously.
Our team also contributed to the implementation of the Open Data portal, which makes the open data of public institutions in Serbia available to citizens, private and civil sector.
We also came up with a digital solution custom-made for local parliaments in Serbia, called the E-parliament, that allows assemblies to hold sessions in a digital format. This solution is continuously adapted by Tech Cell, contributing greatly to the digitalization efforts in Serbian municipalities.
Internally, our program colleagues are more confident to propose new digital initiatives and interventions in various areas, knowing that a highly skilled technological unit will support them in any situation, in a fast and agile manner.
There is no need for complex project documents or tender processes. The work and development of digital interventions starts as soon as ideas are generated.
By having this in-house capacity, our projects are digital by default. In parallel with the establishment of the Tech Cell, our office has built two more important pillars of our digital space – we have an advisor for digital governance and a strong portfolio of projects focused on digitalization. By working together, we provide a strong package of digital support and services to the country.
As good news travels fast, the partnerships now span to other UNDP country offices, as well as regional and global UNDP units. Tech Cell is listed on corporate e-Store of digital services, allowing UNDP clients around the world to work with us. This experience only emphasized the fact that these services are very much needed across our organization.
The innovative concept of our Tech Cell is aligned with the UNDP corporate digital strategy that set several important goals for our organization.
I believe that true digital transformation of the organization requires diverse expertise with sophisticated skills and the hybrid (both in-house and outsourced) model of services. If we want to become and remain “digital by default” and embed digital across our programming at the country and HQ levels, we need this kind of in-house services across the board.
As for us in Serbia - we are here for the other teams, ready to share our experience and help them grow.