The American DMV is famous in sitcoms as a source of angst. Many an actor has spent time in their waiting rooms, pulling out their hair and gurning for the camera.

But Argentina has shown a better way forwards. In just 65 days, they built a brand new service for digital driving licences. The speed of this is extraordinary, and is thanks to the three years they spent building a tech stack to launch new services, says Daniel Abadie, the country’s Undersecretary of Digital Government.

GovInsider interviewed Abadie about this process, understanding how government can radically restructure to create a better citizen experience.

Digital licences

In February 2019, Argentina announced that it is replacing 19 million drivers’ licences with digital ones stored on their smartphones. Drivers can use an app to access their licence details, check its status, book appointments for applications online and get reminders on the licence expiry.

At the same time, officials are using another app on their smartphones to verify licences during traffic checks. The data is secured and checked using a combination of digital verification of users and a QR code system backed by digital signatures.

The service was launched during peak travel time in Argentina, as many drive down to the coast for the summer. Talks on the project began on the first day of November when Abadie’s team met with the national agency in charge of transport security. “Our discussion was extremely simple: We are going to launch this during the summer.” The alpha delivery date was set for 15 December, and the beta was made available just five days later.

On the February morning the service was publicly launched by President Mauricio Macri, 200,000 people were checking their licences per second. The country’s digital infrastructure was near breaking point, but “it was a huge way to show government that they only thing that matters is to deliver products,” Abadie says.

The digital licences will save at least $15 million per year, which is the cost of not replacing the plastic licences that are now being phased out, according to former members of the UK Government Digital Service who worked with Abadie on the project.

The groundwork

This is a quick transformation for a government that, just four years ago, was a “paper based organisation” with “no digital strategy”, as Abadie puts it. They spent years of hidden work on building a platform and infrastructure to connect agencies, share data and ensure security. “We spent the last three years doing things below the surface,” he says.

The result of this was MiArgentina – a front end platform that verifies users’ identities, gives access to government records, manages notifications and appointments, and can be accessed via an app on smartphones. There were four key elements that went into this.

The first was a biometric digital identity system to allow Argentines to prove their credentials quickly. “We must ensure that the person logging into MiArgentina is the person we are seeing.” Citizens do a one-time setup where they take a selfie and do certain gestures, like moving their head, smiling and winking, which is checked against national records using a facial recognition algorithm.

The second was to ensure the infrastructure was built in-house by the digital government team, rather than being outsourced to vendors. The idea behind this was to ensure the core expertise and skills required for the platform are within the government.

This speeds up future adjustments to the platform and the launch of new services on top of it, Abadie says. It did, however, require a sacrifice on time: “Sometimes it’s faster, sometimes not, because you need to build a team,” says Abadie, who has recruited a team of 70. This is similar to the approach used by digital government teams across the world now, including Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Italy, Portugal, and the UK.

The third key aspect was an API gateway connecting different parts of the government and pulling data together securely into the MiArgentina platform. This allowed Abadie’s team to quickly get existing records from the national driving licence system, connect with an older web service to check expiry dates, and verify biometrics against national identity records. “Adding new services – even though those services have got a huge demand – is much easier, much more simpler. We just need to integrate an API,” Abadie says.

And the final pillar of Argentina’s approach is to research how users interact with government. “When we design our products, they are exactly what they’re expecting,” Abadie says. This isn’t a one off thing – a central tenet of Argentina’s digital team is to constantly test their services, make incremental changes to the products and “ship” code frequently.

Healthcare and national identity

Since the launch of the driving licences, Abadie’s team has been approached by agencies across the government to release their services on MiArgentina. He rattles off a list of deadlines for new products his team is building over the next few months.

A big one is going to be online health records. “Citizens will opt to allow different organisations access to their health records through MiArgentina,” he says. His team are working with the Ministry of Health to connect systems across private and public hospitals. The work started in December, with vaccination records being made available online from April and other health records by the end of June.

These will be followed by the launch of Argentina’s national identity card on the app by June. “That will be huge because it’s 44 million people – it’s our entire population,” Abadie says. Concurrently, a number of other services are being released on the app, including reminders on social benefit payments, vehicle insurance proof and disability certificates.

MiArgentina has attracted attention from neighbouring countries, with Chile and Uruguay now looking at allowing Argentine digital driving licences to be used across its borders.

GovTech in South America

Argentina’s arrival on the global GovTech scene is timed with the broader growth of digital government teams across South America. Among them is Peru, who like Argentina, Singapore and Australia, have a centralised unit reporting directly to the head of the government.

The Peru team have longer-term goals with plans to get “everything online by 2030”. Argentina instead opted for shorter timelines and smaller but more frequent updates to its services. Abadie has borrowed this approach from Mike Bracken, the founder of UK’s Government Digital Service, who built a reputation by proving that governments can build things quickly. “We need to deliver things as fast as we can,” Abadie says. “The only way digital units can survive is shipping things; by building things that work for people.”

Summer has now ended in Argentina – we managed to catch up with Abadie just after the final weekend of carnaval holidays. It’s been a busy holiday period for him and his team who’ve worked through weekends to meet deadlines for the driving licence project.

By the sounds of it, this is paying off: The digital unit has proven to line ministries that they can build digital services and build them quick – and others are now lining up to work with them.