DPI accelerates digital economies by building the ‘roads and railways’ #FOI2024

By Yong Shu Chiang

Carmen Raal, Digital Transformation Advisor, e-Estonia, and Calum Handforth, Digital Programmes Strategic Manager, UNDP, shared how digital public infrastructure could accelerate digital development in Southeast Asia at the recent Festival of Innovation 2024.

E-Estonia's Carmen Raal (centre) was joined by GovInsider's Yogesh Hirdaramani (left) and UNDP's Calum Handforth on stage at Festival of Innovation 2024, to discuss the potential for DPI to kickstart digital economic development in countries around the world. Image: Festival of Innovation 2024

In 2023, more than 50 per cent of Estonian citizens voted on their computers – the Baltic nation is the only country in the world that allows online electoral voting at a national level.


Estonia was able to roll out online voting since 2005 because it had started building its digital infrastructure in the late 1990s, according to Carmen Raal, Digital Transformation Advisor at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre. In the early 2000s, the country deployed digital ID (eID) and digital signature.


“In order to achieve something like that, you need a strong [digital] infrastructure and… interoperability,” she said. “You have to be able to identify people first, and you need data to see who’s eligible for what government service.”


Speaking at a digital public infrastructure (DPI) fireside chat at GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation on 27 March, Raal shared that the Estonian government’s digital transformation journey, which has seen “99.99 per cent” of its government services digitalised, has not always been smooth.


As the country’s government agencies started making agreements to exchange data, the situation became problematic, Raal said.


“Because we had data leaks, it was hard for us to make sure that [agencies] abided by cybersecurity standards, and that only the necessary amount of data was being exchanged. And there was a lot of duplication happening.”


Fast forward two decades later, Estonia today has a secure data exchange platform, X-Road, that connects over 450 public- and private-sector organisations, and enables more than 3,000 digital services for residents and businesses.


And more than 20 countries around the world, including Cambodia, Brazil, Finland, and Namibia, are now adapting X-Road through open source to suit the needs of their local contexts.

The ‘roads and railways’ of digital economies

Handforth said that many countries were embarking on DPI pilots, as part of a country-led movement known as the 50-in-5 campaign. Image: Festival of Innovation 2024

Calum Handforth, Digital Programmes Strategic Manager at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), characterised DPI as “very much akin to roads and railways” – the foundational and catalytic infrastructure for digital economies.


Much like highways can enable both private and public transport options, interoperable DPI systems can enable public and private innovations.


At a session moderated by Yogesh Hirdaramani, Senior Reporter and Head of Production for GovInsider, Raal noted that DPI enables governments to build up digital solutions for the benefit of their people.


Hirdaramani highlighted that in 2023, the G20 group of nations identified DPI, including digital identity, digital payments, and data exchange, as critical technology to enable digital development.


“Many countries are now embarking on DPI pilots with a view of scaling up and rolling out nationwide DPI systems within the next few years,” he said.


This was in reference to the United Nations’ 50-in-5 campaign, a country-led movement to help 50 countries pilot and scale DPI projects in the next five years.


Handforth also contextualised the impact that DPI can have: not only for entire countries or  economies, but also towards the 17 sustainable development goals, or SDGs, that are not currently on track to meet targets by 2030.


“We’re not looking to do this in small silos or in very defined and discrete use cases,” he said. “DPI for us is tech, it’s governance and it’s ecosystem. It’s all for public benefit.


“So, if we really want to deliver a better world for everyone, we need to make sure this stuff actually works, and it works at the biggest scales we can deliver as well.”


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‘Structures don’t collaborate, people do’


Raal highlighted transparency and its chilling effect on corruption as welcome implications of implementing secure data exchange as part of government digital transformation.


“I have had the privilege of working with people all around the world who are super passionate about digitalisation, and they told me that oftentimes, some decision-makers do not go ahead with digital transformation because it makes corruption way more difficult than before,” she said.


“Decisions cannot happen in a vacuum anymore, as you have to take data from different databases that are governed by different agencies.”


Raal added that it may be a while before leaders in certain countries want to enact change to adopt DPI and make the lives of citizens better. She urged countries to start their digital transformation journeys as soon as possible.


“The true benefits of DPI take time to show,” she said. “I mean, structures don’t collaborate, people do. So having the right leadership… for some countries, that might actually be the biggest struggle.”


Representatives from the Centre for Digital Public Infrastructure previously told GovInsider that the ability to navigate politics and build coalition is a critical success factor for DPI projects.

Getting started 


Handforth, formerly a public servant in the United Kingdom government, said that for many governments, “digital is still often siloed away to IT teams and not often seen as a fundamental tool of policy, of service design and of delivery as well.”


In his work with UNDP, he said that promoting sustainable DPI often means taking stakeholders “on a journey” and showing how UNDP helps countries build the skills and knowledge around digital transformation case studies from around the world.


“We try to demonstrate where DPI has worked well in other settings. One of my favourite statistics from Estonia is how X-Road saves about 800 years, every single year, in terms of processing time, civil servant time, public time and so on. 


“We work with leaders to support them and highlight that often failure is going to happen, but then how do we actually build their resilience and their support network around that failure.


“It sounds terrifying. How do you build a national digital railway for your entire country tomorrow?” he said.


Clearly, digital government does not happen overnight. Handforth suggested to the audience that a sound approach is finding a particular service to digitalise and build standards around it.


"By picking a service or an entry point for DPI, you build a culture, you build the standards, the delivery aspects and the policies and processes around it.


“But it takes time to do that as well.”


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