Government digital service teams across the globe have been sorely tested by the Coronavirus crisis.
Unsurprisingly, teams benefiting from strong political support and a proven track record managed to react quickly and efficiently. Lots of media coverage was given to the work from countries like Singapore and Taiwan, but initiatives from Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Togo and Rwanda have not received as much attention.
It is time to reflect on their responses, and give them their due.
1. Sierra Leone: remembering the lessons learnt during the Ebola crisis
The case of Sierra Leone illustrates the importance of breaking silos to work collaboratively on emergency digital responses. When coronavirus arrived in Sierra Leone in March, the Directorate of Science and Technology (DSTI), together with experts from various Ministries, private companies and even NGOs such as Unicef, set up a coronavirus emergency tech response team.
They used the existing government USSD platform to keep citizens informed, and built an SMS self-assessment tool. These digital services could not have been developed successfully without involving various Ministries. It was of paramount importance for the DSTI to work closely with public health experts from the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to formulate relevant, actionable information to citizens.
Authorities later created an E-Pass to enforce travel restrictions without interfering with the distribution of essential goods. E-Pass applications were processed within 6 to 12 hours and confirmed by SMS.
The ability of the Sierra Leone government to develop user-centered services so fast is no surprise, as the country drew lessons from the Ebola crisis in 2014. At that time, the authorities struggled to pay health workers on time. It resulted in a lack of incentives for Ebola response workers, and a growing threat posed by the spread of the virus.
By digitising wage payments for 30,000 health workers in 2 weeks, the government managed to cut payment delays from a month to one week. It also saved time for key workers, who no longer needed to travel to receive cash payments.
But much has been done in the digital government field since the Ebola crisis in 2014. In 2018, President Julius Maada Bio created DSTI and appointed his first Chief Innovation Officer. A couple of months later, the country’s innovation and digital strategy was published, highlighting the importance of technology to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in Sierra Leone.
2. Bangladesh: quickly, collaboratively putting welfare first
Working collaboratively and working fast do not always go together, but digital service teams had to deliver quickly because of the urgency of the situation. In Bangladesh, the team behind a2i, the country’s digital innovation team supported by UNDP, has been working on digital payments since 2016.
In 3 years, 40% of the 4 million government workers in Bangladesh ended up being paid digitally thanks to their efforts. Their objective was to cover 90% of the government workers in 2021, but coronavirus forced them to accelerate the work. It took them only 2 weeks in March to create 2.5 million new digital payment accounts.
A2i also expanded their existing social safety net to distribute food and money to 12.5 million additional households. This would not have been possible without the foundation work a2i accomplished these past few years to develop an integrated, citizen-centric payments architecture.
The success of the Bangladesh social safety net also relied on the progressive development of local digital centres. From 150 in 2010, their number rose to nearly 6,000 in 2019 (one within 4km of every citizen). Digital centres are public or private facilities where citizens can assess digital services, such as birth registration services. During the coronavirus crisis, digital centres served as cash points for citizens with no access to the internet at home.
3. Togo: capitalising on support and using existing infrastructure
In Togo, the government created Novissi, a cash transfer scheme for vulnerable people. The main difficulty both for Bangladesh and Togo was to quickly access an updated and comprehensive database of citizens to be able to target those in need, and avoid fraud.
In Togo, the Government decided to use the voters’ ID database rather than the national ID database as it had been updated for the February 2020 elections, and comprised information on citizens’ occupations. Individuals enrolled voluntarily to Novissi, and used their voter’s card to prove their identity.
Novissi was a success and distributed nearly $20 million to over half a million people. However, it highlighted the importance and the need for digital ID systems that are both scalable and interoperable with other databases.
Like in Sierra Leone, Togo’s ability to react quickly and efficiently to the coronavirus crisis can be linked to strong political support, and trust in Cina Lawson, Minister of Posts, Digital Economy and Technological Innovations who is now working on a new 2025 digital transformation strategy for the country.
4. Rwanda: delivering across channels to reach every citizen
Rwanda made it a priority to deliver information and services adapted to its population. To be sure to reach all citizens with information on the virus, the government launched a mass communication campaign through SMS, social media, radio, television and a dedicated helpline. It even used drones to communicate with citizens in some areas.
As schools closed, Rwanda explored various ways to support learning at home. It provided students who do not have access to the internet or laptops with radio and television learning programmes. It also provided them with a USSD code to self-assess their learning. Once they selected their level of study and class, they were able to take a test for which they received a score and a short feedback. They managed to offer this service free of charge during the lockdown with the support of local telecommunications companies.
The government also used a USSD system to deliver clearance passes for people seeking to travel for essential reasons during the lockdown.
The efficiency of the digital responses to the coronavirus crisis in Rwanda did not surprise many people. The country has been known in Africa for its high-quality digital public services these past few years.
Much credit is to be given to Irembo, the team behind the one-stop portal for e-Government services. Irembo is a private company, partly owned by the government. When Irembo was founded in 2014, it struggled to hire local talents, and had to outsource some of its work to deliver digital services quickly.
With time, it hired people from the Rwandan tech scene, and neighbouring countries. This has revealed to be key, as Irembo employees have a deep knowledge and understanding of the specificities of their country, and how to best answer the needs of Rwandan citizens.
Where do we go from here?
These are just a few examples of the many inspiring responses of government digital teams. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted their importance and characteristics for success: working collaboratively and quickly for a large base of users.
There will be a pre-coronavirus and a post-coronavirus era for digital service units across the globe. Many of them have proven essential in fighting the pandemic, and won new supporters.
They will be equally indispensable during the recovery. Their ability to work across silos, to deliver at pace in times of uncertainty, and to understand the needs of citizens, have shown to be especially useful in times of crisis.
Now that we enter a transition period, governments need to strengthen their digital capabilities to face an era of accelerated digital transformation.
Claire Bedoui is Principal Consultant at Public Digital.