Context

Governments across the world that are undertaking digital transformation have deployed the critical foundational systems of digital identity, payments and data exchanges, designated as digital public infrastructure (DPI). DPI is a pragmatic choice, particularly in developing economies. It enhances state capacity, catalyses inclusive growth and promotes efficiency, transparency, and accountability. Governments are also opting for the use of Digital Public Goods (DPGs) – primarily open source software, open standards and open content – to build DPI, which enables a collaborative and cost-effective approach to designing equitable public systems.

However, countries often face a serious shortage of technical skills within government. This impacts their ability to design, execute, maintain, monitor and evaluate progress on these projects at various stages. In short, it leads to more expensive, less effective and unsustainable DPI implementation. This can lead to continued reliance on proprietary solutions with its accompanying problems of poor interoperability, high costs and vendor lock-in.

Governments equipped with technical capacity will be able to exert strategic and operational control over mission-critical national assets that are key to a state’s functioning.

Governments equipped with technical capacity will be able to exert strategic and operational control over mission-critical national assets that are key to a state’s functioning. Supporting them in building this capacity is therefore crucial. However, it is also complex and challenging. Any such initiative must build trust and credibility with government, and avoid competition with other capacity-enhancing organisations. This report unpacks a model for capacity building in the context of these challenges and government capacity gaps.

Technical capacity for DPI projects: Key findings

We conducted semi-structured interviews with 31 experts representing stakeholders across the DPI ecosystem such as DPG providers, multilateral organisations, government officials and civil society networks, including universities. We sought to understand the technical skills required for DPI projects, skills critical for governments to host in-house, the nature of technical support demanded by governments and the modalities best suited to meet gaps in technical capabilities. We supplemented this with desk research and landscaping exercises. 

The primary insights from our consultations are: 

  • The most immediate need is for technical capacity building at an executive, senior practitioner or decision-maker level, considered as strategic technical talent. These are government officials with at least 10 years of experience who deal with external stakeholders such as vendors, and actively manage digital projects. They make consequential technical choices that can significantly impact project outcomes and require a breadth of technical understanding. These skill sets are vital for managing the lifecycle of DPI initiatives and ensuring effective implementation. 
  • Capacity building for operational roles, while important, can only be effectively delivered when leadership (in terms of technical strategic talent) is cognisant of the project or organisation- wide talent availability and gaps, informing hiring or professional development plans. While certain operational roles in government are important for the long-term sustainability of DPI initiatives, other personnel are often supplied by vendors embedded in the projects. These roles include programming, network and security, DevOps, and DPG or project-specific experience. 

The stress on strategic capacity is due to a number of factors: 

  • Governments are often unable to attract or retain talent with skill sets analogous to enterprise architects and chief digital transformation or information officers. These roles are critical for architecting solutions, defining success criteria and procurement specs, managing vendors, monitoring and evaluating projects, and addressing cyber security threats. 
  • There is little synergy between the project and implementation roadmaps created by diverse external consultants, and a country’s overall digital strategy. This leads to a lack of interoperable systems and creates a fragmented e-government landscape where every department has its own closed system. 
  • Cybersecurity training is not a priority area yet for governments, but it is increasingly crucial given the criticality of DPI, the threat of sophisticated cyber intrusions and system complexity. 
  • While many operational roles for development and maintenance can be outsourced to vendors, governments must have the ability to exercise strategic control over vendors that have access to critical government assets. They must be able to manage and understand the source code they receive to avoid vendor lock-in. 
  • Support for strategic capacity building in areas such as digital transformation, cyber security and vendor management is an urgent need. But such support depends on other critical factors, including the political appetite for digital transformation, an enabling ecosystem for capacity building and assessing the technical gaps and challenges within the government for impact- oriented interventions. 

Bridging the capacity gap

Artha Global envisions the solution as a ‘Resource Hub Network’ – a group of interconnected, demand-led, locally-owned regional ‘Hubs’ built on the principles of trust, collaboration, local ownership, sustainability and modular/flexible support. To operationalise these principles and enable rapid scaling, these hubs will be embedded in existing support networks, leveraging and supplementing their initiatives, with the objectives of:

  • Promoting good DPI by strengthening government technical capacity
  • Helping governments achieve strategic control and ownership of foundational and critical digital infrastructure
  • Building sustainable technical leadership in government for effective DPI implementations

The mandate of the Hubs will evolve as they grow, but as a starting point, it will include three categories of activities: 

  • Increasing the impact of existing technical capacity building programmes by removing funding barriers for trainees 
  • Creating new learnings pathways for government personnel by supporting existing technical capacity building institutions 
  • Expanding or creating a roster of experts to provide Just-In-Time (JIT) support 

The Resource Hub Network will address capacity gaps on two parallel tracks: JIT support that supplies technical expertise to governments, and training and certification for government personnel that institutionalises capacity to enable long-term sustainability of DPI initiatives. The Network will offer this support across both strategic and operational layers of DPI initiatives. Hubs in the Network will operate in two phases: 

  • Phase 1 (12-18 months): Collaborating with embedded networks for strategic capacity building support; expanding the impact of existing strategic capacity building programmes; and assessing capacity needs at the operational level to inform Phase 2. The learnings from this phase will help refine the direction of expansion and focus of the Hub’s medium-to-long term programme. 
  • Phase 2 (beyond 18 months): JIT support, customising/designing capacity building programmes to meet operational technical needs and catalyse emerging strategic capabilities, including those for shared infrastructure and emerging technologies. 

A Secretariat of global experts and relevant stakeholders will be constituted to guide the strategy of the Network. The Secretariat will also provide a platform for collaboration between Hubs. 

Experts recommended universities as the ideal anchor institution for regional Hubs. These anchor institutions will be tasked with scouting for new initiatives and partnerships, enriching, the body of knowledge on technical capacity in government, providing guidance for the initiatives underway, and evaluating the impact of the Hubs’ efforts. 

Challenges and measuring impact

DPI’s status as critical national infrastructure means that it is vulnerable to political economy considerations. This is further complicated by the wariness with which governments and other stakeholders view external actors such as other governments and civil society entities that are involved with the region’s digital transformation journey. Our interviewees thus emphasised the need to understand political economy challenges. These range from the difficulty of retaining technical talent in government given better financial incentives in the private sector to governments’ focus on national sovereignty in the context of DPI. 

DPI’s status as critical national infrastructure means that it is vulnerable to political economy considerations.

Keeping these exogenous factors in mind, impact should be measured by both quantitative and qualitative metrics. In addition to this, the Hubs should also institute a system of periodic monitoring and evaluation of the DPI initiatives to close the feedback loop. 

Operationalising a model Resource Hub in East Africa

We detail the Resource Hub Network’s regional support model using East Africa as a target geography, based on our analysis of determining factors: 

  1. There is high demand for project and DPG-specific skills in the region. On the supply side, raw talent is available at some universities in the region.
  2. Governments are increasingly focused on digitalisation and the use of DPI as part of their national digital strategies
  3. They emphasise the need for developing in-house capacity to have long-term strategic control of their DPI assets
  4. Mature support networks/organisations exist in multiple countries in the region, assisting governments with technical capacity for DPI projects

This is an optimal environment for the Network to establish a model Hub that can plug into the East African capacity-building ecosystem. Specific intervention opportunities include building strategic technical capacity in the identity, health and payments domains; strategic and operational JIT support in the payments domain; and expanding the reach of existing operational capacity-building programmes in the health domain. 

The recommended partnerships for the Hub cover the essential topics of strategic control of DPI, building on the efforts of organisations such as ID4Africa, which runs the Continuing Development for Identity Professionals programme for bolstering capacity in executing digital identity projects. Other recommended partners include Carnegie Mellon University Africa (cyber security for digital leaders via its Upanzi Network and CyLab initiatives) and HISP Tanzania (technical capacity for deployment of DHIS2 implementations). 

In line with the Network’s mission to bridge technical capacity gaps in a collaborative and sustainable manner, the Hub’s offerings are designed to boost the reach of existing programmes and networks. The Hub will also focus on identifying opportunities to create new pathways for government personnel wherever current resources don’t suit the public sector’s digital transformation needs. 

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