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Can Policymakers Get Ahead of the Technology Curve?

Kay McGowan — Co-founder, Future State
Jonathan Dolan — Insights Lead, Future State
Workshop participants visit an Irembo Service Center in the Ntarama Sector of Rwanda to experience the country’s innovative public-private partnership to digitize common public services.

As the World Wide Web celebrates its 30th birthday this year, much has been made about the risks of the connected world. At Future State, we are committed to building resources and knowledge to support policymakers who aspire to foster inclusive and competitive digital economies in which personal data is a driver of innovation in public service delivery and individual empowerment.

That’s why we were proud to partner with Smart Africa, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, to conduct our inaugural Digital Transformation Master Class, which brought together policymaker cohorts from Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya, Djibouti and Gabon in March to begin to tackle these challenges governments have in implementing digital transformation programs. The 4-day course introduced Future State’s PACT Framework, which offers a values-based lens as an anchor for digital policymaking by focusing on an Individual’s Participation, Agency, Choice, and Trust in the digital ecosystem. The course explored in depth the experiences of India and Estonia in investing in the platforms and policies that have bestowed their citizens with new rights and capabilities.

This values-led training model was without a doubt experimental — a fact we were very open about from the start — so we were thrilled to see participants begin to reflect on how the course would influence their work:

  • A participant from one Ministry of Communications noted that she has long seen data portability as an intractable problem and had previously struggled to see a solution. After learning about the data-sharing policies, protocols, and practices introduced in India, she was inspired to return to her country to make the case to the relevant regulatory bodies, including her own colleagues at the Ministry of Communications, that individuals should have the fundamental right to move their data from one platform to another.
  • Another participant from a National Communications Authority noted that her country has both a Competition Authority, which promotes and protects healthy markets, and a Communications Authority and that these two regulatory bodies have distinct visions that can at times be at odds, e.g. in assessing the country’s position of zero-rated serviceswhich have been shown to drive online activity (participation) while potentially constraining individuals’ interest in availing themselves of the full open internet (agency). She saw the PACT Framework as a way to equip herself and her colleagues with vocabulary to evaluate trade-offs in difficult policy decisions, and she highlighted how the framework would help her focus less on digitization outcomes and more on what those outcomes mean for people.

Despite the great energy around these types of observations and ideas throughout the week, participants universally acknowledged the challenges in translating them into sustained action within their governments. Our partners identified immediate and specific opportunities to support them in creating ambitious but achievable plans for implementing these types of observations and early ideas:

  1. Creating tools to help ask policymakers the right questions. Government partners can be equipped with ways to assess how their choices will impact the fundamental characteristics of the digital future. Ultimately, the PACT Framework is not intended to provide “right” and “wrong” answers to policymakers but rather offer value-based guideposts for tough decisions.
  2. Developing infrastructure for dynamic, ongoing peer learning. The participating cohorts all started the week articulating with similar technology policy priorities — ones that aligned closely with traditional digital development agenda of the last decade, i.e. expanded connectivity infrastructure, affordability of service, and digital skills. Yet, over the course of the week, it became clear that many were also grappling with more frontier issues like individual data rights, data privacy, and digital identity. There was a strong desire to learn from experts in successful government experiences, like those of India and Estonia, and to cultivate peer learnings opportunities within the context of the workshop as well as more broadly moving forward.
  3. Building whole-of-government coalitions for digital transformation. One colleague from a Ministry of Communications explained that “each ministry operates on its own island” making it difficult to create a shared vision for the digital future. Given there is no one authority on technology and data, support to governments must be directed across a variety of partners including, for example, ICT ministries, telecommunications regulators, CIO offices within line ministries, Digital Coordination Units and other entities. Almost all workshop participants encouraged future participation from Ministries of Finance given their critical role in funding digital strategies.

We believe deeply that there is an opportunity to build a collaborative network of expert-practitioners “Digital Leaders” around the world anchored in a shared vision of a digital future that works for people by mitigating the inherent risks of digitization and maximizing the potential to drive inclusive growth and empower individuals.

This post was adapted from a piece that originally appeared on Medium in April 2019 and reposted with permission.

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