In the first Ministerial Roundtable addressing the role of government services and content in driving digital transformation, moderated with refreshing energy by ITU’s Nur Sulyna Abdullah, discussions focused on maintaining the momentum of digital adoption in the post COVID-19 era, the importance of national strategies uniting all areas of government – and the urgent need to extend access, skills and services to close the digital divide.
“Digital transformation is a journey that all countries are embarking on,” said ITU’s Abdullah. Even before the pandemic, governments, businesses and individuals were already embracing digital platforms, products and services. The catalyzing impact of COVID-19 has driven unprecedented numbers online for work, study, entertainment, communication, healthcare and other services.
But this is not the case for everyone, everywhere. Marginalized groups in particular run the risk of being left behind. “Many of the structural inequalities and underlying disparities between developed and developing nation have been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic, “ she pointed out, reminding panelists that “we have a collective responsibility to make sure that it is an inclusive digital world, one where the enormous opportunities and benefits of digital transformation are available to all.”
That responsibility is driven, inspired or guided by government. “I believe that governments have a major role to play not only in harnessing digital services but also in driving their demand,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. Working with the industry and other stakeholders, governments must develop new ways to engage with the public, provide impactful citizen-centric solutions and ensure that access and opportunity are available to all. “Never before have ICTs had such an important place in people’s lives,” he reminded participants.
Reinventing government: digital transformation
Highlighting how his job function alone is recognition of his government’s new approach to digital transformation, Iurie Turcanu, the first-ever Deputy Prime Minister for Digitalization, Moldova, recognised the importance of digitalization in staying competitive as a nation and retaining citizens otherwise forced to seek work abroad.
Following the experiences of the past two years, Moldova is reinventing public services from the ground up, rethinking them completely from a citizen perspective to be adaptive and user friendly. This is very important to connect the many Moldovans living abroad who may otherwise find themselves isolated from families, people and the state.
“Public services have to be digital first,” he said. The government is also re-examining the role of SMEs, simplifying their interaction with state to drive economic growth; and introducing e democracy tools and principles to allow people to participate in the daily process of government decisions through an open transparent platform, open data and APIs. No one should be isolated from this process, so digital awareness and digital literacy are key priorities.
Young people are encouraged to work with the elderly to explain how to use digital service and access government and private sector content. “We are witnessing a great connection between generations,” he said, as part of a successful process of digital consciousness and transformation.
Whereas in the past, the development potential of a country or economy was determined by geographic position and natural resources, it is human potential, human skills and the ability to take advantage of a networked world that now drive success, said Vojin Mitrovic, Minister of Communications and Transport, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The difficult experience of COVID-19 has led to a better understanding of the significance and impact of digitalization on the transformation of societies throughout the world, he added. “Digitalization is a paradigm shift in modern society,” and ultra-fast broadband, in addition to strong state support, regional cooperation and collaboration between all public and private stakeholders, is crucial to its delivery. Government must develop digital services, knowledge and skills to enable all citizens to contribute to a single digital society, integrating regional activities and trends.
“There is a long way ahead for the development of a global digital society, so it is good to encourage dialogue and concrete cooperation to use the full potential of digital technologies for the benefit of all citizens,” he concluded.
The digitalization of government services paves the way to making those services more efficient and convenient, highlighted Eisa Zarepour, Minister, Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Iran. But what is called for is more than just smart services, ICTs should be used to reform public processes and institutions to provide agile, transparent, accountable and responsible government.
In Iran, this includes the use of open data and APIs to foster local innovation; utilizing AI for online authentication of government service users; connecting national government services to a central information exchange; and using new technologies such as 5G, AI, big data and IoT for smart government and greater wellbeing and convenience throughout society.
“Although COVID-19 had a great negative effect on humanity, we used the need to develop online services during the pandemic as an opportunity to expand and improve our e government services,” he said.
Currently more than 300 government agencies are connected to the national data exchange platform, sharing more than 500 types of public services and processing more than 2 billion government transactions to date, he pointed out. In addition, online education serving 15 million students and general healthcare services are provided via high-quality reliable connectivity throughout the country, including to 80% of rural areas.
Pre-pandemic digital strategies paid off
Rwanda also witnessed a dramatic uptake in digital services and content shaped by the global pandemic, stressed Paula Ingabire, Minister of ICT and Innovation, building on the government’s commitment to digital technology and ICT innovation as key drivers of growth. Over the past twenty years, Rwanda has steadily rolled out its fibre optic backbone network to provide last mile connectivity solutions and services to private sector offices, hospitals, schools and homes.
Digital education is growing more and more as students turn to online platforms to complement classroom meetings. The use of cashless or digital payment services exploded during the pandemic, growing tenfold within a year. “These are gains which we as policy makers would like to sustain post-pandemic,” she said, focusing on the need to maintain the uptake of digital services and content rather than returning to traditional ways of doing business.
Given their importance in the economy as a whole, the ongoing digitalization of SMEs is a priority in the private sector. In terms of digital government services, “the digitization process allowed us to streamline service delivery”, she explained, making citizen access to important documentation such as birth certificates simpler, more cost effective and efficient. The next step is to further improve- or even remove- some of the processes themselves in the digital environment –the need for birth certificates as identification, for example.
Despite these endeavours, the digital divide remains a challenge, reaching the unconnected, enabling those without the skills to benefit from connectivity, or those unable to afford the relatively high cost of broadband services and devices. Building on the lessons learnt and gains in adoption precipitated by the pandemic, the government of Rwanda aims to consolidate investment, open up data for SMEs to build relevant and targeted solutions, continuously improve the regulatory environment and ensure a conducive operating environment for entrepreneurs and the private sector in general to innovate agilely and with effect.
In addition to regulatory frameworks and funding, human resources are also important to bridge the divide, she added. To increase digital skills uptake, Rwanda has a programme of digital ambassadors training citizens in different communities in addition to government efforts to mainstream digital literacy programmes at every educational level. “Mobilizing awareness is a critical role of government. Digital transformation is a paradigm shift and we need an unprecedented level of coordination for no one to be left behind,” she concluded.
“The strengthening of digital society has helped us throughout the pandemic, and the strategy of our government from a few years ago has borne fruit in these difficult years,” explained Janusz Cieszyński, Secretary of State, Government Plenipotentiary for Cybersecurity, Poland. Having invested heavily in e-services and infrastructure, Poland has worked with EU funding and the cooperation of the private sector to provide broadband internet access throughout the country, connecting households and schools ahead of the 2030 European Digital Compass targets.
Launching one popular government service drives the adoption of other services, he said, pointing to the successful uptake of the national cloud-based vaccine campaign that has led to progress in e healthcare solutions in general. “The pandemic is a sandbox for all sorts of e health solutions,” and the government now hopes to build on its experience to deliver e health care solutions as an important part of the Polish economy as well as a future export product.
“Digitalization is the key to developing our country, in the heart of all government strategies,” he summed up. The three key pillars of digital strategy are providing excellent e services, broadband internet for all and guaranteeing security of all solutions. “There is no future with the digital component.”
Holistic, whole of government approach
For Oshada Senanayake, Director General of Telecommunications Regulatory Commission & Chairman /ICT Agency, Sri Lanka, a whole of government, holistic approach is essential for digital transformation. He outlined his government’s vision of a digital, inclusive Sri Lanka driven by a smart society and future economy, built on institutional governance and committed leadership from the very top.
The key regulatory mandate, he explained, is to address digital infrastructure deployment, based on a national universal service fund programme and tower infrastructure sharing to accelerate and catalyse rural broadband infrastructure roll out and address the digital divide. He emphasized the importance of having initiated this programme before the outbreak of COVID-19, enabling the country to better face and adapt to the challenges of the pandemic. Sri Lanka aims to have covered all 25 districts across the island, providing 100% broadband connectivity, by 2023.
Yet, connectivity alone is never enough, and despite the “tremendous adoption” of digital services in deep rural areas within weeks of providing access, digital literacy, digital skills and relevant content are critical pieces of the digital transformation picture. Alignment between industry players and the regulator has enabled free broadband access to all government school learning systems and university platforms – an emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis which has now been made permanent.
The digital transformation of government services depends on a sector based approach, where technology and health experts, or technology and education authorities, work hand in hand rather than in silos. “Government has a huge role to play in unifying efforts for digital transformation,” he said. “A whole of government approach is imperative to transform public services and provide much needed citizens services online.”
Cybersecurity and industry regulation have been brought under one authority in Sri Lanka as part of efforts to adapt legislation to the digital environment. This includes private protection acts for data, developed with global partners, and a cybersecurity bill. Governance, data and privacy are important parts of the holistic approach to digital transformation.
Sustaining digital healthcare services
COVID-19 was a wake-up call to all countries and health systems, explained Ann Aerts, Head, Novartis Foundation. Developed and developing economies alike were completely unprepared to address the needs of the pandemic on top of existing issues of increasing inequities in global development, aging populations, the rising tide of chronic diseases and the burden of infectious diseases.
But COVID-19 provided an opportunity. “The rapid update of healthcare gained ten years in a few months,” she said, stressing the need for the unprecedented collaboration between sectors and disciplines that arose under such exceptional circumstances to be maintained once the crisis has passed. “This is what it will take to really change the health care system and reimagine it from reactive to proactive and even predictive, to keep populations healthy.”
She called upon governments to consider digital technologies as a chance to deliver healthcare services in a new way, as part of a holistic approach to digitalizing lives. Visionary leadership and committed, sustained funding are need to transform and digitalize health services, drawing on the resources of the entire government ecosystem to deploy infrastructure, data, advanced technologies such as AI and 5G as well as, critically, a digitally skilled workforce and target population.
Regulatory and governance systems must adapt to keep people safe whilst keeping up with innovation, she added. Health service innovations should be driven by the needs of specific countries and populations, human centric and integrated into existing systems, even if disruptive. Echoing her fellow panelists, Aerts called for intersectoral collaboration between public and private sectors, and also between government departments such as health and economy ministries. Health is the basis of all economies, and during the pandemic, “access to digital services could be a question of life and death, not a luxury. We have to transform health systems to be ready to deliver in the digital era” – addressing the healthcare divide as well as the digital divide.
Mobile and SMEs first
It is important for governments to actively explore and support technology policy options to mitigate the risk of digital divide and pursue initiatives to bring more and more of the urban as well as rural poor into this digital world,” said Erik Ekudden, CTO, Ericsson. Broadband network connectivity is critical to provide essential services such as healthcare and education, and keep commerce going. High performance mobile broadband like 4G and 5G, anchored in global standards, is best suited to achieve universal connectivity given the predominance of mobile access, the economies of scale it produces, its complementarity with FWA and relatively low carbon footprint.
But investing in infrastructure is not enough, as despite ongoing efforts aiming to cover 90% of the global population with 4G networks by 2025, a large usage gap remains. Governments must work to overcome the socio-economic barriers to internet adoption through government initiatives on awareness and the provision of relevant service and content in local languages in critical areas such as health, education and community centres.
He urged governments to adopt a mobile first mentality, to attract global capital for national investment and create new regulatory and policy environments supporting network build out. These should include spectrum policies providing regulatory certainty, low spectrum fees, technology neutral spectrum licencing to use market forces to provide scale, and voluntary spectrum trading to open up underserved areas and combine with state utility infrastructure to accelerate broadband adoption. “This journey to a more permanent physical-digital hybrid world that we foresee needs to be more inclusive, and we need to work cross sectorally to speed up across the world,” he added.
For Anders Aeroe, Director, Division of Enterprises and Institutions, ITC, the move to a new digital normal has happened at impressive speed, spurred on by the need to ensure business continuity and education, in particular, under pandemic conditions. But not everyone is included in digital transformation and the lack of affordable reliable connectivity is the main roadblock.
Connecting the unconnected calls for more investment in infrastructure; a reduction in the costs of internet data especially in developing markets, where lack of competition, market size and limitations has led to high rates; and improving the use and relevant connectivity by building digital skills and connecting SMEs to digital markets.
“If SMEs are not connected to digital solutions, the benefits of these technologies will not be shared broadly across companies,” he said. To be competitive in the new digital reality, SMEs need a strong supportive ecosystem and related conducive policies supporting access to connectivity and solutions.
Multi-lateral actions are also essential as national governments alone cannot fully address the complex cross border features of the digital landscape. “The power of digital technology can only reach its full potential if no one is left behind. Affordable and reliable connectivity is therefore everyone’s business.”
The main challenges to the uptake of digital services in the post-pandemic world, panelists agreed, are developing infrastructure both nationally and regionally, putting in place government structures and legislation to enable digital transformation, improving affordability and increasing digital skills at all levels.
It is important to have experts in the field serving digital transformation, especially at the start of the process, noted the Bosnian minister.
The diversity of needs and varying pace of digital evolution in different geographies, societies and groups of people must also be addressed, added Moldova’s Turcanu .
Building on the explosion in digital awareness brought about by the pandemic also presents tremendous opportunities: to rethink the relationship between the state and technology, resetting public administration; to drive a high growth economy, built overwhelmingly around SMEs; and to sustain and extend the rapid adoption citizen-centric solutions in e government, e health and e education services in particular.
The principle challenge is to bridge the digital divide to enable equitable and inclusive digital transformation. “Digital is not an option or a luxury,” Moderator Abdullah reminded the panelists. It is a necessity, and one that can only be achieved for all the world’s citizens if all stakeholders join together in cooperation and collaboration – after all, “there is no going back on the digital road,” and no one must be left behind.