Accelerating National Digital Transformation: Announcing the First in DIAL’s New Series of Leadership Briefs

Today, DIAL released the first in our new series of Leadership Briefs, which set out our takeaways on key digital development topics. DIAL’s first brief covers national digital transformation, a central concept to our 2021-25 Strategy. In the coming months we’ll publish briefs on other key areas, including responsible data use, financing and procurement, and leaving no-one behind in strategic digital investments.

In this first brief, we look at responsible investment in digital transformation from the perspective of global alignment around national digital transformation agendas, a concept we also explored in our recent Strategic Dialogue at the Concordia Annual Summit. Specifically, we focus on the role of government as a driver; whole-of-society approaches to agenda setting; the role of regional platforms and strategies; and global alignment and investment.

Here is some context of how we came to this point and why we believe this type of understanding is important in the digital development ecosystem.

Developing our understanding of national digital transformation

Our work on supporting national digital transformation is part of our broader strategic shift towards targeted country support and a focus on national digital transformation driven by whole-of-society approaches.

Over time, our thinking in this area has evolved as we have worked to understand barriers that governments face as they seek to implement the cross-sector approaches to technology procurement, investment, and implementation, which we outlined in our 2019 SDG Digital Investment Framework (ICT4SDG). That framework set out to make it easier for implementers and governments to understand how to put together technology solutions for use cases under any SDG goal using interoperable technology stacks or building blocks. Our Catalog of Digital Solutions evolved this to provide an interactive way for navigating that framework making it easy for governments, NGOs, or international organizations to navigate the crowded marketplace of products and find technology products that meet their needs.

In seeking to better understand the challenges countries are grappling with, we also conducted a Listening Study in partnership with Smart Africa and gathered experts and representatives of donors and country governments. Additionally, we undertook a landscape review process to better understand the existing frameworks on digital transformation, ultimately prioritizing 30 frameworks for review. While we did find areas of conceptual overlap where there seems to be a consensus about the importance of some of the factors that support or inhibit digital transformation, more work is required to attempt an overarching articulation of the most important elements. (If you would like to hear more about this work in progress, get in touch with us at info@digitalimpactalliance.org.)

Our study and the review demonstrated how many actors are promoting and advocating for different understandings of digital transformation, adding to fragmentation and confusion in the supporting ecosystem. We believe digital transformation at the country level is best understood as a process or journey with a wide range of possible outcomes, which may be determined by the priorities of both government and society more broadly. Going forward, we are interested in how civil society can help hold governments to account for the governance and outcomes of that journey, which will be a focus of some of our research next year.

Setting and promoting a national digital transformation agenda

All this study and review this year brought us back to what we already knew to be true; namely, that countries must be in the driver’s seat of whole-of-society, long-term digital investments and capacity-building, supported by global alignment around national agendas as well as regional platforms and strategies.

Our Listening Study partners Smart Africa are working with members to unlock the full value of the digital economy. Global partnerships like the Digital Public Goods Alliance are working to identify pathfinder countries and channel demand-driven resources into country-level digitalization activities. In Rwanda, GIZ is establishing a new model for digital cooperation and scaling those solutions up to the national, regional, and even global levels through a National Digital Transformation Center in Kigali. And Future State, a partner at the UN Foundation, is establishing a peer learning network around data governance.

But, we must go further. Our call for national ownership and agenda-setting is not new, but we stress the power and importance of innovative country-led partnerships, support for regional bodies and initiatives, and coordinated financing mechanisms. Together, the global digital ecosystem must strive to be more flexible, demand-driven, and respectful of national digital sovereignty, and thereby help accelerate national digital transformation in pursuit of the SDGs, and a positive impact on the lives of communities.