The SDG Digital Investment Framework calls on countries and donors to make coordinated digital investments in order to more efficiently and effectively meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without a thorough body of evidence that supports the framework, however, the call to action is not strong enough for countries to pursue making large investments in digital. To encourage governments to prioritize coordinated and reusable digital investment, we need evidence that similar programs have worked in the past, both as an investment and as a means for SDG progress.
Following the release of the SDG Digital Investment Framework, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) started to gather this much-needed evidence. The original scope for gathering evidence was ambitious. We wanted to be able to say that there is a positive return on investment when enterprise architecture and a whole-of-government approach is used within digital transformation initiatives that target the SDGs among low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Unsurprisingly, there was very little literature that included all of these points. To move forward, we developed an evidence narrative that divides our overall research objective into four distinct steps, each one building on the previous. We hoped that gathering evidence for each step would act as a proxy for our original statement. At the end of the process, we would either have an evidence base for digital transformation or be able to identify gaps in our knowledge.
1. Enterprise architecture for e-governance can result in positive ROI
The first statement in the evidence narrative was that enterprise architecture for e-governance can result in a positive return on investment. We wanted to be able to say that whether enterprise architecture was implemented at a national or state level or within an individual department, there was evidence of a positive correlation with improved returns on investment. Our research found that e-government enterprise architecture projects resulted in tangible benefits at all levels, though there were also examples of negative returns on investment in some cases. However, these benefits may be difficult to quantify, and governments use different metrics (such as ROI, total revenue, and number of users) to assess them. Additionally, since evidence among LMICs was very limited, most of our evidence came from high-income countries. This makes it difficult to compare uses of enterprise architecture and reach a conclusion on its return on investment and the best practices to follow.
2. A whole-of-government approach increases reuse of digital infrastructure
We then proceeded to assess whether a whole-of-government approach to planning digital investments increases reuse of technical infrastructure across sectors. For example, a government may implement an identification system that can be reused to manage both citizen IDs for voting and patient IDs for healthcare. Our research identified many cases of governments aspiring to reuse technical infrastructure in their digital strategies. Often, the e-government infrastructure was designed with the end goal of reuse in mind. Reuse is a clearly stated goal, but we need more investigation into project outcomes to confirm if reuse actually takes place.
3. Enterprise architecture and whole-of-government approaches are used within digital transformation initiatives
The next step of the evidence narrative explored whether countries that launched digital transformation initiatives universally employed an enterprise architecture approach across the whole -of-government, or if there was a need to advocate for this globally. We looked at the policies of fourteen countries and found that overall, the plans included language for enterprise architecture and a whole-of-government approach. Some of the countries new to digital transformation also invoke the example of pioneers like India and Estonia for whole-of-government and enterprise architecture.
4. Governments use digital transformation to improve citizens’ well-being
The final component of our evidence narrative ties our previous enterprise architecture and whole-of-government findings back to the SDGs. We wanted to say that governments were pursuing digital transformation–and applying enterprise architecture across the whole-of-government– to improve citizen well-being by accelerating achievement of the SDGs. There are well-documented examples of some countries, such as India and Bangladesh, embracing the SDGs to improve citizen-facing public services. In these cases, SDGs are typically used as indicators in their evaluation frameworks to track progress. Although the list of countries explicitly targeting the SDGs is short, that doesn’t mean we lack examples of how digital investment can improve citizen well-being. We identified ICT plans that don’t mention the SDGs, but nonetheless focus on sectors that align with the SDG targets. What remains is to determine whether an explicit focus on the SDGs within country digital transformation policies reduces the time and cost of strengthening public services.
Next steps and call to action
The evidence provides a foundation for encouraging digital investment targeting the SDGs, but there is still more to be done. The ICT4D community can begin by documenting use cases of high possible return on investment of enterprise architecture and the application of digital investment towards improving citizen well-being. These use cases, if tailored to low- and middle-income countries, could inform a national e-governance strategy. The community also can compile metrics to measure whether an enterprise architecture initiative is a success. The resulting benchmarks could inform a monitoring and evaluation framework for an enterprise architecture pilot.What does this mean for the global community? It’s clear digital investment offers a path towards providing citizen-facing services. Given the current gaps in evidence, however, it is challenging to learn from past digital transformation initiatives in order to meet the SDG commitments by 2030. It’s well-known that digital transformation is challenging, but with coordination among stakeholders, we are better equipped to address the challenges and gaps. We invite our partners to join us in the efforts to document the outcomes of digital transformation and establish metrics to measure its success. With this knowledge, the global community will be well-equipped to support countries leveraging ICT services to achieve the SDGs.