Three months ago, we started a research study. We wanted to understand what makes digital service projects successful in African governments. We decided to do this because most – though not all – African countries are near the beginning of their digital transformation journey. They do not always have the benefit of hindsight to avoid recurring pitfalls, or adopt proven good practices. We didn’t find much published research on the topic with the exception of a few initiatives like DIAL and Smart Africa’s Listening Study on digital economy in Africa, published in October. So we decided to give it a go ourselves, as a side project.
We started by identifying over 30 digital service projects that took place over the last 5 years across the continent. We focused on citizen and business-facing services, such as one-stop-shop websites for public services, online business registration services, digital procurement services or open data websites.
We got in touch with 90 people including government officials, donors and digital service providers who were involved in these projects. So far, we have interviewed 7 people, based in 7 different countries from West Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Senegal) to East Africa (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Uganda) and South-Central Africa (Angola).
It’s a small sample size so far so we’d still like to interview more people before drawing any conclusions. Eventually, we plan to publish a report with our findings on good practices. But before then, we thought it would be useful to share some early observations, drawn from these conversations.
1. Strong support at the top political level is necessary, but not enough
All our interviewees confirmed they benefited from strong support at the top political level (often from the President or the Prime Minister) to carry out their projects. This is not very surprising considering most of them were triggered by political decisions. The publication of international rankings, such as the World Bank Doing Business index or the United Nations E-Government survey, sometimes influenced or expedited these decisions. But despite a strong political support, most managers struggled to get the commitment of other departments on cross-sectoral projects.
All the project managers we interviewed were part of a department or ministry of technology and innovation, or similar. They, nor their boss, had any decision making power over other ministries and departments. In some cases, presidential decrees were useful as they made it mandatory for departments to collaborate, or use a new cross-sectoral digital service. But as one of our interviewees put it, “there’s a long way from a piece of paper to reality”.
According to another interviewee, donors can also play a key role in managing relationships between departments. But what was highlighted the most was the need for clear, central governance, where a government digital agency has power over other departments in some predefined areas: such as cross-department platforms (for example, on digital identity, online payment processing), standards for digital services, or IT spend controls.
2. Agile ways of working are becoming widespread, but user research remains a challenge
Another similarity between the different projects we learned about was the use of iterative ways of working. All projects, without exception, started with a small-scale pilot focused on a limited number of functionalities and/or users. In some cases, these pilots made it possible to identify the need for additional key features.
Most projects were also agile in their approach to project governance. The core operational team met on a regular basis to make quick decisions, under the occasional supervision of a diverse pool of stakeholders.
However, few projects involved user research. In one of them, the government digital team met on a regular basis with non-government organisations, private companies and members of the civil society. They worked together on the development of an open data website. The project manager highlighted it was a key success factor of the project. More generally, all the project managers we interviewed acknowledged the benefits of conducting user research. But in most projects, they skipped this step because of a lack of time, or the difficulty to reach real users. When it took place, user research was usually handled by nonspecialists.
User research is still a fairly new field, and there is a lack of experts in many labour markets. It’s also more considered as a nice-to-have than a must-have for public digital service projects, therefore there is rarely a specific budget allocated to it.
3. Promising projects sometimes fail due to a lack of long-term planning and resources
When we asked about the main challenges that digital projects go through, the most common answers we received were service ownership, and budgeting for ongoing maintenance.
Most digital teams we interviewed try to develop software in-house as much as they can. They want to avoid relying on third parties to improve their digital services. However, they often lack budget. When donors are involved, they usually fund the development of a new service, but rarely its ongoing maintenance, let alone continuous improvement. Digital teams then rely on government budgets, which can fluctuate a lot from one year to the next.
The sustainability of digital services has proved to be challenging as well in cases where product or service ownership is unclear. In one of the e-services projects we looked at, the government completely lost control over an online service. Civil servants had been trained by external consultants to manage the new online service. But they changed jobs rapidly, without sharing their knowledge. In this particular case, software development, maintenance and change management had been outsourced. The lack of a leader to whom civil servants can turn to for questions, recommendations or requests on a specific service can threaten the success of a well-developed service.
These are early findings from our research project. We do not wish to publish any statistics or make generalisations at this stage because we believe we still have a lot to learn, and to share in the coming months.
Donors and Digital Government: Harvard Kennedy School/Public Digital roundtable
On a similar topic, we are organising, in partnership with the Harvard Kennedy School, a virtual roundtable discussion for donors and development partners. It will take place on Thursday 3 December and provide them with an informal opportunity to discuss different funding approaches for government digital transformation.
Our panelists, who will include digital specialists from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Omidyar Network, the Digital Impact Alliance, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Development Bank of Latin America, will answer the following questions:
- What are the pros and cons of funding platforms, projects, vendors and teams?
- How might development partners transform their own ways of working to support new funding models for digital government?
Let us know if you’re a donor and would like to take part in the discussion, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org