2022 Research Agenda

This document sets out our research agenda for 2022. These are the topics we would like to explore with partners - funders, co-creators, conveners - to help build a more informed public conversation around.

  • Are these the right questions and hypotheses to test? What studies have you seen address them?

  • Would you like to work with us to help answer them? Do you have funding, networks or other input that could support a joint project? Please get in touch: andrew.greenway@public.digital.

1. Digital Public Goods (DPGs)

What can and should be done to build diverse and inclusive communities and governance around Digital Public Goods? What can be learned from the governance of past open source communities or initiatives? What can be done to support the building of local communities and talent pools with the aim of reducing inequalities between countries?

Digital public goods (DPGs) are open-source software, open data, open AI models, open standards, and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm by design, and help attain the Sustainable Development Goals. Increasingly, they are viewed by multilateral agencies as a potential tool for raising the level of public service delivery in developing countries.

The world risks drifting towards digital colonialism, if digital futures are envisaged and shaped with familiar biases and inequalities. So we need to be careful. DPGs offer opportunities to strengthen local ownership and digital sovereignty, as well as scalable solutions, transparency and interoperability. However, there are factors that could inhibit their adoption. There is also a risk that the governance emerging around DPGs could encounter the same pitfalls and inequalities as the status quo.

Our first hypothesis is that diversity is key to the success and sustainability of DPGs. A diverse governance and community may create more buy-in and improve adoption. DPGs require global collaboration and regulatory frameworks for protecting human rights. Diversity in governance could help to promote open dialogue between countries with diverging views on what digital sovereignty means.

Our second hypothesis is that DPGs require local capability that needs to be developed and sustained over time. Democratic digitalisation has the potential of creating new economies across all continents. Many countries around the world, including developed ones, are struggling to regulate digital markets so that they remain competitive. DPGs aim to break digital monopolies and reduce the risk of vendor lock-in. However, the sustainability aspect of DPGs needs careful consideration so that it does not become a barrier to developing countries in the long-term. It is likely that the success of DPGs depends on building local talent and communities to develop and maintain them.

Further reading

In 2021, Public Digital published ‘Open source in government: creating the conditions for success’. This synthesised input from government decision-makers, technical experts, and funders across 4 continents. We synthesised their experiences, and set out an Open Source Capability Model for Governments. The publication was supported and funded by the Omidyar Network.

2. Funding models and economic growth

How should finance functions be adapting their people, processes and culture to better support internet-era services? Can investment in digital public services be a driver of economic growth?

To successfully design, build and sustain great digital services you need to fund them properly. When digital services are the face (and increasingly the heart) of any organisation, getting digital funding right is fundamental. One of the most overlooked reasons for the failure or poor performance of major digital and technology programmes is the way that they are funded. Budget processes that lock in annual plans or require an unattainable level of upfront certainty, and inhibit agility.

Change initiatives and IT projects in large organisations generally receive funding in time-bound allocations that are supported by a business case and approved during the annual budget. Most of the major funding decisions are made before the start of an initiative. Institutions cannot engage in digital transformation without financial reform—what we call digital funding. Some companies and governments - New South Wales in particular - have started to pivot their approach. But in general, reform of this field remains in its infancy.

Our first hypothesis is that by adopting new funding models for digital projects, public and private organisations are more likely to successfully deliver the expected benefits at lower risk. We would like to explore what can be learned from efforts so far, how organisations can go beyond funding digital/innovation units and embed a more appropriate set of funding and governance processes, and where agile funding processes lead to better financial accountability.

Further reading

In 2021, Public Digital published a report entitled ‘Fixing Digital Funding in Government’. This identified seven shifts in culture, attitude, and behaviour that are crucial for reform. The publication was a joint publication with the Boston Consulting Group, who funded the research.

There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that where governments have changed their approach to digital funding and procurement, it has delivered societal economic benefit. The greater efficiency of well-designed online public services saves citizens and businesses time and money. Reducing the barriers to entry for public sector digital and technology contracts has created greater opportunities for a more diffuse and diverse supplier base, and helped local digital talent ecosystems to mature. There is also evidence that suppliers who have grown through their public sector work are emboldened to take on larger initiatives in other sectors, increasing the impact of that government action.

Our second hypothesis is that by adopting procurement reform and new models of digital public service delivery, governments have created economic growth that is not concentrated in one region or area. We would like to explore if this success is sustainable and replicable, and what parallels might there be in countries that don’t have a pre-existing concentration of digital skills. We would also like to research how to identify and measure the economic impact of governments increasing their digital maturity and how that understanding should shape government strategy.

3. Identity

How can digital identity be a tool for inclusion? How do we establish trust among citizens when it comes to digital identity? How can we create a language that helps bridge the gap between technologists, governments and citizens?

Calvin Ma: photograph of a wire fence with a hole pushed through it

Photo by Calvin Ma on Unsplash.

Digital identity is seen as a foundational part of every internet-era economy. However, getting it right is difficult, and often highly context-specific. Digital identity is by its nature exclusionary. It is making a decision about who is eligible and who is not. It also requires the use of highly personal information (whether that be name, age, gender or fingerprints and facial recognition). Politics matters. Policy and legislation are just as important, if not more so, than the technology choices for building trust with stakeholders in the use of digital identity across the economy.

Digital identity is still something that doesn’t have a model or common language that means citizens have a mental model in their head. The challenges of trust and usability are tied to this vacuum. What does digital identity mean for citizens? Authentication, verification, identity are all words with many meanings and context specificity.

Digital identity is also often seen as a “product”, a tool to be bolted on the front of services. Concepts like Self-Sovereign ID are continuing to build on this product approach, with a promise of solving the identity problem.

Our hypothesis is that there is a more holistic approach to digital identity, that more clearly sets out how trust can change according to time and context. In reality there is no one tool that will solve everything. Trust in a digital user changes over time and current approaches to digital identity are often used to plaster over a range of difficulties that could have different answers. We would like to explore what needs digital identity solutions are trying to fulfil and how governments can approach those without assuming a one size fits all approach.

Further reading

Public Digital has published a recent series of blog posts on digital identity, covering topics including 6 questions you should ask on a digital identity project, how to control the biggest risks, and how to make digital identity inclusive.

4. Digital and sustainability

What can we learn from the internet revolution and how to do digital transformation well, that we can apply to organisations' carbon transformations and climate change response?

What is the evidence for suggesting common elements of digital strategies - such as moving services online, shifting data into the cloud - make a net reduction in emissions? How can trustworthy data and better infrastructure and practices help progress toward net zero?

As major climate events become a norm, how can digital ways of working and the adoption of digital tools and techniques accelerate the response? Who needs to be involved in solution development? How might holistic forms of design inform and shape transformative collaboration for people and the environment?

We are optimistic about carbon transformation and realistic about the current state of climate change. We see a pressing need for organisations to transform ways of working to respond quickly and effectively to crises, alongside their efforts to reach net zero targets.

Through our initial research, we have found conversations emerging around several themes: the sustainability of teams and products; the role of digital products in addressing climate change, and how they contribute to it; prioritising net zero as an outcome; and broadening conceptions of design and development lifecycles to include resource use, emissions and ecological impacts.

While technology and data continue to be primary focal points in discussions, digital ways of working are often overlooked. This may become a fatal error for people, and large organisations who seek to serve them in an era of climate change, and climate disaster.

Our core hypothesis is that carbon transformations, and responses to climate and human emergencies, will require the adoption of digital approaches and ways of working.

Three hypotheses we would like to test are:

1. As with digital transformation, there may be ‘bureaucratic hacks’ that organisations can use to incentivise and scale behavioural change towards more sustainable outcomes.

2. Much as digital service standards have helped to codify and emphasise certain approaches to the design and development of new public services, when aligned with other organisational mechanisms and processes, they may be used to scale the development of sustainable digital services.

3. Digital ways of working highlight the need to approach solution development collaboratively, with a range of disciplines and partners. Though these ways of working have been applied to digital service development thus far, we recognise that these approaches can provide models for more effective solution development in response to pressing challenges, such as climate change and emergency response.

Further reading

Public Digital has recently published an edition of Signals on sustainability.

5. Inclusivity, equity and social impact

How can we best understand and analyse the social impact of good digital transformation in a variety of economies? What does it really mean to deliver services in a user-centric way, and what difference does that make to people's lives?

Assuming digital is a blocker for those who are often excluded is too simplistic. Digital services can open up opportunities for many. However, it remains true that as more services go online there are risks that some groups in societies get left behind. In order for digital to be seen as an enabler for inclusivity and equity, it is important to consider the context of where and when it will be used. Whether it reduces or increases gaps is not only a matter of what the digital solution is, but of having a deep understanding of who it is for.

The first hypothesis we would like to test is that several developing economies have already embraced digital efforts that have enabled reductions in equality. Some African, Latin American and Asian economies have adopted notably different approaches to digital service delivery to the global north. The countries face different constraints, but also have different opportunities - some of which may allow for developing economies to ‘leap-frog’ richer nations that are carrying more technological and social legacy.

The second hypothesis we would like to explore is that certain digital solutions help narrow social gaps in some places whilst widening them in others. We would like to understand these contextual differences in more depth, and give governments and other organisations a more nuanced perspective on who might be left behind as a result of their policy, design and technology choices.

6. Welfare systems

What innovations have governments attempted to improve the service design and delivery of welfare policies? Which have proven more successful and why? By what should an internet-era welfare system’s success be measured against?

Welfare systems are becoming the focus of significant innovation, not least because delivery and policy making often has a range of intended and unintended consequences. As well as new models for the rules determining the distribution of welfare payments, governments are also experimenting with different methods of service delivery. The use of data/AI/machine learning is in some places being used to make opaque decisions about people on benefits. Moving services online can reduce some forms of friction, but also create new ones.

The first hypothesis we want to test is whether a digital service can be made sufficiently empathetic to be an effective welfare delivery system. People in receipt of benefits (including those working on low incomes) very often have extremely complicated life circumstances. Decisions by the state to provide support (financial or other) is often life changing/threatening. Intelligent systems increasingly have the potential to target that support based on multiple data points but the margins of error are dangerous. The move towards greater digital enablement of welfare services also gives rise to concern that it creates barriers to accessing services or unfair differentiation of service experience.

Welfare services are heavily used by citizens with health problems. Typically, welfare systems aim to verify and quantify the disadvantages represented by those health problems. How can future welfare systems do this empathetically and fairly and what opportunities are there for prevention/intervention.

The second hypothesis we want to explore is that labour market services and information have a role to play in digital welfare services. Welfare services can be about more than providing people with money. Typically, they attempt to provide a financial safety net alongside wider support or compulsion to move citizens closer to self-sufficiency. How labour market services/information can augment or refashion the provision of welfare is an open question in the internet-era.

Work with us

Are these the right questions and hypotheses to test? What studies have you seen address them?

Would you like to work with us to help answer them? Do you have funding, networks or other input that could support a joint project?

Please get in touch: andrew.greenway@public.digital.

Public Digital