Getting Digital service right in Africa: starting with the basics

As part of my work in our International Development team, I’ve interviewed 20  people who have been involved in African digital services projects. This post summarise what I have learnt. 

Some public service projects are doomed to fail even before getting started, no matter how good the team and approach. This series of blog posts starts with three basics that can determine whether a project succeeds or fails:

  1. Choosing projects based on their impact and feasibility

  2. Ensuring projects are funded beyond their development phase

  3. Empowering digital teams to take and enforce decisions

1. Choose projects based on their impact and feasibility

Governments want to launch digital service projects for many reasons – and they’re not all good. Our interviewees mentioned three main reasons why digital government projects started. Many were started following:

  1. A recently published national digital strategy.

  2. A poor ranking in international indices, like the UN E-Government Development Index or the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business.

  3. A suggestion from a development partner.

In one case, a digital team assessed which projects had the best chance succeeding, and adding most value to people’s lives. Ministries and government organisations approached it looking for help and expertise. The team decided which projects were kicked-off and worked on, based on a clear set of impact and feasibility criteria. That particular team had been recently created, and was focusing on small-scale projects, and it had been given a lot of leeway to operate.

We found that where the project idea comes from doesn’t determine whether it will be successful or not – the success or failure is more related to whether it exists to meet a user need. If not, the service is more likely to be shunned by its expected users.

We heard of a few service projects that had been prioritised because they were expected to be a source of income for governments. We can’t blame governments for showing their preference for this type of project but prioritising income generation over meeting real user needs means the project will fail, and eventually waste public money. The core objective of digital public services is not to make money, but to make people's lives easier. The more satisfied users a service can get, the better it is. It strengthens citizens’ trust in institutions, which is the best return on investment governments can expect.

Feasibility is another thing which affects whether a digital service project is given the go-ahead. Decision-makers consider how challenging it will be to build a service within a set of constraints (usually relating to people and budget). But other parameters may come into play too. For example, most interviewees found that coordinating a wide range of stakeholders is challenging, especially when there is not a clear or efficient project governance in place. The more government organisations are involved in a project, the more they struggle to make and enforce quick decisions Yet this does not mean complex projects aren’t worth pursuing. Cross-government projects often have the greatest impact. To maximise chances of success, large and complex projects can be divided into smaller pieces. Starting small allows for quickly testing governance schemes, delivering quick wins and building momentum among stakeholders.

A project is also more feasible if it can reduce effort and investment by drawing on existing infrastructure, platforms, data, designs, or patterns. This is most likely to happen when there’s a coordinated approach to digital transformation at the government level. However, our research confirmed that many digital service projects are still operated in silos. This is often a result of a lack of effective governance in place to deal with cross-government infrastructure and platforms. Very often, there is also a variety of development partners working on a variety of projects, without great coherence. This can result in missed synergies, and duplication of efforts.

2. Ensure services are funded beyond their development phase

We asked interviewees what they struggled most with in the digital service projects they led. In the development phase, money never came up as an issue. Yet, in the live phase, once services were up and running, it came up a lot. Some services – despite meeting user needs and having been developed in the right way – became very hard to sustain due to a lack of budget and a lack of planning for sustainability.

Out of the 8 service projects we looked at during our 20 interviews, the services that were funded by development partner agencies (rather than governments) were only allocated money to the development phase. There was no plan to support services once they entered the live phase. Maintenance and continuous improvement costs weren’t taken into account. Services had to rely on internal budgets which were often under-estimated and highly variable from one year to the next. One interviewee told us about an online business registration service that stopped being used, because mice had eaten computer cables. There was no budget for new hardware, so the cables were never replaced. The team switched back to paper and pen.

For governments and development partners, funding new digital service projects appears to be more appealing than supporting digital service teams. They have something tangible to show. Yet, in terms of impact, and sustainability, investing in digital service teams can make more sense.

Another issue we heard on funding digital services was the lack of a coordinated approach between government organisations. One of our interviewees from a development finance institution admitted that governments rarely refuse funding, but also highlighted that:

It’s also the responsibility of development partners. They know governments will accept funding without making sure it’s coherent with their overarching strategy. Yet they proceed and it leads to the creation of balkanized digital systems, which is counter-productive.“

Whether they are funded by governments or development partners, it’s important that digital services keep being supported by a team, under the supervision of a service owner, once they’re live. Live phase budgets need to take into account hardware renewal, software updates, improvements, and the cost of running a maintenance and support team.

3. Empowering digital teams to take and enforce decisions

Large, impactful digital service projects often rely on shared platforms and leverage data from different ministries and organisations. For these cross-government projects to be successful and add value to citizens, all stakeholders must be coordinated and avoid working in silos. Responsibilities must be clearly and efficiently distributed to enable and enforce quick decision making.

In practice, this is not easy. Most of the projects we looked at in the interviews involved several government organisations, and managing stakeholders with different priorities was one of the challenges that was mentioned frequently.

In one of the projects we heard about, the digital team was confident they’d succeed because they had strong political support – ministers from each organisation that was involved were very much bought in. They attended meetings, and they helped resolve issues when they had to. However, their support dwindled when difficulties arose. They began sending others to meetings in their place, and they stopped stepping in when they needed to. This meant the project lost momentum and the deadline had to be extended.

Challenges like this seemed to be more prevalent in governance models where the leading digital service team reported to a person or an organisation that was not hierarchically above the project stakeholders. This happened to government digital teams that are placed under the authority of an ICT Ministry.

On the other hand, digital service teams that directly report to the President or the Prime Minister’s office (for example, the ADIE in Senegal and the ASSI in Benin) seem to be more likely to get other organisations’ buy-in. A development partner we interviewed told us: “It’s better not to invest in programmes – and for countries to refuse loans – when there is not a governance system in place that empowers digital teams, and when these digital teams are only temporary staff members who leave at the end of the programmes”.

Political support is necessary, but not sufficient. And neither are decrees. In some of the projects we talked about, the role and responsibilities of digital teams were covered by a decree which was intended to give them better legitimacy and authority. Most interviewees who mentioned this found it useful, but one person said: “The journey is long from a piece of paper to reality”. Digital teams need authority, and autonomy.

We heard about a project that did not go well. The Minister from the ministry involved, didn’t know much about digital transformation and so did not feel they were in control of the project. Instead of supporting the project manager where needed, they fired them instead. The person supposed to take over the role of the project manager was so scared to lose their job that the project continued without proper governance. Ultimately, it failed.

Conversely, in one of the projects we looked at that went well, our interviewee said: “The digital agency committee piloting the project did not have to ask anyone’s authorisation to plan or execute the project. They only received objectives from external parties”.

Thank you to interviewees

These are some first findings from our series of interviews. We’d like to thank all interviewees for their time, and contributions. We will not name them, as we agreed to keep our conversations confidential. We wanted to create a safe space, to truly reflect on challenges that can now be shared. If some of what you read resonates with your experience, and you’d like to be kept informed of the publication of the two next articles, let us know, and we’ll be in touch soon.

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