Digital services in Africa: Three takeaways from #egov2022
Most African countries have started digitalising their public services in an effort to bring the government closer to the people and to increase efficiency in public administration. Although there are important differences in the level of development of online services across the continent (in 2020 all but four African countries remained below the global e-government development average), there are many valuable experiences and lessons learned that can shed light on how to best serve citizens in different contexts.
In this spirit, the African Union — European Union (AU-EU) Digital for Development (D4D) Hub organised a panel discussion titled “Laying Ground for Digital Services: Case Studies from Africa” at the e-Governance Conference 2022 — an event co-organized by the e-Governance Academy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia which took place on 10–12 May in Tallinn and online. The session gathered senior government officials in charge of digitalisation from Egypt, Benin, and Botswana to reflect on their countries’ e-government journeys.
Egypt’s government started its digital transformation journey many years ago and has introduced many digital services, yet it faces some challenges when it comes to meeting citizens’ needs. In the past three years, Benin has made remarkable progress in setting up its e-government architecture and has now adopted a data exchange solution and citizen portal to provide public services online. For Botswana, one of the world’s least densely populated countries, improving digital services is a top priority to reach citizens living in faraway areas.
Below are our three main takeaways of these very different experiences.
1. The digital transformation is not about technology but about our mindset
Khaled El-Attar, Egypt’s Vice-Minister on Digital Transformation, Automation & Administrative Development highlighted the importance of putting users’ needs at the centre of the design of digital services. “The public sector should engage with and put itself in the users’ shoes to understand their needs and concerns,” he said.
This should be the guiding principle of e-government, he warned, otherwise the risk is creating government services that citizens do not want.
“Digital transformation is never a technology project; it is a transformation of our mindset,” El-Attar said, calling for focusing on assisting citizens instead of just increasing the number of digital services.
He also noted that digitalisation of public services is not a process that goes from A to Z and then it ends. Instead, he argued, governments should see it as a continuous process to improve their services through digital technologies.
2. Instead of replicating, African countries must consider their own realities
Affordable access to internet and increased digital literacy should be part of a deliberate move by African governments to ensure that citizens can use digital services, the three speakers agreed.
African countries face unique challenges related to connectivity, digital skills, and lack of underpinning regulation which need to be addressed if e-government strategies are to be successful.
While learning from other countries is certainly part of the solution, African countries need to consider their own realities and adapt. For example, Njalakangwa Phumaphi, e-Services Deputy Manager at Botswana’s Government Online Office, called for public-private partnerships to better serve remote areas.
“Where the government cannot be physically present, institutions in charge of implementing the digitalisation strategy could partner with private sector and citizens who are willing to offer services on behalf of the government. This will be necessary if we want our citizens to be able to go the nearest place within their locality to get these services”, she said.
3. Coordination and data sharing are key for more efficiency
Fragmented approaches to digitalisation of public services without any overarching strategy at the highest level of the government is a recipe for less efficiency, warned Afiss Bileoma, Director of Dematerialisation at the Information Services and Systems Agency in Benin.
Taking the experience from Benin as an example, he explained that before 2019 each ministry had its own digital strategy and siloed coordination, which slowed down the development of digital services. “The biggest problem was the lack of a system to efficiently exchange data, though. Imagine, the system administrator used to send files of newly registered companies in a USB flash disk to the legal department, making thereby unsecure duplication of data at that time,” he added.
Speakers agreed on the importance of investing in interoperability, regulatory frameworks for data protection and putting users’ needs in the heart of service design, to enable human-centric and effective digital service provision.
The e-Governance Conference also served as an opportunity for the AU-EU D4D Hub to exchange with government representatives from several African countries (Benin, Botswana, Egypt, Guinea, Senegal, Rwanda and Tanzania) who were invited to the event to share their own experiences, learn from other African and European countries’ digital transformation journeys, and to discuss potential collaborations.