Across the African continent, governments are investing in digitalisation to foster economic growth and development for all. Despite multiple challenges such as limited connectivity (the latest data indicates that only one-third of Africa’s population is online) and even electricity, some countries are benefitting from leapfrogging and the adoption of digital innovations to provide more effective public services and create opportunities for citizens.
In many cases, such innovations have been the result of direct collaboration between the public sector and other digital stakeholders, such as the private sector, academia, and civil society organisations. These actors have valuable knowledge and expertise that can strengthen governments’ efforts and help them create more inclusive and informed policies.
To explore the lessons learned from such collaborations, the African Union - European Union (AU-EU) Digital for Development (D4D) Hub organised a panel discussion titled “The Collaborative Road to Innovation: Case Studies from Africa” at the e-Governance Conference 2023 – an event co-organised by the e-Governance Academy with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, which took place on 30-31 May in Tallinn and online.
The session gathered high-level policymakers from Namibia, Uganda, and the West Africa region to share their experiences in working with diverse stakeholders to develop and implement innovative e-governance policies for sustainable and inclusive change.
Out of these three diverse viewpoints, below are the three main recommendations that emerged from the discussion:
1. Governments should drive coordination between stakeholders to jointly drive a common vision
When it comes to developing digital policies, all three speakers reiterated the importance of structurally involving all stakeholders and playing an active role in fostering coordination to jointly reach goals. This is important to ensure that there is strategic guidance to jointly achieve national objectives and to increase impact, become more inclusive, and avoid duplications.
In Uganda, for example, the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance has engaged in making digital policy development a collaborative and participatory journey with all partners. Instead of isolating policy development by sector, Uganda has taken a “programme-based” approach, which allows for the systematic involvement of various stakeholders. “We need to work collaboratively to come up with solutions that serve our purposes, are sustainable, and cost-effective. To get to where Estonia is, we need to learn and collaborate with one another,” said Dr Aminah Zawedde, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance.
The Government of Uganda has recently presented a draft of its new Digital Transformation Roadmap. To ensure that there is a dynamic multi-stakeholder collaboration to support its implementation, Dr Zawedde explained how the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance is establishing formal working groups to engage with the local digital ecosystem and international donors.
2. To understand citizens’ needs, it is critical to open direct lines of communication with multiple stakeholders
Emma Theofelus, Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology in Namibia, stressed the valuable role of different stakeholders for not only developing policies and laws but for benchmarking to ensure that needs and priorities are in alignment with those of society.
“We have learned that the biggest opportunity is to have open lines of communication. Once you have open lines of communication and continuous engagement, you can better understand their needs and the urgency in which they want certain laws or policies to be drafted or implemented,” said Ms Theofelus.
In Namibia, the government is currently drafting a cybercrime and data protection law, where they are involving the private sector, civil society, and academia throughout the process. A local company is training civil servants in cybersecurity, and academia has consistently stepped up to build internal expertise and conduct research and development in a cost-effective manner. Ms Theofelus emphasised that when you have clear communication channels and trust between stakeholders, they will be willing to give resources and provide support, making it a true win-win situation for all parties involved.
3. For the private sector to become a catalyst for innovation growth, an enabling environment needs to be created
All three panellists agreed that for any country to succeed in its digital transformation journey, the private sector needs to play a crucial role. The challenge, however, is in aligning the goals of the government and the private sector. When excluded from the conversation, industry stakeholders might fail to understand the government’s position when it is developing policies. In this regard, Dr Zawedde said: “Let us align your needs with our needs for us to be able to come up with policies that are relevant and can be adaptable to the society in which we are living.”
Koffi Fabrice Djossou, Senior Programme Manager at the Western African Development Bank (BOAD), also advocated for successful public-private partnerships, building on BOAD’s experience bringing in the private sector to act as an accountable partner when working with different governments.
“The private sector can create jobs, bring value, have new ideas, and share knowledge that can change lives,” he said. In this context, “the government acts as the counterweight, ensuring that there is a regulatory framework that ensures that all citizens have access to the benefits of the digital revolution,” he added. It is a delicate balance, Mr Djossou noted, however: “In order for the private sector to do its job as a catalyst, an enabling environment needs to exist”.
Mr Djossou concluded with a call for a more collaborative, inclusive approach to digital policy development: “Across the continent, there is a shared vision for a thriving, digital economy that is accessible to all citizens. Achieving this daunting task is something that no stakeholder can do alone.”