Why Africa's digital transformation is an opportunity to rethink public service delivery


Three questions on D4D series: Interview with digitalisation expert Helena Lepp

Switching to digital services is more than digitising paperwork, says Helena Lepp, digitalisation expert at the AU-EU Digital for Development (D4D) Hub: “It is an opportunity for governments to ask critical questions about why, whether, and for whom the service is intended, and most importantly, to put people at the centre of the process.”

As African governments progressively use more digital tools to enable public service delivery across the continent, it is very important to take a step back and make sure that we are getting the basics right, according to the expert. In this interview, she shares her views on what should be the pre-conditions for human-centric digital services, and the potential for AU-EU cooperation in this field.

Helena will be the moderator of the panel “Laying Ground for Digital Services: Case Studies from Africa” which will be held on 10 May at the e-Governance Conference.

Q: What are digital services? What advantages do they offer?

HL: Compared to paper-based services, the main advantage of digital services is that they can improve the quality, accessibility, efficiency, and transparency of public service delivery. For example, digital services may save people time and money if they don’t need to travel to government offices and be physically present for a procedure. In the case that digital services are developed in interoperable manner, ensuring efficient data exchange and the once-only principle, they can also significantly reduce the administrative burden for the user compared to paper-based services. In addition, digitisation and automation of processes can reduce the burden of bureaucratic tasks for public sector employees, so they can focus on more meaningful tasks and therefore improve the overall quality of public services.

Nevertheless, for these benefits to materialise and to avoid creating red tape through “digitised paperwork”, the digitisation of each service should be seen as the creation of an entirely new service. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but to rethink how public services could be delivered better.

This part of the process is so important because it requires a change of mindset. When designing digital services, the public sector should engage with and put itself in the users’ shoes to understand their needs and concerns. Only then, it can create genuine human-centric digital services that leave no one behind.

Q: Which are the underlying conditions needed for African countries to fully reap the benefits of digital services?

HL: In principle, the fundamental conditions and enablers needed to develop effective digital services are the same regardless of geographic region or country. Some of the most essential technological building blocks are considered, for example, electronic identity (eID) and interoperable data exchange, which allow secure access to digital services and online transactions.

For both eID and data exchange to be trustworthy, reliable, and respectful of people’s privacy, they must be rooted in principles such as privacy-by-design and security-by-design. This means that data protection and cyber security must not only be set in regulations, but also considered throughout the design and development process.

That said, it is essential to keep in mind that there are no copy-paste models for digital services and fulfilling these pre-conditions must always consider local specificities, context, and culture.

For example, in addition to the above-mentioned conditions, service users should have access and be able to use digital services. In the case of Africa, low affordability of Internet and lack of digital skills remain important barriers.

Q: What are the opportunities for the AU and the EU to work together in accelerating digital services in African countries?

HL: The AU and the EU have expressed a shared commitment to increase their digital cooperation in many areas, as reflected in the report of the EU-AU Digital Economy Task Force. Such report proposes concrete recommendations for joint action, including on digital services and e-Governance more broadly. For example, using the EU’s Regulation on electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market (eIDAS) as a best practice for regional and continental interoperability, or the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a model for ensuring adequate data protection.

As a result of these recommendations, many concrete initiatives have already been put in place. For example, the AU-EU D4D Hub brings together different development organisations from several EU countries to support African governments in their digital transformation path — including the delivery of human-centric and effective digital services.

About the interviewee

Helena Lepp is a digitalisation expert at African Union-European Union (AU-EU) Digital for Development (D4D) Hub, an EU-funded project that supports African institutions to create an enabling environment for an inclusive digital transformation. Prior to joining the AU-EU D4D Hub team, Helena worked for nearly ten years in the Estonian public sector in a variety of roles in the digital public services field, including business analyst, project manager, policy advisor and team lead. In her latest position as Digital Service Development Director at the Estonian Government CIO Office, she led the design and development of user-centric e-services, notably life event-based and proactive public services.