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Considerations for Decisionmakers

PART I: Digitalizing Government Operations

There are compelling reasons for digitalizing government operations, such as improved service delivery, administrative efficiency, and transparency. Although there are obviously initial costs to digitalizing government systems, in the short term, digitalization will cut costs by increasing productivity and reducing the size of the public service, as well as increasing revenue efficiency, reducing corruption, and overall lower service costs. To successfully implement digitalization and realize these benefits, policymakers should design comprehensive plans tailored to the context and needs of their specific countries. These plans should include identifying which digital solutions and technologies will be most helpful to their nation and setting clear objectives, and goals.
It is important that governments have one coordinated digitalization strategy to ensure technological compatibility across all ministries, as well as a calibrated roll-out of digital services. The following are key considerations:

1. Evaluate the Technological Infrastructure

Significant investments in technological infrastructure are necessary for digitalization. At the early stages of planning, governments should assess existing technical infrastructure by examining hardware and software components across various government sectors. This assessment will allow decision-makers to identify strengths, weaknesses, and gaps. Then, based on the government’s needs, decision-makers should set common standards and protocols, as well as develop a cohesive, whole-government strategy to ensure the coordination, use, and exchange of information across all digital systems. It is also critically important to make an assessment of the available national technological infrastructure including access to the internet, as well as cellular service access and usage. Universal internet access should be a central development goal for all governments and may require a separate set of investments.

2. Recognize Benefits and Challenges

While technological advancement and digitalization in almost every sphere is inevitable, it is important to calibrate the roll-out of government digitalization at a pace that can be tolerated by the public. For example, before digitalizing a government service, establish what percent of the public is able and likely to make use of the digital option and be sure that those who can’t or won’t still have another option. An incentive for accessing digital services is the reduced wait time and costs to consumers, but if national internet and/or cellular access is limited, this may not be an option for many. A well-researched public messaging campaign is important to ensure optimal uptake of digital services. Be aware that launching a digital service that does not work properly from the get-go will alienate users and it may be difficult to recoup public confidence. Pilot the system before it goes public.

Another consideration is the fact that the increased digitalization of government services will impact the number of public service personnel required. While it is a fact that the public service in most countries is bloated and a drain on the national budget, political blowback is to be anticipated. Adverse reaction to public sector workforce displacement as a result of digitalization may be somewhat ameliorated by ensuring redundant personnel are offered an appropriate separation package, as well as access to upskilling programs and professional help transitioning to other employment opportunities. The initial costs of downsizing the public service will likely be offset by the longer-term cost-reduction advantages of digitalization.

3. Leadership and Collaboration

Having a single national digitalization plan and implementing agency is crucial to ensuring coordination across government to avoid duplication, as well as investment in technologies that may not be fit for purpose. In most countries, digitalization is coordinated and implemented by a government entity or agency led by a Minister or Secretary of Technology, Information, or a related title. For example, after setting their vision for digitalization in Egypt, “In alignment with Egypt Vision 2030 and Egypt’s digital transformation strategy, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology [has] embarked on building Digital Egypt.”

A central function of the responsible Minister is to ensure that all ministries ‘buy into’ and conform to the national plan. This may not be easy because there will be different perspectives on such things as the pace of digitalization, the initial priorities, and the most appropriate technologies. Where such disagreements impede progress, intervention by the Prime Minister or even the President may be necessary. The point to consider is that digitalization of government will be controversial for some and assertive leadership will be important to avoid having the plan derailed.

4. Developing the Necessary Capacity

Implementation of digitalization across government will depend on an appropriate number of public sector workers with the necessary tech skills and competency. An important consideration is the need to have such upskilling programs in place in advance of planned initiation of digitalization. Such trainings are most often offered by the suppliers of the technology the government plans on using and should be negotiated as part of the procurement deal. Developing competence among public servants and across government is crucial to the efficient and most beneficial use of technology. All government employees can also be given access to courses, professional development opportunities, and practical training sessions to help them use technology in their daily work. In crucial service delivery sectors such as health and education, more specialized upskilling programs would ensure getting the best advantage from tech innovations in these sectors. On-call technical assistance could help support efficient usage of available technologies.

5. How Will You Pay for Digitalization?

The initial cost of digitalization can be high. It is important that government have a financing plan in place at the outset. Ideally, such a plan should set out a trajectory for when the accrued cost reductions for digitalization will offset the initial investment. Such an understanding would help clarify what financing options may be most suitable. Although few countries are well positioned to add to their international debt, low-interest loans from the World Bank for example or bilateral budget support may be options. Uganda, for example, is set to borrow around USD 150 million from China’s Export-Import Bank to construct its e-government infrastructure projects. There are downsides to this approach because loans can entail interest payments that may increase the overall costs of projects. On the other hand, some governments allocate a designated budget specific to funding their government Information Technology projects. With Africa’s digital economy predicted to reach $180 billion by 2025 and $712 billion by 2050, collaborating with the private sector to build ecosystems that foster regional innovation and draw in investors may be a better way to offset the cost to government.

Ultimately, it is essential for governments to plan to ensure that the benefits of digitalization outweigh the costs.

6. Maintaining Technology

The fact that digital systems can malfunction and breakdown needs to be anticipated and built into the plan. This maintenance function could be built into the coordinating Ministry or an allied agency, but most often the tech service provider is best placed to provide proper maintenance of the equipment, as well as ongoing program updates, user support, and data management.

An additional critical consideration is cyber security. Hacking of digital systems is increasingly common and more and more sophisticated. Most often such attacks are intended to extract a ransom from the target, but the risk of hacking attacks designed to undermine national security are also increasingly common and even more worrisome. Building in and maintaining the necessary system protections is crucial. Public confidence in the system is fundamental, meaning government must prioritize user privacy and comply with data use regulations to maintain public trust in the system.


This paper was researched and written by Benita Kayembe, Senior Researcher & Michael R. Sinclair, Executive Director, Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program.

None of the opinions expressed are necessarily those of Harvard University or the funders of the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program. © 2023 President and Fellows of Harvard College.