In a few days, thousands of people from around the world will converge in Kigali to attend the Transform Africa Summit. They will spend their time talking about how to boost Africa’s digital economy by integrating markets and expanding investment in broadband access and other basics of the digital economy.
We hope our fellow delegates will also consider the crucial role that governments have to play in boosting African economies – on-line and off-line – especially as the private sector continues to advance technologically, and people’ expectations around service provision grow. The ease with which people can do simple tasks, like show their identity, register a business, enroll in school, pay taxes, or cross a border can dramatically speed—or slow—economic growth. People are demanding more, and governments need to deliver.
Rwanda is a leading example of the positive role that digital government can play in growing an economy. The centerpiece is Irembo, a globally recognized e-government portal that puts over 100 government services at citizens’ fingertips. Started in 2016, Irembo is an example of four practices governments need to follow to succeed in a digital age:
1. Design for everybody: Digital government needs to make things easier for all people and businesses, and should not lock out those who lack internet access or literacy. The fact that Irembo’s services are available not just by way of computer and smartphone, but also basic phones and in-person through thousands of private agents, means that the platform is far more accessible than traditional government offices alone, saving Rwandans countless hours.
2. Create open systems that communicate with each other: Too often, the government creates separate digital systems for every ministry and mission, but without means for these systems to connect to each other or to be easily used by citizens and businesses. Irembo, on the other hand, provides a way for people to interact with government through a single portal, regardless of which services they need to access. Rwandans can apply for drivers’ licenses using the same portal with which entrepreneurs register their business and visitors apply for visas.
3. Be agile: Today’s digital systems can’t just be bought off the shelf from contractors or developed by one team working alone. The team that built Irembo started small and continues to grow as a team and improve the system today. It took close, a continual collaboration between teams across the Rwandan government, local government, and the private sector to create today’s Irembo.
4. Govern the use of data responsibly: This is a practice that no society or system, anywhere, has mastered, and Rwanda and Irembo are no exception. Balancing the good that can be done using data about individuals, with the risk that the same data could be used to invade their privacy—or worse—will be one of the defining challenges of this century. The right to privacy is enshrined in Rwanda’s 2003 constitution, but as technology and society evolve, governments and civil society in Rwanda and around the world will need to continually answer the question of how to guarantee the privacy and personal freedom, while also advancing innovation, accountability, service delivery, and security.
Irembo is not perfect—no such system ever is. But Rwanda’s digital systems and their role in Rwanda’s economic development show that Rwanda has a great deal to teach the world about digital government, alongside other global leaders like Estonia and India. From portals like Irembo to digital systems for identity, payments, land and business registries, and customs and immigration, good digital government is a foundation for modern, data-driven economies. The challenge is capacity: few governments today have enough people with the right mix of scarce skills and the vision for the change needed to implement good digital government.
Here at The Rockefeller Foundation, we are committed to working alongside governments and civil society organizations to use digital technology to improve people’s lives. The way we work has evolved. Whereas decades ago our foundation sponsored young African scientists’ studies at leading universities in America, today we collaborate with African institutions, such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, that are themselves global leaders in science and technology.
Our models of capacity-building for government technology also need to keep up with the times. Expertise today is no longer concentrated in a few rich countries but is distributed around the world. Leaders in government technology learn best by gaining insights from peers who have met similar challenges—and then by doing, with a clear focus on achieving wins for their citizens. The digital government may require a model of capacity building that is more like a startup accelerator than a traditional training course.
That is why we are excited to arrive in Kigali—not only to learn ourselves from those who created Irembo and continue to grow it today, but also to talk with African governments and others about how to work together to build the capacity to further develop effective, inclusive, and responsible digital governments everywhere. We cannot think of a better place to begin building a new, modern approach to both capacity building and government.
Kevin O’Neil is Associate Director for Data and Technology at The Rockefeller Foundation and Chukwudi Onike is a Program Associate at The Rockefeller Foundation.