Connected islands: Laying the foundations for digital transformation in the Caribbean

By on 30/06/2024 | Updated on 08/07/2024
The Summit provided a safe space for Caribbean digital leaders to debate the obstacles to digital transformation – and how to overcome them

At the Caribbean Digital Summit, technology chiefs from 13 island administrations converged on Barbados to explore the challenges they face in the region’s unique digital environment. Matt Ross reports

If one thing unites the Caribbean region, it is diversity. Its 700 islands and islets have very different histories and economies, populations and ecologies; their administrations occupy every constitutional status from local council to sovereign state.

Nonetheless, the Caribbean’s civil servants face a similar set of goals and challenges – so when Global Government Forum invited digital leaders to meet in Barbados for the inaugural Caribbean Digital Summit, senior officials and technical specialists from 13 administrations converged on the island.

The Summit offered an opportunity for senior digital professionals and organisational leaders to meet their peers from across the region, exchanging ideas and experiences on five key topics in digital transformation. The event also culminated in Global Government Forum’s latest Digital Leaders report.

Based on interviews that took place in advance with 10 national digital leaders from across the Caribbean, which were then further developed at the event, we have come up with 11 key findings to help guide and support digital transformation in the region. This article rounds up the first five and the second article identifies six further takeaways for the Caribbean’s technology chiefs.

1: The Caribbean benefits from a rare and valuable asset: many political leaders are highly engaged and well-informed, with prime ministers and cabinet members often actively leading and defining the agenda.

Our first Digital Leaders report, focusing on some of the world’s most advanced digital governments, found that “departmental leaders and ministers often lack the understanding and commitment to drive digital transformation”. But in the Caribbean, as Kevin Cunnington, former head of the UK’s Government Digital Service, told the Summit: “Your ministers know what they’re doing and have the drive required. The role and leadership of ministers will make a big difference.” Cunnington led the research process and gathered delegates’ perspectives on our findings.

It is also common for ministers leading the digital agenda – and in some cases, prime ministers too – to have a background in IT, giving them the skills and expertise to play a hands-on role in shaping strategy and pushing through reforms. “Most of our new ministers have digitised; they have already shifted their mindsets,” commented one digital leader. “So the argument is not as difficult as it was; there is already an understanding as to the direction of travel.”

2: The production of a digital strategy and plan should involve agreeing key milestones and departmental goals with civil service leaders, allocating accountabilities for delivery, and establishing ways to measure progress.

“You’ve got to make sure, when you write your strategy, that your departments are absolutely committed to delivering it, because they deliver much more of it than you do,” said Cunnington. “Trust me, just asking them nicely doesn’t work.”

In the Caribbean, most governments’ visions are sensible but quite early-stage; some lack clarity on exactly how they’ll be delivered – and by whom. Yet the allocation of responsibilities, along with clear timelines and delivery targets, is key to implementation. “Once you have determined your key initiatives, you must give them an owner,” commented one senior official. “Define clear ownership of the digital strategy, and the roles and responsibilities for each key initiative.”

This in turn demands that digital strategies are built in collaboration with senior officials across government – in the process securing their commitment to delivering aspects of the agreed plan. “The challenge is that the individuals at ministries, departments, agencies don’t work together,” said one digital leader. “The way to get them to work together is by having them part of what you’re designing and building.”

With the goals, responsibilities and timelines agreed, progress should be monitored by a dedicated body – often a board bringing together national digital leaders and departmental chiefs. “We need a governance structure to align projects; to inform each other of what exactly we’re trying to achieve; and to sequence those activities to avoid siloed environments, overlapping activities and reckless spending,” commented one digital chief.

Kevin Cunnington, former head of the UK’s Government Digital Service, led the research process and gathered delegates’ perspectives on our findings

3: Central digital teams need the technical skills and the leverage required to catalyse progress on digital agendas, including proportionate use of tools such as spending controls, central mandates, deployable teams and dedicated funding streams.

“We found that a number of digital leaders in the Caribbean aren’t technologists, and that they work outside the centre of government,” said Cunnington. “To be clear, there’s no real precedent for that working; in fact, quite the opposite. Pretty much everywhere in the world, the successful countries have good technologists working right in the centre.”

Typically, the centre means the prime minister’s office or the finance department – connecting the digital agenda to the centre of political authority or resource allocation. When digital functions are housed elsewhere, such as the education or policy department, they tend to lack influence across government – handicapping the agenda.

As well as the right setting and connections, said Cunnington, digital teams “need the levers and the authority to deliver.” Few Caribbean countries are well advanced on this journey – but to provide shared foundations for progress by the departments on the digital agenda, it’s important to create a central unit able to set policies and standards, create digital tools, and offer support across government. These teams should be given both the staff and resources to devise shared systems and platforms, and the hard levers required to ensure that major departmental IT initiatives fit neatly into the government’s overall digital strategy.

4: Governments should prioritise the provision of digital ID systems as a key foundation of digital transformation, requiring departments to adopt shared or compatible platforms so that citizens can use a single digital ID system across government – and, ideally, across the region.

In the UK, “we started building applications without a shared digital identity system,” recalled Cunnington. The country now has 7,700 government applications, he explained – and in the absence of a single government-wide ID platform, they use a huge range of incompatible log-in systems. “That will take us a decade to unwind,” he commented. “Please don’t make that mistake!”

Currently, most Caribbean countries are working on digital ID – but very few have finalised their plans, let alone begun to deliver ID platforms. “We do seem to be pretty stuck in the region around somebody showing first mover advantage on digital identity,” said Cunnington. Yet this is a foundation stone of effective digital transformation: when departments allow access through a single digital ID system, it’s far easier to bring services together around the user – improving both efficiency and effectiveness.

In part, the challenge lies – as one digital leader in a relatively well-advanced Caribbean nation explained – in the need to deliver additional, complementary reforms in order to get digital ID off the ground. “There are three important things here,” they said. “One is having a strong digital ID system. The second is high-quality, cross-government data management. And the third is having the skilled staff and the capability to implement such a system.” Another digital leader added a fourth element: legislative changes can be required to, for example, modernise the rules around verifying people’s identities and ease data exchange between departments.

It’s easier to build a digital ID system where countries have an existing national ID system, providing a universal database that covers every citizen. In its absence, governments can create digital ID platforms able to exchange information with departments across government, then require people to verify their identity using existing documents such as passports and driving licences.

There is another option though, said Mark Sullivan, director of digital services at Summit knowledge partner the Canadian Bank Note Company. Governments can adopt one of the open standards frameworks, then support the roll-out of systems that allow citizens to hold a credential in a digital wallet on their mobile phone.

This avoids the need to “connect all these systems, and maintain those integrations over time”, he said. “Rather than having an agency in the middle that attests to your identity, the user holds a digital credential that doesn’t need checking – so that identity transaction happens right at the edge of the network, and can occur offline.”

Any organisation – public, private or voluntary – can then use the system to verify people’s identity; they simply need to commission a provider to supply the kit required. When a government adopts this approach, Sullivan explained, people can create an account either by using an app to check their face against a valid government ID photo, or by bringing relevant documents into an office to have their identity checked by staff.

New Zealand, Australia and the EU are all following this path, said Sullivan, adding that the EU’s digital wallet system will operate across national borders. “Any citizen in the EU that travels to another EU country will be able to tap their phone to prove their identity and away they go,” he said. This has obvious value in the Caribbean. “I’m a regionalist,” commented one digital leader. “My concern is: how can we ensure that there’s interoperability between the systems that we’re using?”

Whatever system governments choose, firm levers will be required to ensure that departments adopt the approved standard – realising the opportunities to connect up services, and avoiding a UK-like tangle of incompatible and competing ID verification systems.

Nicola Callender, chief digital technology officer of Barbados’s Ministry of Industry, Innovation, Science and Technology, welcomed delegates to the Summit

5: External funders must ensure that their processes and policies do not compromise nations’ ability to focus on their own digital priorities, to move at pace, or to respond to local needs and circumstances.

In the Caribbean, many countries’ digital programmes are dependent on funding from external organisations such as the UN Development Programme and the Inter-American Development Bank. And while the money is welcome, commented Cunnington, it often brings with it two thorny problems.

“First, funding is provided with a set of constraints that are ostensibly designed to stop corruption, but which make it very difficult to spend the money – because you spend as much time on the process as you do on the work,” he explained. “Second, the funding sometimes comes with a requirement to change your organisation in a way that’s perceived as best practice. And we heard loud and clear that one size doesn’t fit all in the Caribbean.”

As the Digital Leaders research programme recognises, solutions must fit around the unique constitution, culture, politics and legacy of each country – but as one digital leader complained, too often the message from external funders is: “We are global. We know what you need. It’s been done in Africa; it’s been done in Latin America. This is how to do it’.”

This is simply wrong, they argued: “What works in Africa isn’t necessarily going to work in St Kitts. Even what works in Jamaica isn’t necessarily going to work in St Kitts!” In the words of another digital leader: “How can you make sure that things are tailor-made to your organisation, your culture and so forth, when the person holding the wallet is telling you: ‘This is best practice. This is what works in the UK and in Australia and so forth, and you can just copy and paste that same format’.”

This approach has many costs, Caribbean leaders said: inappropriate policies imposed by funders simply do not work, wasting money. For instance, lengthy assessment and approval processes delay projects until needs have changed, and funders’ preference for sponsoring  project work leaves real needs unmet in domestic skills and infrastructure. Further, multiple layers of stakeholders create onerous reporting requirements, and programme management frameworks can effectively require that countries bring in external consultants rather than manage projects themselves – further divorcing delivery from local officials, and missing opportunities to build capacity within government.

“In every instance, the bank wants to tell us what our priorities are,” said one frustrated digital leader. As Cunnington delicately put it: “There’s definitely work to do in evolving the funding model to something that works a little more smoothly for everyone.”

The Summit brought digital leaders from 13 administrations to Barbados for two days of discussion and debate

Digital Leaders in the Caribbean

This report has been published under our Digital Leaders research programme, and builds on previous reports that set out seven key challenges in digitalising government, and present three solutions to each of these challenges. It is being published in two parts, of which this is the first; the second is available here.

Most of the quotes in this report were gathered at the Caribbean Digital Summit, held in October 2023 in Barbados.  To protect people’s ability to speak freely in GGF research and events, we don’t name the public servants quoted in this report.

A full list of those attending can be found on the Summit website. To develop our draft findings, we conducted 10 interviews with senior digital leaders across the Caribbean region.

We are very grateful to these interviewees, whose advice and insights have been crucial to our research:

– Ophelia Blanchard, acting director for technology, Ministry of ICT and Post, St Kitts and Nevis
– Nicola Callender, chief digital technology officer, Ministry of Industry, Innovation, Science and Technology, Barbados
– Emilia Connor-Thomas, secretary-general, Ministry of General Affairs, Sint Maarten
– Rafiq Ilahi, permanent secretary, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Entrepreneurship and Technological Innovation, Suriname
– Jermaine Jean-Pierre, director, Information and Communication Technology Unit, Ministry of Public Works, Public Utilities and the Digital Economy, Dominica
– Lennel Malzaire, director of innovation, Government of Saint Lucia
– Wendy Pelk, island secretary, Public Body of Bonaire
– Pascal Peuchot, regional cooperation and foreign relations officer and project manager of the broadband strategy, Saint-Barthélemy
– Anika Shuttleworth, acting chief executive officer, eGov Jamaica
– Wayde Watson MP, parliamentary secretary and national coordinator for ICT, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Bahamas

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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