Connected islands: Shared lessons for digital leaders in the Caribbean

By on 07/07/2024 | Updated on 08/07/2024

The Caribbean contains huge diversity – but at a regional gathering of digital leaders, there was plenty of agreement on how to address the challenges they share. In this second report from the event, Matt Ross identifies six key messages for the Caribbean’s technology chiefs

In the first article, we set out five key messages on digital transformation in the Caribbean – drawing on 10 interviews with regional technology chiefs and two days of discussions at the Caribbean Digital Summit (see footnote). Here, we wrap up our analysis by publishing six more.

Having covered strategies, digital ID and funding in our first five findings, the six below span procurement, workforce, infrastructure and performance metrics.

6: Governments should introduce ‘digital marketplaces’ to streamline procurement, reduce the barriers facing SMEs, boost quality and compatibility, and secure economies of scale.

Government procurement processes are among the biggest bugbears of Caribbean digital leaders. “The process is not agile enough, it doesn’t allow you to take certain risks, and it’s inflexible,” said one. Another pointed to the lengthy timescales: “We’ve been chasing one project for years and we’re at the point of procuring, but now the requirements are outdated. We may have to start again.”

In the digital field, there is an effective solution: a central team can approve products and services for use across government, creating a catalogue available to purchasers. This short-circuits the procurement process while enabling government to aggregate demand – keeping prices low – and ensure that tools comply with cross-government standards, aiding integration and compatibility, explained Kevin Cunnington, former head of the UK’s Government Digital Service. Cunnington led the research process and gathered delegates’ perspectives on our findings.

In the UK, he added: “The digital marketplace has been a huge success. Seven years ago, we spent £16bn (US$21bn) each year on tech with eight companies, none of which were British. Now we spend £9bn (US$12bn) with 5,000 companies, predominantly British SMEs. The reason we introduced it was to speed up the procurement process, but it’s also created much more transparency and made a huge difference to the British technology ecosystem.”

7: Governments should provide digital training across the workforce, starting with those engaged in digital projects – such as service owners, project managers, finance staff and policymakers – and senior organisational leaders.

While Caribbean ministers are often digitally savvy and actively engaged with reform programmes, the same cannot be said of most civil servants. Even digital leaders are not always technologists, and other senior civil servants – both organisational leaders, and key specialists such as those working in project management, finance and procurement – do not consistently attach a high priority to digital transformation. Further down the hierarchy, transformation programmes often encounter resistance from staff wary of the job cuts and power shifts that come with disruptive change.

These groups won’t get behind the digital agenda unless they understand both the benefits of transformation, and the contribution required of them. Yet as Cunnington explained, our research found “no real evidence of any degree of investment into generalised digital training for leaders or people in related functions. Until you start getting people on board and enhancing their skill sets, you can’t make progress.”

The solution is to train staff in the nature, characteristics, requirements and benefits of digital technologies – reaching out to departmental leaders, relevant professionals, and the frontline staff who’ll be using the new tools. The UK set up a ‘Digital Academy’, explained Cunnington, training 10,000 people over five years – and as people returned to the workforce with newfound skills and enthusiasm, resistance to the digital agenda fell away. “We needed to get about 10% of the workforce involved before they started thinking digitally, and it became a cultural transition into the new world,” he said.

Find out more about the Digital Academy: Listen to our Government Transformed podcast episode below

8: Civil service job descriptions, working roles and payscales should be reformed to boost the recruitment and retention of digital professionals, and to transition roles away from routine administrative work towards digital service development and provision.

“It’s very difficult to implement a plan if you don’t know what capability you’ve got to implement it,” said Cunnington – yet our research found “no evidence of what we would call capability assessment; no evidence that anybody had an understanding of where their resources were”. Caribbean digital leaders also face major challenges in recruiting and retaining digital professionals, given much higher rates of pay in the private sector: “We are not able to retain skilled expertise,” said one digital leader. “As soon as you train people, they’re gone to the private sector; they’re gone overseas.”

Addressing the pay gap, some governments elsewhere have introduced pay flexibilities for digital staff – particularly at the top end. Caribbean nations may consider similar solutions; but introducing cross-government workforce management can be just as effective. Providing training, improving career paths and offering accelerated development programmes for talented individuals can help keep people within the civil service, while standardising roles and salaries across government can reduce churn and cross-government wage competition.

Beyond the digital workforce, support is required to help people transition away from the routine, administrative jobs that traditionally dominate civil service activity. Digital transformations often automate much of this work – and unless people are given clear pathways to new, more interesting and engaging roles, many will resist the digital agenda. The Caribbean faces additional headwinds here, as many local economies lack the scale and diversity to readily absorb staff leaving the civil service.

In part, the solutions lie in equipping staff with the skills to move into digital roles; many others may find new roles providing direct support to citizens. If governments are to realise the full benefits of digital technologies, most civil servants’ jobs will see significant change. Only by equipping them with the skills and expertise required to thrive in this new world will organisational leaders be able to address their fears.

9: Governments should pilot recruitment programmes designed to attract talented, early-career digital professionals from abroad into fixed-term positions working on digital transformation projects.

Governments need to build up their digital teams, but struggle to attract local professionals – who can often secure better pay in the private sector. They could, however, offer an attractive package for graduates from overseas, who might well accept a local salary in exchange for experience working on a civil service transformation project – a real advantage back in their home jobs markets – and a couple of years enjoying life in the Caribbean.

“I like this idea, that young graduates might want to come to the Caribbean and work for the salaries our organisations can afford to pay,” commented one digital leader. And they suggested another, complementary option: “There is also a diaspora approach, where we encourage people who have left and built up their careers and companies overseas, to return and help us build their nation.”

The Summit is a place to build connections as well as to debate the issues, helping to create an international professional network

10: Governments should prioritise the provision of fast internet connections to their whole populations, using business models that avoid monopoly control of networks and foster healthy and open services markets.

In some countries, the legacy challenge is that of transitioning from ageing, complex IT systems to truly digital services. In the Caribbean, the situation is different: with little existing government IT infrastructure and high rates of mobile phone ownership among citizens, there’s an opportunity to leapfrog a development stage – moving straight from paper-based services, to digital apps accessed via mobiles. Caribbean leaders are aware of their advantage: “The mature economies are behind here,” said one. “We have nothing presently in place, so we can shape and implement more quickly.”

However, that route forwards depends on everyone having internet access. That in turn means providing access for those without mobiles, laptops or PCs – perhaps via public service offices or libraries – while ensuring that those with digital tools can access fast internet, typically via either broadband or 5G. Improving public connectivity also helps boost wider economic growth, particularly when governments encourage healthy competition by ensuring that all kinds of service providers can reach the public via broadband networks – something that demands effective market regulation.

In some cases, governments may be able to partner with private companies to access both this connectivity, and the apps and processing capacity required to transform services. Carol Robertson, senior business development partner and Caribbean government lead for Summit knowledge partner Cable & Wireless – a major broadband provider in the region – told the Summit that her company can “become that central piece that does the partner management and helps you to put those solutions in place”, offering services “on a subscription basis, so you don’t have to worry so much about the capital investment required”.

11: Digital performance metrics should incentivise and reward true digital transformations, recognising that digitalising service access points while leaving business processes largely unchanged fails to realise much of the potential of digital technologies.

Caribbean civil servants, Cunnington observed, can show a tendency to engage in what one digital leader called “collaboration by mouth”: a façade of cooperation, masking a complete lack of substantive action. This can occur when high-level calls for progress meet institutional inertia, generating an interest in showing progress without challenging the vested interests that – seeking to safeguard civil service jobs, protect existing suppliers or evade the transparency provided by digital services – wish to block genuine reforms. “I have seen token cooperation as a strategy, where they want to assure employees that no jobs will be lost,” said one digital leader.

In these situations, the result is often what another digital leader called “off the cliff implementations”: an existing service is given a digital front-end, but the labour-intensive business process remains intact behind it – so the project fails to cut transaction costs or improve service quality. As one digital leader said: “The existing workforce displays significant protectionism over their space. Accountability is rare, and where it exists outcomes and results are frequently spun to the positive to create the appearance of progress.”

Such projects are a waste of scarce resources. The main solutions here centre on leadership and skills – but one quick win is to change the way that digitalisation is measured, so that an organisation can’t claim to have transformed a service simply by creating an online way to apply.


Reviewing the 11 findings of this Digital Leaders report, it’s easy to find areas of alignment with our first report – which tried to map out the foundation stones of effective transformation. On strategy, digital ID, procurement and workforce, the challenges facing Caribbean civil servants mirror those frustrating their peers around the globe. It is also, though, easy to spot uniquely Caribbean dynamics – both positive and negative.

The region’s elected leaders, for example, often appear much more engaged with the digital agenda than their counterparts elsewhere. Its dependence on external funding, on the other hand, generates problems that digital leaders in Europe and North America are spared: Caribbean technologists complain that well-intentioned officials from international bodies foist on them strategies that have worked well in other parts of the world – ignoring the need to fit your technique to your environment.

Certainly, Caribbean leaders have things to take from the rest of the world about how to pursue digital transformation; but they have just as much to learn from connecting with their colleagues around the region. In publishing this two-part Digital Leaders report, we are reflecting what we’ve heard from Caribbean civil servants on the problems they face, while suggesting solutions that – we believe – will travel well. In organising the Caribbean Digital Summit, we are helping to foster a region-wide discussion very much led by its people. We hope that both are of some assistance to public servants, helping them to find the techniques and solutions that will work well for them.

As one digital leader said at the Summit: “We shouldn’t rely on looking at what Estonia or Canada or the UK did; those are best practices, but we can’t just copy and paste them and think they’ll work in this country. What’s come to the fore here is the need to learn from one another. Some of us have already headed down a path in certain areas, like digital ID. How do we share knowledge and experiences with one another? We’re all Caribbean: we need to build the community from here, to stay in touch, and to continue sharing as we go along.”

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

Digital Leaders in the Caribbean

This is the second part of a two-part report; the first part is available on our website.

The report has been produced 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.

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

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

If you are interested in attending the Caribbean Digital Summit in October 2024, please contact [email protected]

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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