Doing good with data: an interview with the Development Bank of Latin America’s Carlos Santiso

By on 10/07/2020 | Updated on 04/02/2022

Dr Carlos Santiso is no stranger to crisis response, having spent 25 years promoting democracy, strengthening governance and fighting corruption in emerging economies and fragile states. The scale of the coronavirus pandemic is intimidating; but as he tells Mia Hunt, it’s driving governments to harness the power of data and digital at unprecedented speed

Carlos Santiso has lived and worked in several countries and been involved in projects in more than 40. And throughout, he’s worked to improve people’s lives through “better policies, better governance, and more transparency”. In recent years, he’s concentrated on using data and digital tools to achieve his goals – and with COVID-19 turbo-charging governments’ tech transformations, he says the opportunities are expanding fast.

“Many countries have realised the importance of going digital in this context, and that they should have been better prepared. There’s a recognition that the capacities of governments to deliver services in a crisis is based in part on digitalisation and so the barriers are coming down,” he says. “Resilience is key.”

Santiso intends to jump on this growing realisation, which ties in neatly with his work at the Development Bank of Latin America.

Since joining the bank as director of governance practice in September 2018, Santiso has set up a small team focused on digital innovation in government. It focuses on employing data and emerging technologies to improve government; encouraging agility through administrative simplification and regulatory reform; and fighting corruption.

The fledgling team – which offers technical assistance, advice and analysis, and facilitates associated lending – was in the early stages of delivering on its missions when the coronavirus outbreak hit. But rather than refocusing its remit, the pandemic has pressed the fast-forward button on its existing work. Since April, it has released a report setting out recommendations for how Latin American governments can avoid corruption, reflecting the increased risk as they seek to procure large volumes of medical supplies; published the first Ibero-American GovTech index, which recognises the contribution of start-ups in helping governments recover from the crisis; and launched an emergency COVID-19 investment fund.

Santiso gives two examples of start-ups that are prime targets for such investment: a company in Mexico that is deploying blockchain technology to track government transfers, and another from Argentina that is helping municipalities to monitor cases of coronavirus, enabling them to respond to localised outbreaks more effectively.

He is excited by governments’ newfound appreciation for the services of the small digital businesses that specialise in public sector work. “Govtech start-ups offer a fantastic opportunity to leverage new public-private partnerships for innovation in government, and in this pandemic their work is acquiring new relevance,” Santiso says. But the intersection between private and public sectors isn’t easy to navigate: “A lot of govtech start-ups have a really strong sense of social impact. They’re often run by young people who want to do good, but they’re trying to combine an agile, private sector approach based on data and new tech with cumbersome bureaucracies that are averse to risk.”

“Inequality is very much entrenched in Latin America and has been for a long time,” Santiso says. “You can drive institutional reform but unless you think through the cause of the dysfunction, you will not necessarily have sustainable results.” (Photo by Pedro Szekely via flickr).

While there is appetite for programmes that aim to support the evolution of govtech – Santiso notes the UK’s GovTech Catalyst fund as an inspiration – there is also recognition that the market “isn’t mature enough yet”. Pitching for government contracts is expensive, the delivery environment is complex, and the competition is fierce: “The public procurement market is huge and it’s not necessarily open for start-ups: there are a lot of incumbents – especially the big tech companies ­– and it’s very difficult for a start-up to work with the public sector and risk dying in the process,” he says.  

To compensate, governments should create incentives for govtech firms, he says – introducing policies that favour innovation in public procurement, and embracing accelerator programmes designed to incubate promising young businesses.

The power of data 2.0

Santiso is no stranger to the power and potential of data, having spent years using it to make real, tangible differences to people’s lives. At the Inter-American Development Bank, where he headed the Innovation in Citizen Services division, he oversaw the development of tech solutions and data analytics to prevent crime, in particular violence against women. And he worked on a project that lowered homicide rates in Honduras – one of the most violent countries in the world – by using data to guide the work of police forces and make them more accountable.

He has also worked on an online anti-corruption platform, spearheaded by Colombia, which monitors the implementation of public investments – providing a real-time view of their progress to the public. The initiative has since been replicated in many countries, including Costa Rica and Paraguay, to monitor COVID-19 funds.

“Data is the most critical asset for businesses and governments alike,” Santiso says. And quality is key to its value: “You need to really invest in the quality of your data and you need to clean it, because it’s often inputted manually in Excel and there are a lot of mistakes. It’s tedious work but it’s imperative because with these systems, if you put garbage in, you get garbage out.”

Santiso: “There’s a lot of hope now around data trusts and mechanisms through which you can have exchange of public and private sector data for the common good. We’re seeing new partnerships so that agenda’s moving on well.”

In response to coronavirus, governments are finding a host of new applications: data is essential to understanding the number of coronavirus cases and deaths, identifying outbreak hotspots, tracking the availability of medical equipment such as ICU beds and ventilators, and providing benefits and employment subsidies. “The coronavirus crisis is putting the issue of data, data infrastructure and data governance into a new perspective,” Santiso says. And as data takes a more prominent role in crisis response and service delivery, the media and public are taking an ever closer interest in its use: “There are debates around privacy and the security of personal data, and around data for public good – it’s put the debate on steroids.

“There needs to be a more structured dialogue globally on international standards about the governance of data,” he adds. “This requires a multilateral solution and an international organisation mandated to oversee them, a sort of ‘World Data Organisation’.”

As well as prompting deeper discussion about responsible data use, the pandemic has also driven public use of private data: information from telecoms firms, for example, has been used in contract-tracing apps and can help monitor patterns of movement – helping officials to forecast and avert the disease’s spread. “There’s a lot of talk now around data collaboratives and mechanisms through which you can have exchange of public and private sector data for the common good. We’re seeing new partnerships so that agenda’s moving on well,” Santiso says.

If there’s one area where Santiso would like to see faster progress, it’s open data: the publication of government datasets to support public scrutiny and enable businesses to build new services. “There is still a lot of work that needs to be done around open data and using it effectively to improve government functions,” he says. “It’s not a continuous process. In some countries there may be a rollback in terms of their openness and transparency agenda.”

The first generation of open data reforms, he says, concentrated on improving transparency for citizens and lifting trust in government. Now governments should treat open data as an investment in future economic growth and social outcomes: “Ministries of Finance need to have a stronger argument to say that it makes good business sense to invest in open data,” he says. “The value of all of this is in improving lives – and we’re still struggling a bit with communicating that.”

Anti-corruption crusade

During the pandemic, Santiso comments, open data has particular value in combating corruption: a particular risk as governments rush to buy essential supplies and services. “The amounts are so huge and the urgency so big that there are a lot of opportunities for corruption. You have companies that were baking bread suddenly producing masks or ventilators and the price gouging is very difficult to manage because the markets for those products is crazy,” he says. 

And Santiso, who is a member of the World Economic Forum´s Global Future Council on Transparency and Anti-Corruption and an advisor to its Partnering against Corruption Initiative and Tech4Integrity platform, points out that the growing use of real-time data is enabling governments to spot fraud as it occurs. “There’s a lot of work being done around corruption risk and how data and digital solutions can be used to mitigate that risk,” he says. “What’s fascinating is that unlike prior crises ­– hurricanes and the like – when we’ve discovered cases of corruption months after they occurred, this time we’re able to detect them almost live.”

Feed the children, not the fraudsters: a Colombian scheme tested the use of blockchain in procuring school dinners. (Photo of children in Florida, western Colombia, courtesy of UNESCO).

He gives the example of Bolivia’s health minister, who was arrested in May on suspicion of corruption relating to the purchase of overpriced ventilators. And Colombia, he adds, has launched a pilot in which blockchain technology is used to track social payments: “They’re investing a lot in the potential of blockchain for driving change in public administration.”

The difficulties of driving reform

So the technologies have huge potential; the limiting factor is governments’ ability to deploy them. “Sometimes the scale of ambition, the policies, do not correspond to the capabilities of the public administration in those countries to implement them,” Santiso says. In many African and Latin American countries, tax income is so low – often less than 20% of GDP – “that you’re asking the state to deliver without having the capabilities to do so”.

It doesn’t help that many nations don’t invest in their permanent officials or use merit-based appointment systems, instead relying on short-term contracts – “so the incentives are not always there”. And then there is the gap between central government capabilities and local government capabilities. “You have to be realistic about the contents of the reform programme: one needs to be ambitious, but not too much so,” Santiso says.  

Timing and tempo is also important. As Santiso points out, institutional development and governance reform is a long-term and non-linear process. “Sometimes we are impatient in the way we look at change, but in developing countries patience and endurance is best,” he says. This is particularly difficult where institutions “reflect a very unequal distribution of power” – as in Latin America, where government priorities and economic policies may reflect the interests of elites rather than the wider public. “Inequality is very much entrenched in Latin America and has been for a long time,” he says. “You can drive institutional reform but unless you think through the cause of that dysfunction, you will not necessarily have sustainable results.”

In time data will, no doubt, be hugely valuable in addressing these problems too. Meanwhile, Santiso will keep walking the line between championing the power of data to solve social problems, and recognising governments’ limited ability to build the systems required. And as COVID-19 pushes governments to raise their digital games, Santiso and his team will be there to help them realise the new opportunities that come within their reach.

Global Government Forum: five thoughts for better government

Dr Carlos Santiso on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the most out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions on camera – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. Here is the video, and underneath it, an edited version of Carlos Santiso’s answers. (Please note that the video was recorded before the outbreak of COVID-19).

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

One of the lessons from the international experience I have in the area of public sector reform is the critical importance of thinking about the timing and tempo of reform – the need to think long-term but also to achieve results in the short-term. Reform, especially institutional reform, is a long-term process that can go through ups and downs. It’s important to think about the best timing to introduce reforms in terms of the political economy, the electoral cycles and so on. And then there’s the tempo – how fast you can push reform depends on the context in which you operate and the conditions and the incentives around the type of reforms.

Are there any projects or innovations in Colombia/Latin America that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

I’ll turn that question around. One of the exciting experiences we look at is the UK’s promotion of the digital transformation of government. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has been a big innovation that everybody has found inspirational. Specifically, in terms of the programmes that GDS has put forward, GovTech Catalyst is very interesting in terms of its ability to incubate, promote and encourage more tech-based and data-based solutions from private start-ups – and that, in turn, can have a positive social impact and drive better public value. The UK’s Digital Marketplace initiative, also being promoted by GDS, is another exciting way to reform the way government buys technologies and to encourage small- and medium-sized enterprises, including start-ups, to provide solutions to government. These are the types of really concrete initiatives that governments can take to promote digital transformation and to build public-private partnerships that drive innovations in government.

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

One really important way is to enable government officials to exchange experiences in closed-door environments under the Chatham House Rule and, as part of that, to share their failures. We share our success stories but talk less about our failures and providing an environment or a context in which civil servants, especially senior civil servants, can share their failures is a very important way to promote dialogue. I think Global Government Forum offers an interesting space to promote that kind of open exchange. Learning from others about what hasn’t worked can bring a lot of lessons in terms of how to do things and how not to do things.

What are the biggest global challenges within your field in the next few years?

In terms of digital transformation in government, and more broadly the modernisation of government, there are three key challenges. One is how to tackle the lack of trust in government: trust deficit in government is a big challenge in a lot of countries for a lot of reasons, including the lack of capabilities to deliver and also fake news. Embedding more openness and transparency is probably part of the solution.

Another challenge, especially for developing countries and regions, is how you tackle inequality and how you ensure that the digital revolution will not widen inequality, and that the digital divide will not become bigger between countries and within countries.

The third challenge is corruption in the delivery of public services. People demand better public services and better value for money and therefore more honesty and transparency around how they are delivered. Tackling corruption – big and small – is critical. 

What’s your favourite book?

One I read recently that I most enjoyed was How Democracies Die by Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. It’s an interesting read because probably 20 years ago, those authors were writing books about the opportunities of democracy and democracies growing and so on, and now there is a lot of concern about how democracies die. The argument they make is that democracies don’t die by coup, they die much more slowly by weakening the checks and balances, weakening trust in government, weakening of a lot of things in a small way and little by little. It’s a wake-up call in all that we’re trying to achieve in our democracies and the quality of our democracies.

Global Government Forum is running a free online conference – Know your enemy: using data to tackle COVID-19 – on Wednesday 22 July. It will explore the skills, processes and systems required to realise the potential of data in tackling coronavirus – equipping civil servants to stifle the pandemic and repair the health, social and economic damage left in its wake. The event comprises two sessions and features Carlos Santiso’s colleague, Enrique Zapata, as well as senior leaders and digital specialists from Australia, Singapore, Chile, the United Nations and OECD.  

For more information and to register, click here.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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