Reach every home: building universal digital services

By on 18/01/2021
A digital infrastructure for everyone: affordability and public confidence are as crucial to online service delivery as network coverage. Credit: Forestinteractive/Wikimedia.

Governments need strong digital infrastructure to provide citizens with online services and boost economic growth. At a GGF webinar, the panel considered how to develop national communications networks – and how to get people using them. Adam Branson reports

During 2020, governments around the world responded to the coronavirus by rapidly moving services online – making them available to citizens even during lockdowns, while protecting both staff and users from the risk of infection. But availability doesn’t guarantee accessibility: to ensure that everyone can use online public services, governments must extend digital networks into every home. And as the pandemic pushes ever broader swathes of activity online – from work meetings to retail – countries need national digital infrastructures with the capacity to meet spiralling demand.

It was to explore these topics that GGF last month held a webinar on ‘Addressing the digital infrastructure challenge’. Kicking off the discussion, panellist Morten Meyerhoff Nielsen – an e-government advisor at the United Nations University’s operating unit on policy-driven electronic governance – provided some powerful statistics.

Morten Meyerhoff Nielsen, EGOV Advisor at Operating Unit on Policy-Driven Electronic Governance, UNU-EGOV, United Nations University

In 2019, he said, only 53% of the world’s people had regular internet access. “There are a number of geographical and socioeconomic variations,” he explained. “So we see that while 83% of Europeans have internet access and use it on a regular basis, this is less than 30% in an African context. North America is similar to Europe in access, but this hides geographical spots in the US that don’t have reliable internet access.” 

“Even if we factor in mobile technology – which is far more accessible and affordable in a lot of emerging economies – we see that it’s still not filling the gap,” he added. “For instance, only 34% of sub-Saharan Africans have access to mobile telephones… Although mobile phones are very prevalent, smartphones are not. So again, we do find that there’s a challenge here.” 

Extending coverage

Extending coverage of fast smartphone data services is a very efficient way to boost accessibility, argued Ashley Lumsden, director of government and public affairs at the event’s knowledge partner, Huawei Technologies (UK). And building 5G networks also generates returns through business growth and enhanced productivity, supporting governments’ work to jump-start their economies in the wake of the pandemic.

Ashley Lumsden, Director of Government and Public Affairs, Huawei Technologies (UK)

“We particularly support the investment at this point in the fiscal cycle because of the way it produces returns,” he said, referencing studies by the International Monetary Fund and European Commission. “The European Commission study from 2016 suggested the direct multiplier of 5G infrastructure investment is around 2.5, so way ahead of general infrastructure investment. I think that even if one has questions about the accuracy of some of these investment multiplier figures, what they tell us is, relatively speaking, that technology investment is a very strong candidate for investment at this stage.” 

As governments oversee the expansion of digital networks, commented Meyerhoff Nielsen, they must focus on affordability as well as geographical coverage. “The main reason behind the digital divide is not access; it’s not the inability to use technology,” he said. “It’s the affordability of the internet access and the devices that we use.” In Portugal, he noted, a smartphone data package is twice the price of the same service in Denmark – even though incomes are much lower. And in Lebanon, 5GB of mobile data costs some US$100.

Public education

As well as providing affordable access and universal coverage, governments must also give people the skills to use digital services, said Indrek Õnnik, global affairs director in the Government CIO Office of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, Estonia. His country has famously spent 30 years building a world-leading digital infrastructure, having decided after the collapse of the USSR that only online services could support affordable service delivery for its largely rural population. “The challenge in the early 1990s was to how to be able to reach every citizen or resident and provide them with quality services, while at the same time not going bankrupt,” he recalled. “We saw that the internet was developing and it doesn’t cost as much, so could we try to provide services via the internet?” 

Indrek Õnnik, Global Affairs Director, Government CIO Office, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, Estonia

That required public education as well as physical networks, he explained: “We had to make sure not only that we have internet coverage everywhere in Estonia, but also that the people have sufficient knowledge to use the devices that that can be connected to the internet.” And the Estonian civil service needed the internal digital infrastructure to securely exchange data both between agencies, and between the government and service users: the country’s advanced digital ID system has been core to its success online.

Switzerland is currently developing its own digital ID system, explained Dieter J. Tschan, e-government representative for the Swiss Confederation: by creating a single ID system that citizens can use to access both public and private services, he said, the government hopes to make it an everyday part of people’s lives. “If you use your electronic identity once or every two years, you will never use it,” he commented. “But if you use it on a regular basis, once a month, or even more often, then you have the penetration, then you have the acceptance and then it will become something general that’s used every day. People get used to it; they don’t even think about it anymore.” 

The power of convenience

For Estonia, added Õnnik, the ‘once only’ principle has also been important – meaning that “if the government has asked for any type of information once, it shouldn’t bother the citizen or the company again with the same question.” This requires attention to governments’ own digital wiring so that data moves easily across the system, he said: online service provision “really can be enhanced by the fact of having strong infrastructure, having accessibility, having connectivity or interoperability between your information systems.”

Dieter J. Tschan, E-Government Representative for the Swiss Confederation, Ministry of Finance, Federal IT Steering Unit ), Switzerland

The public are comfortable with government agencies sharing information, said Õnnik, because they understand that it makes accessing public services simpler and more convenient. “From an Estonian perspective, if anyone asks me the same information twice, my first response is: ‘Why are you asking me this again? Did you lose the information I already gave you?’ It’s a different mindset.” 

The Swiss are more cautious here, said Tschan: to demonstrate that digital platforms can be as secure as traditional services, he explained, the government has begun by putting less sensitive data online. “We have to fight the fears, so we started with some pilot projects,” he said. “For example, the meteorological service for Switzerland was among the first to use Cloud services on a large scale because we said: ‘With this data, even if there’s a breach, it is not super sensitive. If somebody steals the meteorological data from Switzerland from the past five years, so what? But I wouldn’t build a cancer database for children when not being 100%, even 150%, sure that you have the maximum security that you can.”

Varying appetites for change

Even when Swiss people are more comfortable with digital services, though, Tschan suggested that they’ll be reluctant to let go of traditional access points. “We still like the established way: interaction between citizens and government is still mostly on the community level,” he said. “It’s direct communication. People know their civil servants in the community they live in, and they go to them for all kinds of questions. That is well established and nobody really wants to change it. They say: ‘It’s working fine, we have perfected it over the past 150 years and there is no need to change anything’. The second way is mail, and that also works fine. And therefore, as we build up the digital way in addition, [we can’t] destroy the two established ways.” 

Over the coming years, those countries with strong digital infrastructures will be well-placed to transform public services. But as the webinar made clear, success here will demand much more than advanced physical infrastructures: to support widespread access and takeup, governments must also consider affordability, public confidence, security, convenience, and data management across the public sector. It’s one thing to build the skeleton of a new way of delivering services; it’s quite another to get it to stand up and walk.

The webinar ‘Addressing the digital infrastructure challenge’ was held on 15 December, and supported by Huawei Technologies (UK). You can view the presentation slides here and watch the whole event via our events page or below.

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