Game changer: Why we support the Digital Public Goods Charter

This blog first appeared on the Digital Impact Alliance website and is written by: Chrissy Martin Meier (DPG Charter), Deon Woods Bell (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), David Roos (GIZ), Chris Burns (USAID)

Imagine the last time you replaced your driver’s license or paid a utility bill. Did you need to visit a local office? What about the last time you applied for a new credit card or sent a loved one money? 

The chances are high that you were able to take care of these simple but life-enabling activities on your computer or mobile phone. But, have you ever thought about the infrastructure — the core digital systems — that make it possible for you to skip the travel, the wait times, and the headaches associated with conducting many simple government and business transactions in person? 

Believe it or not, we think about these digital systems all the time. We do so for an important reason: they help deliver services that transform societies and the lives of people within those societies. 

However, these systems can be haphazard — developed and offered by a fragmented group of companies and government agencies — or they can be intentionally designed to provide sustainable benefits to an entire population. When developed in this more purposeful way, we collectively call these systems digital public infrastructure, or DPI.

Simply put, digital public infrastructure is a set of systems that strategically bring together functions, such as identity, payments, and data exchange, to enable government agencies and private companies to deliver essential services. It’s these very systems that allow some people to more easily and quickly renew their driver’s license or get a new credit card.

Well-designed digital public infrastructure can, and already does, help countries tackle all sorts of local challenges – from how people in different areas receive social payments to how to register newly-arrived migrants and help them find work.

On top of this, these digital systems also generate huge amounts of data that, when shared responsibly, help policymakers and individuals make critical decisions, including those that help to mitigate and respond to global challenges like the impacts of climate change

And yet, despite the clear benefits, few countries have managed to put in place robust digital public infrastructure. Why?

Building a common set of digital systems that can seamlessly share information, efficiently deliver services, and protect each person’s fundamental right to privacy is no easy feat. Many software systems that are currently used for digital public infrastructure are quite expensive, limited in their flexibility to adapt to change over time, and not necessarily designed with the population’s needs in mind but rather the needs of a company or government. 
This is where digital public goods (often referred to as DPGs) play a critical role and offer the potential to help overcome many of the challenges countries face with building and maintaining their digital public infrastructure. Digital public goods are able to do this because they’re products that are:

  • Open-source, meaning they provide flexibility to make changes without high additional costs;
  • Designed to do no harm, meaning they provide safeguards against the misuse or leakage of anyone’s personal data; and,
  • Contribute in some way towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), meaning they must deliver a positive benefit to society.

Based on these characteristics, digital public goods provide more options for governments who are developing their digital public infrastructure and want to ensure it is designed for the public good. So, how can we all work together to provide countries with the best possible options for building their digital public infrastructure? 

This question is at the heart of a new advocacy campaign, the Charter for Digital Public Goods (DPG Charter). The campaign aims to galvanize interest, nurture critical discussion, and mobilize action from governments, private sector companies, foundations, and other relevant actors from around the world. These will be captured through endorsements of the vision behind the DPG Charter, and commitments that align with this vision (including financial commitments; commitments to share, improve, and deploy products and services; and commitments to increase research and knowledge on this topic). 

As part of the campaign, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) held group consultations and discussions with over 100 people from across the globe, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This process was supported by a number of partners, including, but not limited to: Smart Africa, The Brookings Institution, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the UN Development Program (UNDP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), and us.

Through these consultations, a number of focus areas and potential gaps were identified that can be addressed through collective action and improve the current, and future, state of digital public infrastructure. These findings have been consolidated into five key outcomes.

Commitments under the DPG Charter will work to make these five outcomes a reality. And ultimately, will help ensure that digital public goods maximize the benefits of digital public infrastructure and improve the lives of all people.

  1. Products: There is a diverse set of discoverable, sustainably financed, effectively managed, and interoperable DPGs supported by qualified vendors that can meet the needs of digital public infrastructure implementation in countries.
  2. Capacity: Governments and local private sector actors are empowered and able to select, plan, regulate, manage, and evolve digital public infrastructure in line with national strategies.
  3. Implementation: Countries have sufficient funding, technical assistance, strategies, and processes in place to scale and build end-to-end digital public infrastructure and relevant use cases for addressing pressing needs and empowering people.
  4. Safeguards and Inclusion: Countries and civil society implement and enforce specific policy and regulatory frameworks, as well as technical, and process-oriented measures to ensure that the benefits of digital public infrastructure outweigh risks for all people. 
  5. Ecosystem: Effective institutions, such as associations, think tanks, and accelerators, are funded and have the capacity and authority to coordinate, safeguard, and advance DPGs for digital public infrastructure.

Over the coming weeks, we will publish a blog series detailing each of these five outcomes and the insights we’ve garnered on how commitments from governments, private companies, and organizations can overcome obstacles to realizing them. Over the coming months, we will mobilize new endorsements and commitments to the DPG Charter through a variety of engagements, starting with participation in two UN General Assembly (UNGA77) side events – both focused on safe, inclusive and trusted digital public infrastructure.

Stay tuned for more!