Digitising public service delivery: opportunities and limitations

The first of two blog posts looking at the benefits and challenges of digitisation


Digital technologies can help governments improve public accountability and public service delivery. One analysis suggests that the full potential of government digitisation could free up to $1 trillion annually in economic value worldwide. This potential not only applies to advanced industrialised economies, but it also exists in low-income countries. Public digitisation projects in Kenya, for instance, are estimated to have improved public revenue collection while also having saved the government $290 million in efficiency gains over four years.

However, too often digitisation projects in the public sector fall short of delivering expected results. Sometimes they never get implemented at all. This means that opportunities are lost and, when projects fail, resources are wasted. While large, middle-income countries such as India and Pakistan have made impressive strides in leveraging digital technologies for improved public service delivery, many other middle- and low-income countries struggle to take advantage of the potential.

This is one of two blog posts where I investigate how digital technologies can be used to improve public service delivery in low-income countries, and suggest remedies for how to better leverage this potential. In this first blog, I explore the potential of digitisation, and flag the limitations and risks. In the next blog post I proceed to provide a simple guide for how to decide when digitisation is an appropriate and practicable solution to public service delivery problems, and I present recommendations for how to better implement projects that aim to improve public service delivery through digitisation.

The potential of digitisation in public service delivery

Digital technologies can improve public service delivery in many ways. For simplicity, we can think about two types of improvements: direct and indirect.

Direct: Digitisation can directly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery by lowering the costs associated with delivery (e.g. by reducing discretion and rent-seeking opportunities) and improving quality and coverage of services (e.g. through the use of tele-medicine or drones).

Indirect: Digital technologies can indirectly improve the quality of service delivery by strengthening feedback flows from users to service providers or monitoring agents (e.g. through mobile-based citizen feedback mechanisms or by making open government data more accessible and understandable). Such feedback can then be used by providers to improve delivery. Similarly, digital technologies can help citizens connect with each other, fostering voice and collective action, which in turn can incentivise governments to improve the quality or coverage of existing services or to deliver new services.

Digitisation is proving useful in many sectors. In low-income countries, priority focus areas for digitisation initiatives have often been core e-government systems such as those related to customs, financial management, and procurement. However, in the health sector countries are experimenting with a variety of applications aiming to directly improve service delivery, ranging from telemedicine and e-vaccination systems to drone delivery of medicine and improvements in disease tracking and pandemic alerts. Similarly, many countries and development partners are exploring how to leverage digital technologies to indirectly improve health service delivery through the use of technology and open data. In Pakistan, the OPM-run District Delivery Challenge Fund (part of a large sub-national governance programme) has successfully piloted and scaled digital service delivery solutions such as tele-medicine, where electronic diagnostic equipment links local basic health units with specialists in district hospitals. Similarly, pilots in Bangladesh, India, South Africa, and Tanzania have used SMS communication to encourage behaviour changes in expectant mothers by providing information on neonatal health.

Other sectors also have potential, including education, procurement, public administration, revenue management, social protection, and democratic participation. In Nigeria, the Ministry of Education has launched its ‘Microwork for Jobs Creation in Nigeria’ initiative to tackle issues of employability and job creation using information technology, and in Rwanda the Government has put in place an electronic procurement system – the first of its kind in Africa. The World Development Report 2016 (WDR16) provides a comprehensive overview of how digital technologies are being applied to improve public service delivery across a range of sectors. For a more recent account, check out this Brookings publication.

Limitations and risks of digitisation

Digitisation is not always an appropriate solution for improving public service delivery, and digitisation projects often fail to deliver their expected results during implementation. This is true not least in low-income countries. According to the WDR16, almost a third of public sector digital technology projects fail (with 58% deemed a partial failure and only 13% a success). In addition, digital technology focused projects are prone to run over budget and experience considerable delays. The poor delivery of digitisation projects not only means that a lot of resources are wasted, it also entails risks such as those associated with exclusion – especially when it comes to women and rural populations for whom cell phone and internet penetration and usage are usually lower.

A range of factors influence when and how digitisation can improve public service delivery. These should be considered when deciding whether or not to use digital technology, and they are important to account for during the implementation of a digitisation initiative. While some these factors relate to technology, most are analogue and apply to any public sector change initiative. Below, I highlight five key issues.

  1. Digitisation initiatives depend on physical infrastructure. Unreliable electricity supply and lack of access to electricity, as well as low levels of internet connectivity and mobile phone penetration, limit the utility of digitisation initiatives. Furthermore, environmental and climatic conditions such as humidity, dust, flooding, and hurricanes affect how sustainable these initiatives are likely to be and the extent to which they are able to deal with shocks. For example, when assessing the potential of electronic government to people (G2P) transfers for social protection or emergency response these are fundamental considerations affecting cost-effectiveness (see here and here).
  1. The public sector itself presents a particular set of challenges for change initiatives such as digitisation projects. Public organisations are profoundly different from private ones in terms of their purpose, culture, and operating context. Coordination, implementation, and scale up of digitisation projects are especially difficult in the public sector, because systems and data are usually co-owned by different organisational entities (such as ministries and departments) that each have their own mission, incentives, and capacity constraints. For a deeper discussion of this see the Harvard Business Review or this McKinsey blog.
  1. Digitisation depends on existing institutions and their capacity. Digitisation initiatives are therefore unlikely to succeed in settings where things aren’t already working – for instance, where people in the public sector don’t already behave based on formal rules and systems, or where they don’t already have the skills, knowledge, and incentives to do their jobs. The point is that technology complements or augments existing institutions; it does not replace them. Bill Gates alludes to this, noting that “automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency […;] automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” For instance, the success of mobile-based citizen feedback mechanisms depends on whether or not citizens have the incentives and ability to provide feedback (see more below) as well as whether or not the government has the will and capacity to respond to the feedback (read this for details about when ICT enabled citizen voice initiatives work). However, all this also depends on the type of service in question. For routine tasks that are easy to monitor, digital technologies can improve outcomes quickly – even when institutions are relatively weak. Yet, for services that require more discretion on behalf of providers and that are hard to monitor, the quality of institutions becomes more important.
  1. The degree of e-literacy and access to technology among citizens also affects the success of digitisation initiatives – especially in cases where these initiatives require citizens to engage with new technology. For example, aggregate (2017) statistics from Chile show that 68.9% of citizens still prefer to register and update their information via physical municipal offices rather than online. This could pose a serious challenge to digitisation initiatives in terms of guaranteeing inclusion (especially for the elderly, the disabled, and those who are illiterate) if digital windows that are not complemented by other (analogue) registration and updating approaches. E-literacy on behalf of beneficiaries is particularly important when initiatives use digital solutions in the provision of social protection services to the poorest and most vulnerable in a society. Even with rising internet connectivity, vulnerable groups are often late adopters of technology, and face standard challenges in terms of illiteracy and exclusion.
  1. Any change initiative hinges on the political economy environment. Digitisation initiatives – especially the ones that involve automation or a transfer of discretion – affect how and by whom funds and services are allocated. This means that it alters the allocation of power between actors. Social registries used for the provision of social protection services are good examples of this (read more here). Without the support of a sufficiently strong coalition of actors (which could be a combination of elites and non-elites), digitisation projects will not be initiated or be successfully implemented. This explains why patronage-based bureaucracies resist e-government advances that reduce discretion and rent-seeking. See the WDR16 for more details and my previous blog post for a longer discussion of how power and politics matter for technology initiatives.

When to go digital?

It is easy to get carried away by the hype and allure of digitisation – especially in low-income countries and fragile states where ‘analogue’ service delivery improvement initiatives struggle to deliver results. However, the discussion above shows that digitisation may not always be the right path to follow and it reminds us that successful implementation of these initiatives is not a given. A range of contextual factors determine whether digitisation is likely to improve public service delivery, so we have to carefully consider when to use digital solutions and how to implement them. To help us do this, my next blog post provides a quick guide for how to decide whether digitisation is the right solution to a service delivery problem, and it offers a number of practical recommendations for how to implement a digitisation initiative.

[button-link text="Read the second part of this blog series" link="https://www.opml.co.uk/blog/when-and-how-to-use-digital-tech-to-improve-public-service-delivery"]

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