Exploring digital public goods — introduction

Digital public goods could serve as building blocks for modern digital societies. These essays explore how to focus that effort on foundational platforms, long-term development and transparency, and how digital public goods will move questions and practices that were once the domain of technologists to that of politics and policy-making.

Richard Pope, May 2021. Also published on Medium.

How should we think about the problem of the digitisation of the state?

Is legacy technology the norm? Should problems like the American federal government sending paper cheques through the post for COVID-19 relief, or the fact that UK government payments generally take 3 days to process, be front of mind when thinking about the digitisation of society? Or should it be something like India Stack or Estonia’s digital infrastructure where the creation of digital platforms as services happens in a (relatively) clear field?

Is digitisation of the state a transitional moment - a matter of ‘digital transformation’, or buying the right product from a ‘govtech’ provider? Or is it a reorganisation of the work of public institutions?

Should we see the digitisation of the welfare systems, identity or healthcare as dangers to be resisted? Or should we see them as prerequisites for 21st-century government? Ones that, yes, need to be operated in an understandable, accountable and trusted way, but are so fundamental that the opportunity cost favours action over inaction?

These are some of the questions posed by the concept of ‘digital public goods’: collaboratively maintained digital infrastructure that could serve as building blocks for modern digital societies.

The fundamental argument for digital public goods is that there are more Indias and Estonias in the world than there are public bodies whose problems mirror the problems of the UK’s central government or the US Federal Government. That, when we include the activities of public institutions around the world, legacy is not the norm. That the weight of needs that go unmet because of a lack of (or lack of control over) fundamental digital infrastructure is too great to be ignored. And that digitisation is far from a ‘once and done’ moment.

The Digital Public Goods Alliance (a loose network of governments and NGOs) defines digital public goods as:

open-source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm, and help attain the SDGs.

A sceptical reading of the definition above would be that it represents a repackaging of e-government, civic tech or GovTech with a focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, there are a few signals that suggest this is not the case. Many of the things labelled as Digital Public Goods are platform in their nature. Regularly cited examples of digital public goods include Mojaloop - an open-source project and associated foundation that enables the creation of interbank payment platforms; OpenG2P that enables humanitarian relief payments; the DHIS2 health information system; and the MOSIP identity platform. They represent fundamental building blocks.

These examples are also more than just software projects — they have an institutional home, in a foundation or similar and a dedicated team to design and maintain them. There is a focus on reuse, standards, and data that neither today’s design-focused digital government movement or the earlier e-government movement readily found a home for. Finally, there is an emphasis on governance and harm prevention as a predicate (even if ‘applicable laws and best practices’ does a lot of heavy lifting in the Digital Public Goods Alliance’s definition). Rather than being a constraint — a narrowing of focus on international development — the use of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals could give an expansive and aspirational framing for digital infrastructure.

Today, the conversation about digital public goods is mostly occurring in the fields of international development and philanthropy, and projects that identify as Digital Public Goods are mostly from those fields. However, we can add to that list other examples of collaboratively created and maintained software such as the Notify messaging platform that is in use in several countries; the X-Road data exchange system; and efforts like the Foundation for Public Code, which aims to provide an institutional home for software developed by public sector organisations.

All societies and governments of all levels, from central to local, are facing the question of how to create effective digital infrastructure (in the UK, for example, sometimes held up as an example of digital central government, the question of how to create shared infrastructure for local government remains utterly unsolved). Collaborative creation and maintenance of software could make this accessible to more public institutions around the world.

Digital public goods could provide a model for the creation of that infrastructure in a way that allows for public institutions to leapfrog the process of creating digital analogues of legacy paper processes. It could enable new governance models, that combine the best features of open-source software development and a public sector ethos, that ensure that accountability and accessibility are designed in at source. It could provide a space for the shifting boundaries of public policy, digital and civil society to play out in, and move the practice of digital government on from its current focus on utilitarian and transactional design, to something that understands and makes space for affordances of technology and meeting a broader set of needs. Finally, digital public goods hold out the prospect of the appropriateness of any given technology for particular countries or community being a question for that country or community.1 The implications of digital identity, welfare, health records and other systems will be very different in different contexts. Digital public goods could make that more of a reality than public institutions becoming dependent on private sector providers.

That’s a lot of ‘could’s’.

This series of essays aims to explore some of those ‘could’s’ through two main themes. The first is to propose a more robust scope and character set for digital public goods - one that is focused on foundational components, stable long-term development and transparency. Can they be designed in a way that maximises use and avoids the creation of new silos? What transparency and auditing practices might need to become commonplace? Is the list of foundational digital public goods a long one or a short one?

The second is that, as digital moves from the periphery to the ‘rails’ that our societies run on, questions and practices that were once the domain of technologists move into the domain of politics and policy-making, meaning there is boundary-work to be done. How might the behaviours associated with open-source and platforms, negative and positive, play out in population-scale services? How might the contests between digital public goods and proprietary technology play out? How should funders of digital public goods and governments think about these things? What are the implications for software projects that may need to survive government-scale policy cycles, rather than Facebook or Apple length product cycles?

  1. One area these essays do not cover is the appropriateness of any given bit of technology to a particular policy area or place. That should always be a matter for communities and elected governments.