This article is contributed to TechCabal by Blessing Ajimoti, Public Digital’s programme manager on the Nigeria Digital Capabilities programme.

On the margins of the G20 Summit held in India early this month, Bosun Tijani, Nigeria’s minister of communications, innovation and digital economy met with leaders of India’s public services’ digital transformation. He announced a plan to sign an MoU with India “to leverage their experience helping the Indian government build scalable digital services” and that he will be “hosting them at a workshop in Abuja on designing Digital Public Infrastructure for government services”.

This is positive news for Nigeria as an accelerated approach to the design and delivery of digital government services will enable the country’s progression towards the building of other digital capabilities in government.

What are Digital Public Infrastructure (DPIs)? 

Several definitions exist, but DPIs are essentially the foundations on which digital activities are built. Similar to the way that physical infrastructure such as roads enable people’s faster travel with automobiles, or the existence of telecommunications masts enabling quicker real-time communication electronically, DPIs enable digital approaches to activities, in this case, the delivery of services by different stakeholders. 

DPIs are the infrastructure on which digital transformation is built. They are not just conceived as technology; they are thought of in terms of scale, and the interests and needs of the public. 

DPIs may come into being through the efforts of government, the private sector and sometimes non-profits.

Governments, depending on their financial and technical capabilities or preferences, could either build theirs or adapt existing ones. Some existing ones that can be leveraged include Digital Public Goods (DPGs). According to the Digital Public Goods Alliance, DPGs are open-source products that advance the sustainable development goals. They are open in terms of data, AI models, standards, and content. Beyond being open-source and platform-independent, DPGs must adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm by design and meet the DPG Standard.

Why are DPIs important?

  • For governments, DPIs enable better planning, design and digital delivery of services in areas such as education, healthcare and welfare to citizens. This is because the infrastructure would already exist on which public services can be built and delivered in an improved manner. Leveraging digital for improved service delivery does not happen overnight and is iterative, but that’s a whole other conversation on government’s digital maturity
  • For citizens, when DPIs enable service delivery, it means that there are improved possibilities for savings in the cost, time, and processes it takes to access government (and other) services. For instance, with identity, , it is currently the norm in Nigeria to be required to provide the same data on registration forms to different government offices every time one needs to access services. This is unfortunate in a country where identity DPIs such as the National identity Number (NIN) or Bank Verification Numbers (BVNs) could have helped with saving the time spent filling forms.   
  • Other stakeholders such as players in the digital economy, can leverage DPIs—based on citizen and residents-protecting governance standards—to design innovations and [better] products for their customers. Also, and similar to the benefits citizens derive, DPIs can enable ease of doing business as applications for business registrations and licences and permits become easier and faster to secure.

The kinds of DPIs in existence

While many DPIs exist, most fit into three broad categories: those that enable digital identity, payments, and data exchange.

  • Identity. These are DPIs that enable the verification of digital identity to which services are or can be connected. Our Indian counterparts that the Nigerian government wants to learn from have developed Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric identity system with over 1 billion people identified on the platform and to which India’s public services are linked. It is a great example of DPIs deployed at the scale of a country’s population. Nigeria’s NINs and BVNs are good examples of DPIs that can enable the government to deliver services. 
  • Payment. These DPIs enable payments across different platforms and through different channels. The Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System (NIBSS) and Remita are good examples here of payment DPIs in Nigeria. The United Kingdom’s GOV.UK Pay is an example of a DPI that has been developed by the UK’s Government Digital Services to enable payment for public services by allowing other UK government offices to integrate the DPI on their digital sites.
  • Data exchange. These enable secure information exchange—with the data owner’s consent—to enable service delivery. X-Road, Estonia’s data exchange platform (and a DPG) is a good example here. There is an opportunity for more transparency on Nigeria’s approach in this regard, beyond the introduction of the Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) Act.

How can Nigeria successfully leverage DPIs?

Whether Nigeria’s vision is to build new DPIs, or leverage existing local ones or DPGs, it is important to ensure that the DPIs are: 

  • Interoperable. They are designed in a way that allows the government and other service providers to build services on them, integrate their digital solutions with them or leverage them to enable their service delivery. Standards and principles should be introduced to ensure and enforce interoperability.
  • Inclusive. The way one would think it unusual for people to be unable to use a road or access potable power should inform the thinking around the design, delivery and iterations of DPIs in Nigeria. As much as possible, Nigeria’s DPIs should be in a state that typically enables self-service by everyone (and in extraordinary situations, assisted), and are not directly or indirectly prohibitively expensive to access. The introduction of DPIs, if not properly managed, might exacerbate Nigeria’s already existing digital and other inequalities.
  • Accountable to the public. The existence of DPIs necessitates the introduction of governance frameworks that facilitate the transparency of government and other stakeholders’ engagements with DPIs. It is important to not only focus on the technology, but also the standards, if DPIs are to be inclusive and protect the rights of citizens. The frameworks should be developed through a multistakeholder approach and address a question such as “What rules should govern the exchange of citizens’ data?” A safety, rights-based, privacy by design, and transparent approach should be adopted in developing and deploying DPIs. This will help build trust, and in turn improve the adoption of the DPI-enabled services.

Beyond the introduction and/or strengthening of DPIs in Nigeria, however, the Nigerian government needs to approach digital transformation more broadly—in terms of building its digital capability—to sustain DPIs’ benefits. These include long-term thinking towards the government’s digital service delivery capability, informed and agile procurement, digital talent and skills development, user-centred service design, political sponsorship for and championing of digital transformation now and in subsequent administrations, amongst others. The above will position Nigeria and Nigerians to enjoy the benefits that come with digital transformation.

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