March 17, 2021
In May 2018, a group of leading experts from the public sector, private sector, and civil society convened at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center to define the elements of a digital government stack. This may sound like an obscure issue, but it is directly linked to virtually every major crisis dominating today’s headlines.
Some of the most visible public sector challenges – counting votes, distributing unemployment benefits and fiscal stimulus, managing COVID-19 vaccination efforts, and ensuring racial equity – are byproducts of deficiencies in digital infrastructure. News outlets and political leaders have decried these failures, but they have not made the connection to the need for better digital systems.
The concept of a civic “stack” comes from the world of computing. A software stack is a group of independent programs and systems that work together to accomplish a specific task. Cars provide a useful analogy. They operate as a collection of subsystems like transmissions, engines, stereos, and climate control, that can be exchanged if needed. Just as tires can be swapped out to drive on snow or maximize gas mileage, technologists can change out pieces of a stack without compromising the integrity of the entire system.
We identified three foundational digital protocol layers that facilitate the delivery of public services across virtually every sector:
- Digital identity;
- Digital payments; and
- Data exchange
These systems provide the core functionality that allows individuals, public officials, and companies to securely verify and transfer data and assets. Once these infrastructure rails are in place, societies not only gain the ability to verify identities, facilitate digital payments, and securely share data, they can also track licenses, permits, educational credentials, carbon credits, public benefit vouchers, or even votes. Not all of these systems are necessary for a civic stack to function in the same way that cars can operate without air conditioning or a radio, but cannot get far without an engine, transmission, or brakes. Digital identity, data exchange, and payments systems form the foundation of next-generation public administration.
Societies with the capacity to easily move digital assets between trusted digital identities will have profound advantages in solving some of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Interoperable digital infrastructure could:
- Help public officials and civil society organizations reduce waste and combat corruption. Digital infrastructure can help reduce the estimated $4.5 trillion lost through malfeasance in public procurement processes, prevent much of the $2.6 trillion that goes to corruption, and provide new, more efficient methods to recoup the $3.1 trillion in tax evasion each year. Collectively, bringing accountability to public revenue management could help governments recover trillions of dollars in public assets currently lost to waste, tax evasion, and corruption.
- Support a new class of secure public registries. Governments use registries to establish ownership of property and companies. Creating digital land titles could unlock the economic potential of the $9.3 trillion in global land assets that are currently unsecured due to stolen or missing titles. They could also facilitate digital credentials to verify vaccination records, educational credentials, and other licenses.
- Create trusted digital voting systems. Digital voter registration and voting systems could mitigate threats to election integrity and support more efficient, secure democratic processes. Voting applications could verify that votes are cast by eligible citizens and help ensure that votes are tabulated accurately and securely.
- Issue public benefits. Next-generation benefits systems could remove cumbersome barriers that prevent otherwise eligible recipients from accessing public benefits. New systems could also include features that target assistance more effectively while ensuring that public assistance is not stolen or diverted to ineligible recipients.
Foundational digital infrastructure can revolutionize service delivery and coordination to power more productive societies and effective institutions. For instance, Germany laid the groundwork for a digital healthcare system by constructing digital infrastructure to share standardized electronic medical records so that patients, doctors, pharmacies, and hospitals could leverage a common information network. Germany’s digital identification and data exchange systems enabled a national coronavirus response that has proven far more effective than what has been possible in countries with more fragmented healthcare systems, such as in the United States.
Though many governments have not consolidated management of data across different agencies, some are embracing a whole-of-government approach to managing information. National platforms like Estonia’s X-Road system and the IndiaStack along with multilateral efforts such as UNDP’s Building Blocks refugee payment system are pioneering new models for how nations can leverage and protect citizens’ data. Ultimately, allowing citizens greater ownership and control of their personal data while ensuring common data standards to facilitate interoperability may emerge as a best practice in the field.