Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Can Latin America Find a Faster Path to Digital Government?

The Dominican Republic launched its "República Digital Educación" initiative in 2017. // File Photo: Dominican Government.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Argentina’s social protection agency has been able to provide, without intermediaries, an emergency income to eight million people working in the informal sector thanks to its digital platform and IT systems, according to a recent blog published by the World Bank. To what extent has the pandemic led to governments in Latin America and the Caribbean adopting new technologies in day-to-day functions as well as providing more digital services? Which countries in the region have handled such digitization best in recent months, and what kinds of digital services do they offer? What are the main challenges holding back the expansion of such services, and what can be done to overcome them?

João Pacheco, vice president for public sector, Latin America at Oracle: “Currently, 73 percent of Latin American countries have a digital agenda in place. However, only 30 percent of their functions can be carried out digitally, and prior to the pandemic, just 7 percent of citizens’ last contact with their governments was online. Therefore, governments have a large opportunity to adopt and incentivize the use of new digital technologies and services and to enhance existing ones. At a time of social confinement when governments and other organizations need to continue operating efficiently and maintaining contact with citizens, their need to establish digital channels is not only a necessity but also a priority. Right now, governments’ main priority is strengthening the capacity of public health systems to fight Covid-19. This includes providing safety nets for vulnerable populations and encouraging economic productivity, as well as putting in place employment and fiscal policies to mitigate the pandemic’s economic impact. The challenges for most governments are not on the technological side, but rather involve economic resources and legal barriers. Governments need to use and leverage digital tools, such as electronic signatures and omnichannel communications, with citizens to efficiently provide them with quality services. Governments should focus more spending on cloud infrastructure and on the use of tools such as machine learning and digital assistants in order to provide more data-driven open government to serve citizens with agility, elasticity and a quick response time, as the current conditions demand.”

Silvina Moschini, founder and CEO of SheWorks: “According to the World Bank, Latin America is one of the world’s most unequal regions. The protocols imposed by the pandemic quickly revealed the differences in connectivity among countries and, within them, the gap between urban centers and the countryside. The CAF Observatorio del Ecosistema Digital measures Internet access in the region at an average of 78 percent. The remote operation overloaded broadband in the first months of the pandemic forced telephone operators to enhance their fiber optics (Chile) and strengthen 4G coverage for mobile telephony (Venezuela) and also forced governments to prohibit service cuts for nonpayment and to decree communication services essential. All countries had to adapt their operations, both to support distance education and work and to continue operating administratively. The CAF Observatory says countries that lead in e-government are those that had been working on its development beforehand—Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. The digitization of education promoted special plans, such as Seguimos Educando (Argentina), Aprender Digital (Colombia) and Educar Ecuador (Ecuador), among others. In Colombia, Víctor Manuel Muñoz, presidential advisor for digital transformation, is at the forefront of the digital government policy, which is the government’s great bet for the country’s digital transformation. Muñoz says progress will be made on five principles that will allow greater efficiency: interoperability, citizen portfolio, electronic authentication, security and online procedures. Regarding telework, Colombia had a law since 2008, and Brazil had a special chapter for this issue, while other countries, including Chile and Argentina, have just regulated it. Covid-19 arrived at a time when the region was convulsed by different social protests. In this scenario, the democratizing potential of technology allows us to envision a better future to mitigate its greatest inequalities. According to the ILO, informal work reaches 53 percent in the region, with variations by country (23 percent in Uruguay and more than 80 percent in Bolivia). Progress is still needed in equal access to the digital economy and gender inequalities. It is necessary to recognize women’s work at home and in health posts and promote technology training.”

Laura Gaviria Halaby, director at Softbank Group International: “The Covid-19 crisis has put public services under stress, urging governments to deploy effective digital technologies to maintain countries’ competitive edge. Most of the efforts in developing digital government strategies have focused on improving data protection and digital inclusion policies as well as on strengthening technical capabilities of public institutions. In Brazil, the Ministry of Economy broke a record in the digitization of public services, digitizing more than 770 services—among them, the Work Card, the International Vaccination Certificate and the services of the INSS, such as requests for retirement and maternity benefits. In addition, more than 60 million Brazilians have already registered with gov.br, which allows access to hundreds of public services, from different agencies, with a single login and password. Colombia, through more than 17 digital transformation initiatives and entrepreneurship programs, seeks to give the economy the stimulus required for recovery. Projects include expanding regulation to include working from home policies, modernizing the tax agency (DIAN), transforming the way students take government exams, connectivity centers, tech-based entrepreneurship programs and training in data science and artificial intelligence for more than 10,000 citizens in partnership Correlation One. In addition, more than 11.3 million people have already registered to the CoronApp, where people are informed on how the virus is evolving. The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing governments and societies to turn toward digital technologies to respond to the crisis in the short term, resolve socioeconomic repercussions in the medium term and reinvent existing policies and tools in the long term. Effective public-private partnerships, through sharing technologies, expertise and tools, can support governments in restarting the economy and rebuilding societies. Developing countries, in particular, will need international cooperation and support in mitigating the crisis. Therefore, regional, national and local project-based collaborations with private sector companies, international organizations and other stakeholders are necessary.”

Luis Tejerina, lead specialist in the Inter-American Development Bank’s social sector department: “Covid-19, as terrible as it is, has been hailed as a catalyst for digital transformation in the world. Temporary or permanent laws enabling the use of telemedicine were passed, and regulations to open bank accounts were relaxed, giving a boost to digital agendas in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, it is important to also recognize that quick measures will not be enough to cover the other deficiencies that were limiting digital transformation before the pandemic hit. No law can provide a health workforce with basic training on digital health overnight. And there is a large deficit in the region. Chile’s national health information systems center (CENS) has one of the few estimates in the region of this gap, and they find a gap of about 3,500 specialists in digital health in the country. Providing health personnel with a basic training in digital health will take many years, if not decades; we need to start now. Data on the poor and vulnerable was collected, and payment systems were set up to provide financial aid because of the pandemic. Countries such as Guatemala, Colombia and Argentina found great innovative ways to reach their populations. However, data ages quickly, and many governments will face a challenge to maintain new structures and keep people connected to formal channels of payment or go back to what was in place before the pandemic. As we get more and better data, and we make increasing use of artificial intelligence to get value from it, it will need to be protected, and the region has inadequate cybersecurity. We need investment not only to protect data but also to use it ethically. The discussion about the ethical use of data also grew in importance during this pandemic. This writing does not intend to diminish the importance of the progress made in recent months to advance the digital agenda in the region, but rather to highlight that they are pieces of a larger and more complex puzzle that will require serious effort if it is to be solved.”

Carlos Santiso, director of the Digital Innovation in Government practice of the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF): “The coronavirus crisis is accelerating governments’ digital transformations, fast-forwarding many reforms and lowering long-standing obstacles with an acute sense of urgency as part of the ‘great reset.’ We have come to realize that digital resilience is central to state capacity. Uruguay was able to leverage its advances in e-health records and telemedicine to manage the crisis. This is an example of the ‘digital dividend.’ Governments have used digital innovations to manage the health crisis. Colombia has deployed a contact tracing app. Panama uses chat-bots to redirect patients and has been able to expand its emergency safety net to the unbanked and the undocumented by cross-referencing databases. Digital solutions have also been deployed to detect and deter corruption in emergency spending and procurement of critical medical supplies. Paraguay has opened its emergency contracting data through an online platform. Oversight agencies in Colombia and Brazil are using artificial intelligence to uncover irregularities. Brazil updated its digital strategy to expand digital services through its single platform, gov.br, while 250 services were digitized during the pandemic. Colombia’s tax authority is embarking on an ambitious digital modernization. The crisis underscores how critical data has become in the digital age. It has revealed data gaps in countries with high informality and inequality, making it difficult to target aid to the most vulnerable outside formal safety nets. It has also exposed the inadequacy of our global standards on data governance and the need for better data regulation. The time has probably come for a World Data Organization.”

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