Defining the Boundaries of Digital Public Infrastructure: Narrow and Broad Perspectives

06.06.2024| Christian Kreutz
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Digital public infrastructure (DPI) is a hot topic in digital government. The concept represents the public sector's attempt to regain control from an overly dominant private sector, particularly big tech, which controls much of the digital infrastructure, platforms, digital payments, instant messaging etc.

UNDP defines digital public infrastructure as:

A set of interoperable digital solutions built on open standards and specifications, providing access to public and private services at societal scale, governed by enabling rules to drive innovation, inclusion, and competition. (UNDP)

However, this technical definition reduces the concept to solutions, overlooking the broader challenges of a predominantly privately-owned Internet and the need for a public Internet.

Digital public infrastructure raises a crucial question: which digital areas or services should be at least partially or fully under public ownership? If governments are responsible for public infrastructure like sidewalks, schools, and hospitals, why doesn't this extend to the digital space? Currently, most governments limit their online presence to citizen services.

DPI should spark a discussion on why the digital space, including network architecture, social networks, and instant communication, is almost exclusively privately controlled, leading to a closed Internet and stifled innovation. Ironically, the Internet itself is a digital public infrastructure.

Defining the Boundaries of Digital Public Infrastructure: Narrow and Broad Perspectives

The boundaries and scope of DPIs are understood differently, as demonstrated by the narrow and broad approaches:

The Narrow Approach: Focusing on the three core areas of digital identity, digital payments, and data exchange

The limited scope, the most prominent approach followed by various organizations, focuses on three areas: digital identity, digital payment, and data exchange, which are considered the core foundation for digital government.

DPIs are interoperable platforms for digital identity, payments, and data exchange that allow governments to provide essential services to citizens (View Highlight). The Gates Foundation states, "A strong DPI has three foundational systems—identity, payments, and data exchange—that together can make life easier in important ways."

These three areas were also on the agenda at the G20 Meeting 2023 in India, possibly because India is a role model and pioneer with its Aadhaar digital identity and the UPI Payment gateway, through which all digital payments in India are channeled.

In this limited scope approach, these three areas are essential for providing citizen services. However, they serve different purposes and can be implemented in various ways. The emphasis on digital payment is surprising, as it is traditionally a private sector solution, with only India and Brazil (PIX) successfully experimenting with their own solutions. Should this be a critical digital public infrastructure?

Implementing existing commercial payment gateways for online citizen services, such as passport renewal, is straightforward. Digital identity is implemented differently by each country; for example, in Denmark, it was a cooperation between the government and banks, which already had an identity system for online banking. There seems to be a consensus that a critical component like digital identity should be government-controlled, as it is a digital extension of personal ID cards.

Data exchange is undoubtedly mission-critical for every government, primarily for breaking down institutional data to offer better digital services. Automating this, at least partially, is a key work area for governments in the next 10 to 20 years. Almost every citizen-facing offering requires data from multiple institutions or their approval.

The Broad Approach: Encompassing the wider range of digital public sectors

The broader approach considers what aspects of the Internet could and should be managed by the public sector. Should DPI be applied to all core public-related areas, such as education and health? The Digital Public Goods initiative's registry of IT solutions showcases a broader scope for potential digital public infrastructure solutions in the public sector.

This means governments work on long-term solutions for the education sector, such as student information systems, financial or human resource management systems, and learning platforms for students. Governments could potentially develop dozens, if not hundreds, of required solutions themselves through collaborative open-source software approaches or purchase proprietary solutions from the private sector.

This raises the question of the private sector's role in providing such solutions. The challenges with private and non-open source solutions remain: they are often not interoperable, serve limited use cases, and risk vendor lock-in.

The Need for a Collaborative Ecosystem Approach

This broader ecosystem approach, where different technologies require flexibility and are best designed collaboratively between the public and private sectors, is not discussed enough. Few governments have made this strategic decision or discussed what it means to provide long-term sustainable digital solutions that do not require tremendous cost strains and offer greater public benefit.

The growing awareness of digital public infrastructure is great, as it widens the discussion to include technologies and not just their regulation. It prompts the question of what digital services the government should provide and the long-term modus operandi for continuously improving IT solutions for future challenges. DPI also emphasizes the importance of developing and implementing open, interoperable, and standards-based digital infrastructure for the greater benefit of the public.