How digital public infrastructure supports empowerment, inclusion, and resilience
Vyjayanti T Desai, Practice Manager, ID4D and G2Px
Jonathan Marskell, Senior Program Officer, Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative, World Bank
Georgina Marin, Program Officer, World Bank Digital Development G2Px Initiative
Minita Varghese, Program Officer G2Px Initiative
With a few taps on her mobile phone, a textile worker in a remote area of northern India can apply for social benefits to be paid directly into her bank account, sign up for skills training, and electronically sign an application for a loan. In Thailand, farmers can receive fertilizer subsidies into a bank account linked to their national ID. Singaporean citizens and residents can do almost any transaction end-to-end online, no matter where they are, from registering a birth to filing taxes and opening a new business.
The common enabler behind all these experiences is digital public infrastructure, which includes the solutions and systems that facilitate essential society-wide functions and services such as:
- Identification: the ability for people and businesses to securely verify their identity, as well as complementary trust services such as electronic signatures and decentralized, verifiable credentials (e.g., academic qualifications, passports, and driver’s licenses).
- Payments: easily transferring money between people, businesses, and governments.
- Data exchange: seamless flows of data across government and the private sector, with safeguards for personal data protection like consent.
Digital public infrastructure is unique and important for four main, inter-related reasons:
- It is foundational and cross-cutting. Verifying an identity or making and receiving a payment are at the core of most transactions, and thus having digital public infrastructure prevents the need to re-invent the wheel with every new system. This is a distinction between digitalization in specific sectors, which is very important, and the processes supported by a digital public infrastructure.
- It complements and works together at policy, process, and technology levels. For example, a person can use their digital ID to exercise consent over sharing their personal data from official sources, or a small business could use payment transaction data to access cheaper credit. These connections can also be described as a digital stack.
- It enables sectoral applications to be easily built ‘on top’. Government agencies and the private sector can focus on their core business and innovate when they do not need to recreate the wheel and can instead depend on the processes that digital stacks support, enabled by common standards (e.g., for data and semantics) and open application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow different systems to communicate with each other.
- Public benefit – not necessarily public ownership. We argue that the ‘public’ refers to governments having a primary role and responsibility in deciding whether and how DPI is provided in the interests of the broader society and economy, such as through regulating, operating, and/or partnering with the private sector.
Just like railways and roads were instrumental for how economies and societies have evolved and integrated, digital public infrastructure positively transforms how people and businesses around the world access services and economic opportunities and how governments can meet the needs of their constituents. Apart from improving the quality of these services and allowing the development of new products and services, digital public infrastructure can also make them more inclusive by removing physical and cost barriers.
The concept of digital public infrastructure has been pioneered by India (the India Stack) and Singapore (the Singapore Government Technology Stack and National Digital Identity Stack). Notably, the India Stack has paved the way for innovations for data empowerment and protection, such as account aggregators that empower people to consent (or not) to a financial services provider accessing their personal data held by other entities. This provides a scalable approach for people to control and benefit from the value of their data and a boost for financial inclusion and open banking.
When confronted with crises, digital public infrastructure is key to building national resilience. Research on the social protection response to the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Bank Group’s G2Px initiative found that the countries that were able to use digital databases and data exchange platforms reached, on average, 51 percent of their population with cash transfers, whereas countries that could not rely on existing databases to cross-reference eligibility reached only 16 percent. Thailand’s PromptPay, a leading example of a fast payment system, allows people and businesses to link a financial account with their ID or phone number, which helped the government to roll out cash assistance during COVID-19 more quickly and with greater assurance. Ukraine has included in its digital government application (Diia) a digital wallet where citizens can store digital documents (including a passport recognized by neighboring Moldova and Poland) to continue using public services and receive emergency payments.
The design and implementation of digital public infrastructure must also consider and mitigate the risks of exclusion of those without digital access and skills, cybersecurity threats, and personal data protection vulnerabilities . For instance, we have recently estimated that 850 million people have no official identification. Employing human-centered design techniques helps to identify potential barriers vulnerable populations may face, and strong data protection laws and enforcement provide safeguards against the misuse of personal data. Other challenges that countries face include technology and vendor lock-in and inadequate legal frameworks that dissuade the shift from manual to digital transactions.
To help countries realize these benefits and navigate the risks, the World Bank Group’s Identification for Development (ID4D) and Digitizing Government-to-Person Payments (G2Px) initiatives have been supporting the DPI agenda at the country, regional and global levels (as you can see in the 2022 Annual Report). For instance, technical assistance and financing are being provided to countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, Togo, and the Philippines. It has been inspiring at workshops this week in Bangalore, India, to hear what these and more than 15 other countries are doing to build their own DPI, including leveraging a digital public good for foundational digital ID systems (MOSIP) and a new initiative that is assisting with the design of interoperable, human-centered digital G2P payment ecosystems (G2P Connect).
Additionally, ID4D and G2Px are one of several parts of the World Bank Group supporting the Indian G20 Presidency to generate consensus on what digital public infrastructure is, to generate momentum for its development, and to scale up technical and financial resources to support low- and middle-income economies.
In an increasingly digital world, the need for digital public infrastructure to foster resilience and enable service delivery and innovation is more crucial than ever. It is key to develop this foundational infrastructure that supports multiple sectors so that everyone, from a business owner in a bustling city to a rural farmer, can equally participate and thrive in the digital economy with confidence and trust.