Imagine if you could develop e-government services based on reusable building blocks – take suitable pieces from the bag and stack them according to your fantasy and needs, easy as a lego. GovStack, a joint initiative by Estonia, Germany, the International Telecommunications Union and the Digital Impact Alliance is doing exactly this; developing a sustainable and cost-efficient toolbox for e-government services. By investing in digital building blocks which are easier to design, implement, and scale across sectors and use cases, GovStack is helping governments simplify the digital transformation process and reduce the cost, time, and resources necessary to create digital services and applications. Margus Mägi, GovStack Project Lead for Estonia, explains how they do it.
We are all digitally developing countries
When countries take on the digitalisation of their public services, they face a huge task. A myriad of aspects must be considered, from databases to interfaces, to regulatory changes, and change management. Furthermore, all of these aspects have to work together. For slightly more than a year, GovStack has been developing a solution for these challenges. Their mission is to create reusable and modular building blocks (registry, interoperability, consent), which enable governments to build their whole e-government architecture based on the same building blocks. This so-called whole-of-government approach reduces costs for everybody. Rather than developing the software, GovStack develops the specifications or functional requirements descriptions for each component, which facilitates the creation of suitable products in the market later on.
“Basically, it is up to the end user – the government of any country — whether to have these blocks built based on specs by themselves, using fre e open source software, or use proprietary solutions from the market that comply with the GovStack specification,” explains Mr Mägi. “Evidently, all of the software needs to be open source so that the countries see the code and know what it does. No one wants a black box amidst their public services!”
During its first year of operations, GovStack identified 19 building blocks that make up any e-government. These specifications will help create a transparent and open products ecosystem and help governments ease the procurement process by raising the quality of procurements.
Build it, test it, share it
GovStack focuses on three pillars: specifications, sandbox and best practices. The first is the development of the building block specifications or GovSpecs. The second pillar, GovTest, is a sandbox currently under development, where all available and potential software solutions can be combined in a test environment using dummy data. This is important because governments rarely create all their eventual e-services in one go. Rather, they start with something small and specific – a marriage registry or a vehicle registry and then grow from there.
“In our sandbox, governments can test how various building blocks interact. For example, they can see what databases are required, or what happens if one feature is developed before another,” elaborates Mr Mägi.
The third pillar, GovLearn, is a playbook and various capacity-building exercises which help governments on their journey to developing their e-services. The playbook combines best practices in various categories, from compiling a development team to designing services. According to Mr Mägi, several Horn-of-Africa countries are currently involved in applying the playbook to test and measure the next steps their governments must take in applying the building blocks.
GovStack connects countries and communities
What makes GovStack unique is that everything they do is co-created with its target group. Every building block is developed by a working group consisting of volunteers selected from a list of sign-ups on the GovStack webpage, a nd various nationally appointed experts. In addition to Estonia and Germany, some countries contribute to the working group efforts from Europe, Asia, America, Africa, the Middle East, and the private sector. This creates a unique mix of expertise that is making a collective effort for the greater good.
“Since we engage people ranging from civil servants to lone enthusiasts and tech companies’ representatives, we eventually develop quite a good compromise that carves out the essential and avoids bias in almost any direction,” Mr Mägi brings out the benefits of this system. “Although I must admit, working with such a diverse crowd requires nerves of steel. Sometimes solutions take long and intense discussion before any common ground is found.”
“We essentially work in a start-up-like way,” says Mr Mägi. “By engaging countries and communities, we are user-centred and agile. We believe that in this way we don’t need to engage with formal standard setting — which is stifling –, but instead, we provide the best the world has to offer at this very moment.”
GovStack has announced a Digital Service Design Special Prize for the World Summit on the Information Society 2023. The Prize specifically spotlights innovative and impactful government service designs that are based on a building block approach. If you have a project that should be shared with the world, don’t hesitate to apply!