From digital government to unbiased decisions based on data, an OECD interview

18 October 2022

During the 2022 Digital Forum in Madrid, Bárbara Ubaldi, Head of Digital Government and Data Unit, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, not only participated in a very fruitful discussion on the need for cities to cooperate on digitalisation and digital transformation to achieve real interoperability, but she also kindly gave an interview to Eurocities, diving deeper into her ideas of digital government, challenges of digital transformation and the need for more transparency and attention to how we use data to prevent biased decisions and services that are not relevant to society.

The EU is debating and creating legislation to help the digital transformation of local, regional and national governments, and our EU-funded UserCentriCities project is mapping and guiding cities’ progress in this transition. But what exactly is a digital government? What are the challenges to implementing such governments? And finally, can we talk about citizens’ rights?

Here’s the interview.

What is the understanding of the OECD of what a digital government is?

Barbara Ubaldi during Eurocities Digital Forum in Madrid
Barbara Ubaldi during Eurocities Digital Forum in Madrid

We really tried to concretely identify the main characteristics of a digital government, which in general terms is a government that uses digital tools and data to transform how it functions and how it designs and delivers public services.

A digital government is one that goes beyond moving processes and procedures online and really tries to change how it functions to deliver better value. A digital government goes paperless inside, so inside is digital by design because this can bring higher efficiency in the way the different parts of the administration work together.

It can bring higher transparency, higher accountability and it also helps innovate on how things are done. A digital government is capable of acting as a platform, that is, providing the tools, standards, and guidelines that enable the different parts of the administration to work together; it is user-driven, meaning is really capable of creating the space for allowing users of the services to voice their needs.

It’s about engaging with the user to ask, “what’s your need?” in terms of specific services and how they can best be met. It’s open by default – and that’s not easy. But it’s really capable of opening up policies, design processes and service design processes rather than having a top-down approach.

Finally, a digital government is proactive, meaning that it’s really capable of bringing services to the citizen before the citizen asks for it. There is a basic example, such as sending an SMS to remind citizens that their driving license or passport is about to expire – which is a very simple thing to do, but it can have a huge impact.

Once I went to rent a car and discovered that my driver’s license was expired. I was in a foreign country and I couldn’t rent the car. All of this is to say that a digital government, according to all of these characteristics, really connects the administration with the citizens, and the business, making the most of digital tools and data.

It doesn’t focus as much on the technical side, the digitalisation side, but on the impact and the final results.

What are the main challenges to the implementation of such digital governments?

The main challenges are not technical and that, on its own, is a challenge. Meaning that when we were in the eGov era, when governments were really trying to be present online, to put services online, the main focus was on the use of technology – there was a service that was provided physically, and the idea was “how can I use a technical platform, a website, to provide this service online?”

Now, the challenge is that the transformation I’m talking about is a cultural transformation. In many cases, for instance, to be able to use digital tools and data you need to have different parts of the administration able to work together.

I’m thinking about sharing data. To be transformative you need to share data so that, for example, two registries can share their data and provide a service to me in a proactive way. The problem in many cases is not technology, but the existence of a law that makes it impossible for entities A and B to actually share data unless they have a specific agreement or specific protocol.

The biggest challenge is that many of the enabling conditions, the soft enabling conditions, are about changing the laws, changing the policies, and making sure that different parts of the administration share the goals they want to achieve. Often there’s no incentive for them to work together.

The challenge is that it’s not technology that should be the focus, but the soft modifications that we need to have. So we need to bring on board people with the soft skills to be able to have the user-centred approach when designing services and not a technical person that knows how to use technology.

The challenge is that the focus needs to change, not technology but the enabling factors to make sure technology can help achieve the transformation we want to achieve.

Barbara Ubaldi and Fernando de Pablo during Eurocities Digital Forum in Madrid
Barbara Ubaldi and Fernando de Pablo during Eurocities Digital Forum in Madrid

Just to conclude, my heart suffers a lot when I hear about accelerating or that we need to focus on AI, because the focus should not be on accelerating, but should be on putting in place projects that can be sustainable in the long run in delivering impact; and the focus should not be on AI.

There’s a previous leader on digital in one of the OECD member countries that came from the private sector, then he joined a public administration and after three years in the public administration. He was saying “if the government was capable of using the technology it has already, that would be a big achievement before thinking about AI,” because in many cases AI is not made to provide better services for citizens.

Is legislation like the Data Act and other ideas the EU is currently discussing helpful?

Yes, they are very helpful because they underline this push for interoperability as not just as a technical matter, but also as semantic interoperability, and interoperability of legislation. So, to be able to deliver better services across borders there’s a need for sharing data across administrations in Europe, for example.

And that needs interoperable legal frameworks. These legislative pieces put in place by the European Union are extremely important and powerful because they really can push the agenda towards more integration nationally, and more integration supra-nationally.

The call for supra-national interoperability can accelerate much of the action nationally as well.

And what are the ethical implications, specifically in terms of privacy when sharing the data of citizens? 

There are significant ethical concerns when it comes to the use of personal data, not only in terms of privacy and security. I’d say that privacy and security are important concerns, but they can be tackled in mature ways already.

The most pressing ethical concerns regard, for example, biased decisions that can be taken if the data used is not inclusive, or only represents the needs of part of the population and not of the entire population.

We need to ensure that the administration has the capacity and the awareness to deal with the fact that a biased decision that can emerge from biased data.

The ethical concerns have to be seen from a whole different perspective, not only in relation to “can the administration use my data appropriately to protect my privacy and security?” but “is the administration capable of using data to make decisions and to deliver policies that are not biased?”.

So I think that’s the most important part because more and more data is used to actually identify how to provide services that better respond to the needs of citizens, but if we are not inclusive in the data we use, then we end up having new services which are not inclusive and won’t serve society.

Creating digital services that are intuitive and designed for people’s needs is high on the agenda for cities. To find out how cities are managing this, and see some great ideas like enrolling children for school with a single text message, check out our State of UserCentriCities Report, developed through our EU-funded UserCentriCities project.


Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer