Fragile states and digital foundations

When crisis hits it puts unexpected pressures on infrastructure. In some cases the state or its civil society is resilient and can cope but where the physical, societal or administrative fabric is already fragile then issues are compounded and recovery becomes harder. And then there’s the impact of war.

The world has developed coping mechanisms for dealing with this. Government aid and development budgets kick in, international organisations mobilise and individual donors dig deep to help meet needs. And lots of time, money and thought continually goes into making sure that the quality of those coping mechanisms gets better. But the scale of the need can be overwhelming.

Digital can be a huge enabler and a powerful tool in helping to support those responses. Today is the Techfugees conference. That’s a great response to a crisis that has reached the tipping point in the public consciousness. It’s brilliant that the conversations don’t end today but will be followed by efforts to deal with problems: the Techfugees hack day tomorrow, Ich Bin Hihr in Berlin on Saturday and maybe also Code for the Kingdom in London over the weekend. People are getting together to unify around solving identified needs rather than fragmenting into delivering well meaning, but not yet validated, ideas.

Digital skills and digital talent are good in a crisis and there’s a lot that can be done in swarming on the symptoms of a problem. But those skills and that effort is so much more valuable when it’s applied up stream as part and parcel of how public goods and public services are understood and delivered in the first place.

Britain has a long established bureaucracy with sophisticated models for collecting tax, issuing permissions and accessing support from the state. Behind that sophistication is a lot of complexity and reliably under a nearby stone will be some antediluvian technology or arcane policy.

The creation of the Government Digital Service, and our transition from peripheral to very much in (not of!) the machine is addressing some of those challenges.We’re passionate about placing people at the heart of how we design public services, we know that it will lead to better outcomes and usually it will save some money too. But often we’re unpicking the sins of the past. The web we’ve woven over decades is going to be impossible to untangle by ourselves and that’s why this is only something we can do with colleagues across government, collectively.

Unfortunately I think it’s still going to take us a long time. And most probably won’t be the first to realise a vision of the future which I saw a few months ago. Tom Loosemore invited me to go and see the handiwork of a small band of guerrillas plotting a revolution. Their idea of a natively digital state is amazing and it was brilliant to see the reaction to this being shared at the Code for America summit yesterday.


Tom presented a version of this at our all-staff event and as he showed how future Tom might start a business in minutes I was struck at the opportunity that existed, not for us, but for those countries at the other end of the Human Development Index from the United Kingdom.

The first nation to create new institutions that make the most of the internet will win.

And win big.

The opportunity is huge.

A number of countries have taken bigger, or smaller, parts of what we’ve done and applied it to their context. On the whole they’re countries like us, where there’s been stability for a length of time, and where the state structures are fairly well established. I don’t think they’ll be the ones to take Tom’s challenge and run with it.

Last year I wondered whether institutions could heal themselves or if brand new was the only way. We’re having a good go at renewal but what could a country achieve if it had more of a blank slate?  There would be different challenges to overcome but there’s no reason why in 2 or 3 years’ time it’s countries who are fragile today couldn’t be leading the conversations about service design and user needs in the context of government.

So I’m excited that over the next few days people are gathering together to use technology in ways that will address the symptoms of a crisis and provide practical ways to help people access safety, health, and education. But I can’t help but think about the moment peace falls and the diaspora of war returns home to start rebuilding. When they do maybe it will be with Tom, Richard and Paul’s vision as the blueprint for solid, digital foundations.


About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...