Exploring Costa Rica: Progress And Challenges In Digital Government Transformation
Vacations are over – or at least mine is – but I’ve brought home some of mine for homework. Yes, I did a little work while on vacation. While in Costa Rica this summer, I had the opportunity to meet with the country’s Director of Digital Government, Alicia Avendaño Rivera.
Governments worldwide recognize the power of “going digital.” The recently announced US Digital Service and the appointment of its dedicated Administrator illustrate a commitment on the part of the US Federal government. Yet the US is merely joining others who have made similar commitments to transforming government with a focus on efficiency, effectiveness, transparency and empowering citizens and businesses through new digital technologies. Alicia Avendaño has served as Costa Rica’s Director of Digital Government since 2009.
Costa Rica Digital Government initiatives address four main goals:
- G2C: Government to Citizen – citizen oriented services
- G2B Government to Business – rapid and transparent business services
- G2G: Government to Government – efficient and interconnected services
- Infrastructure – favorable ICT infrastructure and legal framework
Clearly, these four goals are themselves interconnected, and serve the broader mission of improving Costa Rica’s competitiveness. Like other countries, Costa Rica’s leaders strive to improve their standing on the World Bank’s Doing Business Index. As the team pointed out, some process has been made with Costa Rica moving from a position of 122 in 2012 to 102 in 2014. Several projects demonstrate positive developments:
- Crearempresa facilitates the establishment and operations of companies in Costa Rica. Improvement in the World Bank’s index illustrates progress on this front.
- MuNet modernizes municipal administration through application of e-Government strategies. Countries are chosen to participate in the program sponsored by the Organization of American States; 34 municipalities in Costa Rica participate.
- Registrelo streamlines the process for product registration accelerating time to market. Implementation has reduced registration times from 12-14 months to 4 months, with the ultimate goal of 20 days.Clearly there is more progress to be made.
- Mer-Link provides a single, digital procurement system for a more efficient government purchasing process. A simpler, digital procurement process facilitates bids from both local and international suppliers. More competition will reduce costs by an estimated 20% across government contracts for a potential savings of up 2% of GDP. That’s big money for the country. Yet the implementation of Mer-Link, however, remains contested.
Adoption of the unified public procurement system has proven to be an implementation challenge. While the first phase was launched back in 2010, several ministries remain holdouts using their existing systems. A change in government this spring has further delayed the unification as the new administration reviews the competing systems.
Clearly politics remains a challenge to implementation of digital government. We can extoll the virtues of digital government all we want but we must also acknowledge contextual realities of competing political agendas, entrenched interests, and just basic inertia. But don't despair, despite the opposition to the new public procurement system, Costa Rica's Open Data Portal reveals that over 64000 products and services have been recorded from over 5000 suppliers to 57 government institutions using the system.
The path to digital government may not be smooth but progress can be made. According to Ms. Avendaño, the key to that progress within this political context was to:
- Communicate and incent stakeholders to embrace transformation. Recognize there will be a fear of change: fear of the unknown, fear of accountability, fear of job loss. Change management is essential: communication to set expectations, training to reskill employees, and incentives to facilitate the changes.
- Find allies within the public sector… Key allies help build momentum for change. Work with agencies favorable to change, with incentives to adopt the new systems. In Costa Rica, deregulation of both the telecom and utilities ministry and insurance agency has brought them into the spotlight. New competition in these industries provided incentive to change.
- … and in the private sector — notably the media. Open dialogue with the press is essential. The Digital Government team recognizes that politicians want to have a good image, and the media wants to be the watchdog.
- Provide valuable services. The Costa Rica Digital Government team acts as a shared services center to assist other government agencies in digital transformation. They provide assessments, define projects, and make recommendations for sourcing technology solutions. But the core skill they offer is in project management, helping to break larger undertakings into smaller projects to demonstrate results and progress.