Digital America: how are we doing?

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Of the 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, only five are among the 50 most digitized in the world

The data is revolutionizing the way of understanding the world: from precision agriculture that allows adjusting the level of water and nutrients to macro-crop plants, to radiographic reading systems that identify cancers one year before their diagnosis, or virtual reality glasses to accustom prisoners to life outside prison and encourage their reintegration. If technological innovations are the engine of the so-called new economy, data is the new fuel of digitalization. In a world in which the future already happened several years ago, citizens expect the public sector to rise to the data economy with the same agility that the private sector is showing. But at what rate are the governments of Latin America being digitized?

According to the latest report on digital development that has just been published by the United Nations, the region is marked by chiaroscuros. Of the 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, only five are among the 50 most digitized in the world. At the head continues Uruguay, which since this year belongs to the select club of Digital 7, a group that brings together the most advanced governments in digital, such as Canada, South Korea and the United Kingdom.
The UN report shows that the countries that have invested the most in their digital agendas in recent years are the ones that are now beginning to reap the rewards. Panama, for example, climbed 14 positions in just two years. The leadership of the Agency for Government Innovation has been key to lifting the Central American country in an international context of accelerated competition. The test is Colombia, which improved its digital performance in absolute terms, but it dropped from 57 to 61.
Although the country has made progress in its digital transformation, other countries have improved even more.

This screenshot of the progress of the digital agenda in the region allows us to draw some interesting conclusions:
  • The digitalization of a country is a state policy, not a government project of the moment. A successful digitization strategy must set clear priorities and responsibilities for all actors in the digital ecosystem of the State. In many cases, the creation of a specialized agency with ministerial rank has been decisive, as in Uruguay or Panama. The most successful reforms are those that quickly impact the daily lives of citizens. Many countries have created one-stop windows for accessing digital services, such as Mexico or the Sin Más Filas portal in Colombia. These reforms, thanks to their visibility, not only meant an immediate improvement in attention to citizenship, but also created the necessary political space to undertake other more structural reforms.
  • The digital transformation of the State requires that officials acquire new skills. The countries that made the greatest progress in terms of digital government have invested in human talent in less traditional areas of the public sector such as systems engineering, data sciences or artificial intelligence.
  • To digitize well, you must first simplify. In the region, public procedures continue to be cumbersome and complex. On average, 5.4 hours are needed to complete a management and 25% of them require more than three trips to the public entity. That bureaucratic tangle hides a corruption as harmful as it is silent: 29% of Latin Americans admit having paid some kind of bribe to complete a public procedure. Citizen demand is the best digital catalyst.
  • The importance of the digital transformation of the State must have the support of companies and society as a whole. The opening of public data through portals such as those in Colombia, Mexico, or Brazil allow to strengthen transparency and even generate economic value. They also help to break down information silos within the same State, where different public entities are often reluctant to share data among themselves. Let's not forget that information is power. 

Although it sounds paradoxical, in this new economy propelled by the data, these remain great unknown. It is estimated that only 1% of the world's available information is being analyzed; Latin Data Barometer reports that only 10% of the government bases are in open format. Engaging in the digital economy will allow governments to use information to be more efficient and transparent. It will give the States a second chance to recover the confidence of citizens and build governments that truly serve their citizens.