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20 April 2016

Preparing a conceptual trifle – Ingredients: State, Digital Societies and Africa

How are public sector entities affected by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)? Why is it so important to analytically connect the concept of the digital state with that of digital societies? A comparison with the dish trifle – the layered dessert – gives answers to these questions.

Let’s start preparing the bits and pieces for our trifle and just to have this clear, this metaphor refers to trifle – the layered dessert – which is but a trifle thing …

What comes to your mind when we think about Digital Societies (DS)? Well, we might not have an idea what it exactly means, but social empowerment, innovative forms of knowledge sharing and the creation and new forms of individual and collective self-expression is surely among them. More abstractly, we normally associate DS with new forms of ICT enabled self-coordination within and among social groups, often crossing established boundaries of state, language, culture or any other kind of possible framework. So far so good.

What does not come to mind? Well, you normally would not associate DS with the state, would you? The reason is that – at least in social science – an analytical/conceptual distinction has been established between the state and society. Has this ever made sense? Well, the jury is still out on that.

Does this make sense today against the backdrop of accelerating trends of globalization? Probably not. If globalization means increasingly dense interconnections and interdependencies between “societal” sub-systems, it becomes hard to argue for the conceptual separation of state and society.

That does not mean, however, that society and state should be conceptually merged. Not at all. The title of this post uses the metaphor of a trifle not a hotchpotch: meaning: its components remain intact while congealing to form an entity of its own (at least this is how a good trifle should be prepared).

At the same time this post is about a specific state/DS trifle: namely, the one we find in in sub-Saharan Africa.

So what does this specific trifle look like? The beauty of a blog post is, that you can substitute an answer that probably would merit a couple of dissertations with educated guesses and thoughts which may similarly aid our intellectual inquiry.

There is no doubt that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have been making tremendous inroads on the African continent. Within a few years, every adult person in Africa will have a cell phone. Already more than half (and counting) of these cell phones are web enabled. Thus the preconditions for collecting, sharing and disseminating information have become revolutionized. The consequences can be encouraging(such as with respect to access to knowledge and education), but also worrying(as for example with respect to hate speech which has found in social media a new and perfect vehicle for dissemination).

But, how do the African state-layers in this trifle come into play? How do or will ICTs change states and their functions on the African continent, thereby also impacting or shaping emerging DS in this region?And what are the major differences to be found with respect to society-state relations in Africa?

Fully cognizant of the dangers of simplification, two structural aspects characterizing the situation on the African continent stand out: (1) poor public infrastructure, which has almost always resulted in insufficient levels and quality of public service provisions such as in the fields of education, health or security); (2) high levels of corruption often linked with a complete lack of transparency and accountability of public institutions and associated public expenditures, resulting in a complete loss of trust in these institutions and their governance;

Returning to the aforementioned rapid diffusion of ICTs in Africa, what specific forms of impact can ICT have on the state and the governance of its institutions?

Derived from my research on Kenya, I suggest four major impact scenarios:

  1. A revolution in the availability of Administrative Data (AD) in these countries.
  2. A dramatic change in the effectiveness and transparency of Public Financial Management (PFM).
  3. A massive increase in so called one-stop-shop approaches for service delivery by public institutions, progressively provided in a digital way.
  4. Fundamental new perspectives for the provision of long term public services (for example, in health or education).

I will revisit and expand upon the latter three forms of impact in future posts. However here I will offer a brief discussion of each of these last three impact scenarios.

  1. PFM has been one of the most controversial issues among all African states since their foundations, almost always linked to inefficiency and corruption. Tools like the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) have been rolled-out in all Kenyan Ministries; Department and Agencies (MDAs) are aimed to ensure that all elements and processes linked to public finances (such as budgeting, revenues generation, procurement and expenditures) are executed within one digital system, thereby generating clear lines of responsibilities as well as a high level of transparency.
  2. One-stop-shop approaches are not new, nor confined to the African continent. Yet the impact they could have in this region, and are already having in Kenya, are tremendous, especially if combined with mobile technology and Internet applications. One stop shops in Kenya (called Huduma Centres and the eCitizen Portal – similar to the digital platform of Huduma) have massively improved the delivery of everyday public services, like prolonging drivers licenses or the issuing of Single Business Permits (SBP). These services are not only  accessible  digitally, but have been enabled by the establishment of an “underlying” digital information infrastructure of Administrative Data (AD).
  3. Also with respect to long term service provision ( for example in the education sector), ICTs have the potential for fundamentally changing the outreach and quality of public services. The Digital Literacy Programme in Kenya( about which I have written in arecent blog post), for example, is intended to improve education in all 23,000 Primary schools in Kenya with the help of ICTs.

Finally there is the aspect of Administrative Data (AD). I will delve a bit deeper into this subject matter.

Admittedly, AD might sound a bit technical and unsexy at first glance, but as is often the case in preparing a trifle in real life, the least spectacular ingredient can potentially have the most impact on the taste. So what exactly is AD and why is it important?

The term AD refers to non-statistical data that is generated and collected by public institutions in the course of administrative processes. Basically that refers to data found in public registries and databases, such as on population, land, assets, enterprises or taxpayers, but also extends to data held in connection to health, social services, transport and the judiciary.

Sounds boring? Well, the thing is that there is hardly any decision of public institutions or any service they provide that is not based on or requires AD. Establishing public infrastructure, such as opening a new school is -or should- closely be linked to information concerning the location of families with children of school age who would potentially attend school. Also any service, provided by public institutions or by private market actors that requires the authentication of an identity is dependent on a functioning, accessible and up-to-date population registry that can issue valid Identification documents.

Yet the challenge on the African continent is that (1) AD, such as land records, birth certificates or court decisions often only exists in paper form, making them hardly accessible, often outdated and prone to “interference”; (2) Management and use of AD has been insufficient; and (3) the AD exists in informational silos meaning: AD from one area, e.g. population registry, is not linked to AD of tax authorities).

By using ICTs, the Kenyan state has started major activities to tackle these problems of AD. While differing in detail among the different sectors, the overall approach has been the same, encompassing the following four elements:

  1. Digitizing paper documents on a massive scale (In Kenya for example, this has meant scanning 60 million. birth and death certificates, 30 million. pages of High court decisions, 20 million. pages of company files and 5 million land titles).
  2. Implementation of an advanced Information Management System for collecting and using AD and in which the data from digitization efforts are also integrated
  3. Assignment of Unified Identifiers (UI) for the different entities captured by AD (such as for persons, land, enterprises and assets).
  4. Securing interoperability of the different sets of AD and its administration of Information Management Systems in order to establish an Integrated Information Infrastructure for AD.

The point being is that all ICT related actions and efforts are not only relevant with respect to the state and its ability to provide services. Returning to our dessert concept, this means that any change in the “state layer” of our conceptual trifle inevitably has an impact on its “Digital Society layer”. To understand what DS in an African context amounts to requires an understanding of the newly digitized states DS are interacting with.

To provide just one example: The whole concept of ICT enabled monitorial citizenship is more easily brought to life if the collection of AD is not required by civil society initially, thus allowing societal actors to start their monitoring and questioning of state actions based on existing sets of AD( which they would not have had the means to collect by their own).

But after all this fuss, what actually is the taste of this state-DS-Africa trifle? That’s hard to tell as it is still in the making. The Digital Society is a rapidly evolving concept as is the Digital State it is interacting with on the African continent. Yet from the first nibbling on this trifle, it is fair to expect it to become an exciting affair.

 Photo: User: Sneh Roy / FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Rüdiger Schwarz

Associated Researcher: Global Constitutionalism and the Internet

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