Four reasons why DFID’s new digital strategy is one to watch

2 February 2018
Insight
Students do practical computer exercises at the community e-center in Bhutan. 2010.

Doing development in a digital world, the Department for International Development’s new digital strategy, is ambitious. It challenges our understanding of digital and of its implications for international development. It also stretches the definition of digital beyond social media and tools to include ways of working and capabilities.

DFID wants to be recognised as a ‘global leader in digital technology and development, in order to have a bigger, faster and more cost-effective impact on the lives of poor people.’ But what does that mean in practice and what impact will it have on our sector? Expect to make some changes to the way you need to frame your work and to how you deliver it.

Some of the ideas in the strategy, such as creating open partnerships, inspiring transformation by showcasing examples and enhancing the digital skills of staff and partners are familiar but others are more innovative and potentially disruptive.

1. Link digital ambition to the external world

This strategy frames digital, data and technology as enablers of progress towards achieving the Global Goals. It emphasises the importance of delivering internet access for all – which is a target of sustainable development goal 9 – by increasing internet coverage, improving infrastructure and promoting digital literacy in developing countries.

In a departure from its previous digital strategy, DFID plans to tackle the digital divide and ‘leave no one behind’ by ending its focus on its own digital channels and infrastructure.

It invites others to join their vision and create strong partnerships with all sectors. For example, DFID funds an e-learning initiative in Kenya and sits on an international steering committee that explores expanding internet access for all.  

2. Become a leader in digital technology and development

This means more focus on, and participation in, the global digital policy debates. The strategy recognises the risks the internet poses, risks like ‘harmful concentration and monopoly, and state and corporate use of digital technologies to control rather than empower citizens’.

To deliver in this area, DFID must lead by example. The strategy suggests drafting regulations to promote open competition, improving digital skills so their staff can design successful programmes, and encouraging accountable institutions so that governments and private sector companies are required to respond to citizens’ demands.

Will this mean DFID join the discussion about data security, privacy, individual digital rights and net neutrality? Time will tell.

3. User-centred design is at the heart of everything

Responding to people’s needs will be key in the creation, implementation and evaluation of programmes. This is probably the biggest lesson from the digital and technology sector.

Digital teams should reconfigure around the new skills needed; skills that include user research, content strategy and user experience design. DFID has developed a career framework to build their specialist digital capability, provide training and career progression.

Is your organisation thinking of expanding or reconfiguring its digital team? Is a centralised or embedded approach the answer?

4. Adhere to and endorse standards to improve quality and promote best practice

The Principles for Digital Development are an excellent starting point for raising the quality of digital initiatives. The standards provide a clear framework for how digital should be done. They are a great opportunity for anyone in the sector, including ODI, to share common challenges, remove barriers, and facilitate conversations. They have become the minimum standards for any new digital project at ODI.

Are there any other organisations building their own standards? Or are you endorsing and implementing some of these guidelines?

Strategy into action

As someone who designs and implements digital projects, I celebrate and welcome DFID’s digital approach. I hope they have the resources and the conviction to cope with the pace of change and the scale of ambition.

At ODI, this digital strategy has inspired us to be more open to change and to redouble our efforts to collaborate and innovate.

For the sector, this strategy might mean adopting new ways of working, joining the digital policy debates and rethinking the way teams are structured.

We will have to think about how to embrace digital technology opportunities without increasing the digital gap both in developing countries and in our teams.

Will the strategy inspire others in the sector to rethink the way they do digital? Share what this strategy means for you and your organisation.