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GovStack Creates Building Blocks for e-Government


e-Estonia pavilion

Imagine if you could develop e-government services based on reusable building blocks – take suitable pieces from the bag and stack them to fit fantasy and needs, as easily as with LEGO.  GovStack, a joint initiative by Estonia, Germany, the International Telecommunications Union, and the Digital Impact Alliance is doing exactly this: developing a sustainable and cost-effective toolbox for e-government services. By investing in digital building blocks, which are easier to design, implement, and scale across sectors and situations, GovStack is helping governments simplify the digital transformation process, reducing the cost, time, and resources necessary to create digital services and applications. 

Margus MägiGovStack Project Lead for Estonia, explains how they do it. 

We Are All Digitally Developing Countries

When countries take on digitalising their public services, they face a huge task. A myriad of aspects must be considered, from databases to interfaces, to regulatory changes and change management. Furthermore, all of these aspects have to work together.

For slightly more than a year, GovStack has been developing a solution for these challenges. Their mission is to create the reusable modular building blocks (registry, interoperability, consent), upon which governments are able build their entire e-government architecture. This so-called “Whole-of-Government Approach” reduces costs for everyone. Rather than developing the software, GovStack develops the specifications or functional requirements descriptions for each component, which facilitate the creation of suitable products in the market later on.

“Basically, it is up to the end user – the government of any country — whether to have these blocks built based on specs they themselves have created, using free open-source software, or using proprietary solutions from the market that comply with the GovStack specification,” explains Margus Mägi. “Evidently, all of the software needs to be open-source so that the countries see the code and know what it does. No one wants a black box in their public services!”

During its first year of operations, GovStack identified 19 building blocks that make up any e-government. These specifications will help create an ecosystem of transparent and open products and help governments ease the procurement process by raising the quality of procurements.

Build It, Test It, Share It

GovStack focuses on three pillars: specifications, Sandbox, and best practices. The first is the development of the building block specifications, or GovSpecs. The second pillar, GovTest, is a sandbox currently under development, where all available and potential software solutions can be combined in a test environment using dummy data. This is important because governments rarely create all their eventual e-services in one go. Rather, they start with something small and specific – a marriage registry or a vehicle registry – and grow from there.

“In our sandbox, governments can test how various building blocks interact. For example, they can see what databases are required, or what happens if one feature is developed before another,” elaborates Mägi.

The third pillar, GovLearn, is a playbook and various capacity-building exercises which help governments on their journey to developing their e-services. The playbook combines best practices in various categories, from compiling a development team to designing services. According to Margus Mägi, several Horn-of-Africa countries are currently involved in using the playbook to test and measure the next steps their governments must take in applying the building blocks.

GovStack Connects Countries and Communities

What makes GovStack unique is that everything they do is co-created with their target group. Every building block is developed by a working group consisting of volunteers selected from a list of sign-ups on the GovStack webpage and various nationally appointed experts. In addition to Estonia and Germany, some countries contribute to working group efforts from Europe, Asia, America, Africa, the Middle East, and the private sector. This creates a unique mix of expertise that is making a collective effort for the greater good.

“Since we engage people ranging from civil servants to lone enthusiasts and tech company representatives, we eventually develop quite a good compromise that carves out the essential and avoids bias in almost any direction,” Mägi brings out the benefits of this system. “Although, I must admit, working with such a diverse crowd requires nerves of steel. Sometimes solutions require long and intense discussion before any common ground can be found.”

“We essentially work in a start-up-like way,” says Mägi. “By engaging countries and communities, we are user-centred and agile. We believe that in this way we don’t need to engage with formal standard setting — which is stifling – but instead, we provide the best the world has to offer at this very moment.”

GovStack has announced a Digital Service Design Special Prize for the World Summit on the Information Society 2023. The Prize specifically spotlights innovative and impactful government service designs that are based on a building block approach.  If you have a project that should be shared with the world, don’t hesitate to apply!

Author: Peeter Vihma, e-Estonia*The article was published by e-Estonia on 14.12.2022.