Digital minilaterals are the future of international cooperation

Filer_Digital Minilaterals

In December 2014, representatives from the United Kingdom, Estonia, Republic of Korea, Israel, and New Zealand met in London to launch a new network designed to enable “learning and sharing from experience” on digital government between its members. Dubbed the D5 for “Digital 5,” Lord Francis Maude—an advocate for digital reform of government and a senior minister in the David Cameron government—hailed  the new network as one that would “help governments improve their online services, collaborate on common projects, and support and champion their growing digital economies.”

In the six years since its founding, the network—recently renamed Digital Nations (DN)—has grown to include 10 member countries and has quietly yet effectively pioneered a model of cooperative digital governance, as we document in a new policy paper at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. The global reach of the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the importance of digital technologies for the management of complex, international crises. It has also crystalized, not least through difficulties in implementing digital contact-tracing tools, the need for policymakers to learn quickly from peers what is working—or not—elsewhere. At a time when systems for international cooperation in the digital world remain underdeveloped—a recent UN report concluded that “existing digital cooperation architecture” is “highly complex and diffused but not necessarily effective”—the DN is a rare bright spot for the international community.

The DN is an example of a minilateral—a small, trust-based network with a shared set of values oriented around innovation and the creation and sharing of knowledge. Digital minilateralism describes those minilateral networks both committed to digital governance and using “digital” culture, practices, processes, and technologies as tools to advance peer learning, support, and cooperation between governments. The DN, as an early example of the approach, is instructive of how such networks can function and improve government operations.

The decision to cooperate

In 2014, the United Kingdom provided the driving force behind the foundation of the D5, a network of nations that self-identified as “digital leaders.” Earlier that year, the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) had successfully established GOV.UK, which consolidated some 1,700 government websites into a single domain for many citizen-facing services. GDS attracted significant international attention and visitors keen to learn from its efforts. Aiming to capitalize on the attention, Maude commissioned the development of the network.

On paper, the D5 comprised an unobvious membership group, small in size and comprising neither the most powerful nor the most politically aligned countries. Wired bluntly called them “a pretty weird combo” and wondered “what ‘best practices’ these ‘advanced’ guys will get around to sharing that other, dumber guys don’t already have.”

Regardless of the group’s eclecticism, the D5 countries shared a desire for international cooperation, including promoting their successes, deliberating on failures, and sharing ideas in emergent areas of digital government. They were also unified by a set of shared values that enabled cooperation. Each committed in different ways to the spirit of “open government,” as the group’s foundational charter reflected. All founding D5 member states were also signatories of the Open Government Partnership, a transnational movement seeking to promote “accountable, responsible and inclusive governance.”

While many DN participants work in or lead digital government units (DGUs), which are often primarily focused on providing government services digitally, the network as a whole focuses on broader issues of digital governance, where “the design and use of digital government, digital business issues, and digital democracy” become entwined.

Their working methods include two in-person meetings each year: the officials meeting (at the leader and practitioner levels), and the ministerial summit (divided into overlapping ministerial, leader, and practitioner levels depending on the agenda) and monthly meetings and calls. Experts also meet, and develop white papers, within thematic working groups focused on artificial intelligence, data, and digital identity, and other emergent policy topics.

Two further specific qualities of the DN give it its particular character. The first characteristic concerns who attends the summits. Three distinct tiers of attendees are welcomed: ministerial-level, “Lead-level” (for example, government chief digital officers or chief information officers), and “Practitioner level” (a combination of the “expert” on-the-ground teams doing actual digital service development, and those who facilitate the international coordination across their subject areas, known as the “Sherpas”). Most other digital groupings do not cut across these levels of participation, focusing either on practitioners or senior policymakers, which may result in the siloing of knowledge at different levels of government. The second salient characteristic is the relative informality of the network. Its charter is explicitly “non-binding” and the issue of non-compliance with any principles by any member is to be “settled amicably … without any reference to any third party or international tribunal.”

Trust and expertise

This “minilateral” approach to international cooperation is distinctive from the formality and bureaucracy of universal membership organizations such as the World Health Organization or UN and the legal rules and binding commitments typically associated with international relations. In contrast to the gridlock that increasingly characterizes multilateral approaches to problems requiring global cooperation, the informality of minilaterals, offers “speed, flexibility, modularity, and possibilities for experimentation,” as global governance expert Stewart M. Patrick argues. The political scientist Moises Naim describes minilateralism’s “magic number” as the “smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem.”

Free from a rules-bound approach, minilaterals require significant levels of interpersonal trust between members. They are, after all, taking a risk: sharing and seeking transgovernmental learning in areas of emergent knowledge, in which best practices remain uncertain. Participants must be willing to share stories of failure and uncertainty.

Informality, not always prized in the work of international relations, has been critical to the development of trust within the DN. Seong Ju Park, the deputy director of the Digital Government Cooperation Division in the Republic of Korea, has participated in the DN since 2016. She is one of several participants to describe her DN colleagues as “friends” with whom she regularly shares ideas on WhatsApp. “We hang out outside the meeting rooms as well, and those relationships actually help to make decisions as a group. We have discussions inside, but after the meeting during the coffee break just having a chat we come up with better solutions,” she told us.

These kinds of interpersonal relations take time to develop. A challenge of trust-based international networks organized around individual relationship building is the turnover of personnel within government departments. In recent years a large number of key individuals from founding members have moved out of government, and newer member countries have also experienced change. Since 2016, only three people who were involved in the DN since the outset remain. As Rikke Zeberg, the director-general of the Danish Agency of Digitization describes, turnover impacts capacity for cooperation: “You have to get to know each other and re-form trust.” There is also a premium on good knowledge management to ensure continuity when pursuing cooperative agendas in environments of high turnover.

Good knowledge management and the willingness to share material also provides tangible benefits to members. According to José Clastornik, former executive director of Uruguay’s  National Agency for e-Government and Information Society, “sharing knowledge decreases the necessary investment for each individual country in developing their own knowledge, for example surrounding AI.” For a small country like Uruguay, “being small can sometimes be an advantage […] making projects more manageable. But there are situations in which volume generates savings.” This logic of knowledge aggregation was a foundational motivation for Uruguay to join the DN.

Signs of success

In its six years of existence, the network has begun to prove its effectiveness in a number of ways. At the level of products, Estonia has shared with DN members code from its X-road data exchange system, as has the United Kingdom from its GOV.UK Notify messaging system. At the level of policy, the DN has shaped policymaking and helped to stimulate policy focus on emerging technology issues back home. The Republic of Korea, for example, gathered experts to discuss the responsible use of AI ahead of the 2018 summit on that topic—not otherwise an area on which they had planned to work. Following the summit, that domestic conversation continued. In 2019,the Canadian government adopted as part of a directive on automated decision-making responsible AI principles developed at the DN’s Israel Summit the year before. Canada has pushed for the same principles to be adopted by the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, an international initiative to promote responsible AI.

These examples suggest that the DN has already started to have tangible policy effect at multiple levels of government. Participants at every level also note individual professional benefits of peer-learning and close-knit relations with international peers in their field.

The DN also remains in demand, with countries continuing to seek membership in the group—and wanting to be seen joining. This demand suggests a positive perception of the network on the international stage. It also indicates that membership has a valuable signaling effect, providing an image of digital leadership that may serve to confirm—or in certain cases counterbalance—a country’s position in the major global digital rankings.

Accountability and politics

Given the demand for membership—and the DN’s tentative interest in growing membership numbers and influence—network accountability is key. It also aligns with the foundational, if scantily defined, value of “openness” in the group’s charter. The DN website is relatively hard to find (and at time of publication was down), and only irregularly updated. Member country pages are better populated but ad-hoc, with some offering more detail than others. Given early indications that DN discussions actively shape policy in some member countries, a bare website risks leaving the network susceptible to charges of “runaway technocracy,” in which experts make decisions outside the realm of democratic oversight.

As the political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter described a  decade ago, when government networks “go virtual,” they also “become more real” by identifying the members of a network and linking them in the public eye. A website offers internal and external accountability features: “For network members, a common Web site serves as a clearinghouse for the dissemination of information and the coordination of activities; for those outside the network, the Web site creates a public face.”

Slaughter typologizes intergovernmental networks into three groups, of which the DN clearly represents a “spontaneous transgovernmental network.” Networks in this group, “generate compilations of best practices, codes of conduct, and templates” which in the internet age have “played a far greater role in triggering policy convergence in various issue areas than more deliberate and coercive attempts.” With regards to the DN, one need only look at the extent of code and best practice sharing between member nations—particularly of the UK’s GOV.UK Notify and Estonia’s X-road data layer service—for evidence of policy convergence. Prioritizing openness and accountability should be an imperative of all digital minilateral groups, including the DN.

The issue of accountability has perhaps not drawn much attention to date because digital governance is not (yet) the kind of international political battlefield that other areas of minilateral cooperation represent. The motivation behind minilateral “climate clubs,” for example, is often to enhance political dialogue and bargaining power, or to create membership-specific incentives that encourage compliance with climate agreements. While digital policymakers recognize that conversations with their Chinese or Russian counterparts (for example at DGX, a thematic rather than values-based membership network) are necessarily more guarded, the current abiding rationale behind digital minilaterals, including the DN, continues to focus on peer-learning, branding countries as digital leaders, and digital trade opportunities.

This technocratic quality enables cooperation. But topics of digital governance are only likely to grow more polarized in the near future. It is important to recognize—and mitigate where needed—path dependencies that could emerge from minilateralist approaches adopted today. As Richard Pope, our colleague at the Bennett Institute, documents, we also have only short-run evidence of what has worked in any one place, let alone once transposed to different policy settings. This is one reason why code sharing between DN member nations is both a tangible benefit of membership and should be viewed cautiously.

The future of digital minilateralism

As Sir Francis Maude opened the inaugural D5 summit, he described the “ability for progress and transformation—which can propel a single brilliant idea into a worldwide phenomenon almost overnight” as “one of the many, many upsides of the digital age in which we now live.” Six years later, the world has been sobered by the viral spread of both disease and digitally disseminated disinformation. There is less techno-optimism, less general appetite for technologies to instantaneously go global. Yet there is also more need than ever for impactful digital governance—to accelerate the development of technologies and policies that assist in crisis response and recovery, to reimagine public services, and to steer technologies away from causing harm.

When Moises Naim speaks of a “magic number” of countries using minilateralism to arrive at solutions, he sees it as an opportunity for other countries to follow their lead in terms of norms, practices, and declarations. In the DN, this is already evident through the adoption of the responsible AI principles by the GPAI. The DN is well placed to serve as a beacon for others because it takes on emergent themes, discusses them in depth, and produces white papers and principles that are sufficiently clear to be implemented across different political cultures.

There would be little benefit for the DN—and digital “minilaterals” more broadly—to exist in opposition to multilateral approaches, as DN members recognize. The OECD continues to shape the global conversation on key digital government issues, and the UN secretary-general has said he will appoint a technology envoy in 2021 to serve as a “focal point for digital cooperation.” Feeding into this broader, more slow-paced multilateral conversation will be one mechanism through which the DN can demonstrate its value to the global community.

The DN will not be the last digital minilateral. Recent research finds national governments eager to collaborate with colleagues in other countries at similar levels of development, at a similar level of technology development, viewing it as a route to improved technology policy. As digital minilaterals continue to emerge, members should use digital minilateral networks to learn lessons rather than to imagine a single “right” method of digitalization to be transplanted elsewhere. A “shared orthodoxy”, in the words of public policy scholar Amanda Clarke, focused on “agile” methodology, openness, user-centric design and diversified procurement prevails across many digital government units internationally, yet arguably has achieved a mixed scorecard. Apparently generic technological “fixes” and digital policies map poorly onto the variation in political, socio-economic, demographic and cultural contexts in which citizens live and public sectors make decisions.

Learning from digital nations

As governments increasingly seek out cooperative peers, there are lessons to be drawn from the early experience of the DN in how to effectively cooperate.

First, digital cooperation, often steered by public servants focused on digital government, requires skills beyond standard “digital” competencies. Governments increasingly recognize that public servants across policy domains require digital “upskilling.” Skills programs and international projects such as Teaching Public Service in a Digital Age (of which Filer is a founding member) respond to this challenge. Yet the skills required of digital professionals in government are also shifting. The skill of forum selection and participation and broader forms of cooperation on digital governance are likely to become increasingly critical within the digital policymakers’ toolkit. Digital staffers may have as much to learn from their foreign policy colleagues as vice versa.

Second, as digital minilateral networks grow and mature, they will need to find mechanisms through which to retain (or adapt) their core principles while scaling across more boundaries.

Networks must carefully consider their objectives and the range and quantity of countries that can best help achieve them. One of those objectives may be the coordinated aggregation of knowledge on emergent digital topics, a particular advantage both for smaller and poorer countries that could otherwise struggle to stay at the forefront, and for frontrunners, looking for peers from whom to learn.

Third, if minilateral networks originally established as voluntary, “minimum viable” propositions extend their membership and influence— as the DN is contending with—challenges of scale must be met. Whether their original founding principles and ambitions are still appropriate must be consistently reviewed. More prosaically, longer term financing arrangements should be installed to ensure stability and appropriate resourcing as they reach a new phase of maturity.

Reflecting from her office in Seoul, Park describes how “in the future digital governments might just be the new form of government.” With an eye to this future, national governments would do well to recognize and reinforce the strategic value of digital minilaterals without stamping out, through over-bureaucratization, the qualities of trust, open conversation, and ad-hocness in which their value lies. For governments to make the most of innovation to improve citizens’ lives, they must also embrace innovations in international cooperation.

Dr. Tanya Filer leads the Digital State project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge. She is also Founder and Director at StateUp.

Dr. Antonio Weiss is a Director at The PSC and, in 2020-21, a Digital State Affiliated Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.