Thanks so much for being here today! To start, could you go into some detail about your professional experience prior to coming to the Brandt school?
Before coming to the Brandt School, I worked in market research on public opinion so I worked in different consultancy firms in Uruguay, where I was doing measurement of public opinion before elections, or on topics of public interest, or when companies were launching new products to gauge public interest in the new products. I wasn’t really involved in digital government. I started working for a professor from my home university on digital issues but doing exactly what I did with market research. I was helping him analyze surveys on the adoption of different ICPs among the Uruguayan population.
Coming here to the Brandt School and studying with a diverse group of people, did that change your perspective, and if so, how?
Yes, of course! I think that it’s very important to understand that your reality is your reality and that’s it. It is not the world’s reality. And now that I work at an international organization, I see that from me, from my point of view, there might be an obvious solution, but that obvious solution might only apply to the Uruguayan reality. I think that the Brandt school helped me internalize that there are so many differences in the world. When you are working regionally or globally, you already start thinking from there: you need to have that perspective, an understanding that it will be difficult to implement, and you need to take into account different realities.
I also gained more knowledge of Latin American reality and the world. When I was in Uruguay, I did not know many people from the rest of Latin America. Uruguay is such a tiny country surrounded by the giants of Brazil and Argentina, so I didn’t interact much with people from the rest of Latin America. At the Brandt School, I was surrounded by people from different Latin American countries. I got to learn their perspectives, learning the many ways that our countries differ but also the ways we are similar.
Did your professional ambitions change while you studied here, or did you have a good idea what you wanted to do after graduating?
I didn’t have much of an idea; I’m still learning that now. I came to the Brandt School because I wanted to get a Master’s in Public Policy, and I thought it would be a more interesting experience to do it abroad. So, when I arrived there, my mindset was that I would be there for a few years and then come home. I really love my home country. I didn’t see myself staying in Germany. It is an amazing country, but so culturally different from Uruguay. Then when I was there and everyone was like, ‘Oh let’s do internships there and stay here!’ That wasn’t really what I was interested in. I wasn’t looking for internships there. I did my internship remotely, in Uruguay at my home university. I was working for a research department that was researching the adoption of digital government services.
When my studies were up, I was torn between maybe staying in Europe, but I decided to stick to my original plan of coming back to Uruguay. From when I started the masters and when I left Germany, I knew I wanted to work for an institution that does public policy in Uruguay. I knew I also wanted to work for an international organization, so, I focused my applications at international organizations focused on Latin America. Coming home was a bit of a culture shock, but I got a job at the Uruguayan Agency for E-Government and that was where my previous knowledge on digital issues started to have an effect on my professional life. So, I thought, okay, this is my path! This agency oversaw the digital transition of Uruguay, and Uruguay is really a leader when it comes to the digital transition in Latin America, so it was really an incredible experience. Everybody was looking at what we were doing.
After that I applied for a similar position at IADB so now I am basically doing the same thing that I was doing in Uruguay, but now at a regional level. I didn’t have a clear path! I went for things that felt right.
The data and digital government cluster at IADB has a few different focuses. Is there a specific one you work on?
I work on the knowledge agenda. We create and disseminate knowledge. When a country is going to implement a new digital solution, they have data on that, what works and doesn’t work. Or, when a coworker from a different division wants to conduct an operation, we provide knowledge on what works and doesn’t work. Now I am working on a project called the Digital Government Regional Observatory. What we want to do there is create an observatory where we have all the data on the digital transformation of government for all Latin America. Say, tomorrow my coworker starts working with Brazil, she can come to us to get a snapshot of the digital infrastructure of Brazil. We provide specific knowledge on everything from the state of digital infrastructure to data privacy policies, etc.
What are some of the most pressing challenges you deal with in bringing better digitalization to Latin America?
Well, let’s say there’s a county that doesn’t have internet access for all and they want to bring an AI strategy. That’s great, but we realize that your population doesn’t have access to internet, or digital skills. Sometimes we get countries that want Big Data, AI, and we need to press the breaks and think about all the things that come before digital services. Setting up a great digital presence online at a time when only a portion of a country’s population can access that means that you’re not actually implementing a solution, you’re creating a new problem. The main challenge for us is to make everyone understand that a digital transformation is not about bringing services online, it is about building the foundations to make the most of the digital tools. Once you’ve built those foundations, then you can begin implementing digital services. Our goal, my goal especially, is to improve people’s lives. If you are implementing a new, fancy solution that is inaccessible to many people, that is not actually improving lives.
Has COVID-19 made digitalization more of a priority? In what ways did poor digitalization create obstacles for people and their governments during the pandemic?
Covid has been a big promoter of the digital transformation. Because everything happened so fast, governments and people realized that digital alone doesn’t mean better. In an ideal world where we all have access to the internet, digital might be better. But if we don’t consider the actual world we live in, digital is not perfect yet. Covid was a big promoter of digital transformation because that is what countries had to do. There would have been, without digital, even less access to services. People need to be able to access the internet easily and securely. Covid made people confront the difficulties of digitalization. It’s still important that services are online but also offline.
I was conducting research in Uruguay on why some regions didn’t use digital services. The people I was researching were living in small towns with internet access. And what we found out was that people liked using government offices. It was a chance to get out of the house and interact with people. Covid has made us confront the limitations of digital.
Privacy is always a concern when it comes to digitalization. Where do you think an acceptable middle ground lays when it comes to privacy but better, more efficient government?
We are trying to understand that middle ground. There are things like proactive government services. Say for example a message from the government to remind you to renew your passport, or reminders about important health exams. It’s about making the process smooth and targeted. It’s more personal than just, say, an advertising campaign. The problem then is that the government needs to share your information and communicate. It’s good for you, because your interaction with the government will be smoother. I had always assumed that the government knew everything, but of course, my colleagues from other parts of the world didn’t like the idea of the government sharing your information between different departments. Trust in government varies a lot from country to country. Giving citizens the trust that their data will be protected and respected is so important. We already give a lot of information to companies like google, so why not the government? The thesis is that people don’t see the benefit. We need to show people the benefit, and instill trust.
Digitalization is really an area of public policy that quite a few students here are interested in. What sort of work and study should they be doing while they study here if they hope to find a job similar to yours?
Well, I was going with the flow! But I always knew I wanted to work for an international organization. What I see here is that it depends; when you talk about digital topics, there are so many! And many ways of approaching digitalization. Maybe you want to focus on legislation of data privacy? Then the job I am doing wouldn’t be of much interest to you. So, know what exactly you want to be doing. Since you are in a master’s program, you have your bachelor’s and probably some work experience. Think about how your skills and background fit into digital governance. You should also have some familiarity with digital governance. Having knowledge of programming is useful, but not mandatory. Also, your master’s thesis is a great way to familiarize yourself with a topic in digital governance.