Encouraging global digital transformation - how United Nations Development Programme CDO Robert Opp tackles a challenge on a worldwide scale

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett February 15, 2021 Audio version
Robert Opp, United Nations Development Programme’s Chief Digital Officer Robert, shares his two-pronged digital strategy for transforming the agency internally and helping to shape the national digital activities of its member governments.

united nations CDO

Digital technology is at the heart of how the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) intends to achieve its goals of helping eradicate poverty and reduce inequality and exclusion around the world. 

The organization, which operates in 170 member countries and territories, was in fact the first agency within the wider UN family to devise a digital strategy, which it started work on in late 2018. By September 2019, it had hired Robert Opp, former Director of the UN’s World Food Programme’s Innovation & Change Management Division, to assume the newly-created role of Chief Digital Officer (CDO). Opp says:

Both the digital strategy and the CDO position are the first of their kind in the UN system, but probably not the last. We went first due to the leadership of Achim Steiner, who joined in 2017 as the Administrator - it was part of the process of looking at where the organization needed to go in future and he was clear that digital was the space that had to be addressed as a priority. So it was about leadership.

Opps’ digital remit, meanwhile, covers two key areas that are currently undergoing a parallel transformation process – the agency’s internal digital operations, and its external activities with UN member governments. The aim with the latter is to help them benefit from, and mitigate the risks of, implementing digital technology to help them meet the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

On the internal side of things, one of the first actions - undertaken by the UNDP’s CIO Sylvain St-Pierre, who was hired at the same time as Opp - was to replace a range of corporate applications, including the organization’s ERP system, which had not been upgraded for nine years and was no longer fit for purpose

The decision was taken to “move towards cloud-based systems” and introduce new ways of working to make the agency more “flexible and agile”. A further aim was to eliminate its shadow IT problem by offering “innovators” the appropriate tools to create their own solutions and “capture them in a corporate environment”, Opp says.

Just as important though was creating a new data architecture and strategy, which Opp hopes will be approved over the next couple of weeks. He explains:

It’s our first data strategy saying how we’ll coherently move forward as an organization, so it’s very important. The vision is to treat data as a strategic asset, which primarily means maximising its value to create a more efficient and effective organization. It doesn’t matter which part we touch - whether it’s the back office or government-facing programmes - if we can’t effectively manage our data, we won’t get the real impact out of it that we could have.

Introducing digital by default

As a result, the agency is currently working with Microsoft on new ways to combine disparate data sources from across the agency in order to form a single data lake and introduce appropriate standards to govern and manage it.

To deal with the important issue of helping the UNDP’s 18,000 staff make the sometimes difficult transition to a more digital way of working though, Opp says he is taking a “layered approach” to change management. 

For example, over the next few months, some 200 specially-trained “digital champions” in each organizational unit and country around the world will not only start acting as ambassadors for all things digital. They will also become the first port of call for any digital queries and refer employees elsewhere if they cannot help directly.

Opp has himself likewise started hosting ‘Ask me anything’ sessions, where, for example, he highlights successful projects in one country that could be rolled out in others. 

But he has also implemented a ‘digital by default’ scheme to try to embed technology usage into the agency’s culture. This means that every time a new UNDP project is created, employees are now required to work through a template-based process in order to outline and clarify the initiative’s digital elements or explain why a digital component is absent. As Opp says:

Not all projects are going to be digital, but everyone has to consider it now in order to drive digital into our DNA and enable us to better track how and where digital is being used.

The next step will be to create new job profiles for existing roles. These profiles will include digital skills requirements for performance management purposes, thereby providing managers with the right guidance to offer employees appropriate training. A raft of new job profiles covering areas, such as data science and data engineering, will also be devised to encourage people with such expertise to join the agency. Opp explains:

People already in the organization will hopefully benefit from the cross-fertilization, but it’s a real challenge. Most people weren’t hired for their digital ability, but we’re increasingly seeing that a digital capability needs to be present, so we have to find new ways of getting it in.

Supporting member governments’ digital transformation

As to what the UNDP is doing on the government programme side of the equation, it has introduced a number of initiatives in a bid to share and propagate ideas across different parts of the business.

To this end, it has created a network of 90 accelerator laboratories that “address issues raised locally that need digital solutions” and are subsequently dealt with using agile approaches. But in order to disseminate the benefits of individual, local solutions more widely, the agency has also built a ‘digital scaling accelerator’. 

The scaling accelerator’s first prototyping round took place with six projects in February last year, although the pandemic meant they had to be put on hold. One such project investigated how it might be possible to globalize the capabilities of a blockchain-based platform originally used to trace the journey of cacao through the supply chain from producers in Ecuador to chocolate consumers’ in Europe, thereby enabling it to cover more countries and commodities.

A more recent call for proposals though has led to a further 186 internal applicants making submissions for possible initiatives. The current aim is to choose eight potential projects for the first of possibly two rounds, in a process that will be repeated, mainly for external schemes, every four to six months.

Just to make the UNDP’s plans even more ambitious, however, Opp is also developing a digital transformation framework, or reference model, as part of a “broader effort” with the UN’s International Telecommunication Union to build up digital capabilities around the world. The aim of the framework is to “ensure no one is left behind”. He explains:

Digital is a very effective tool for development, but you have to be intentionally inclusive or you risk leaving out parts of the population, such as indigenous people or marginalized communities. Our mission is to ensure human development is inclusive, which includes our recommendations for digitally transforming society.

The framework explores key areas, such as physical infrastructure and government regulation, as well as challenges, such as privacy and the spread of misinformation, all of which are vital for governments to consider when deciding to go for “whole society digital transformation”. Opp says:

We don’t tell governments how to do it. Each will take their own path and they’re all starting from different levels of maturity. What we’re giving them is a platform for discussion, so they can ask themselves ‘do we have the right overall policy and regulatory environment?’ and ‘do we have the right digital infrastructure and skills?’ It allows us to open up the discussion and ensure nothing important is being left behind.

While the importance of Opp’s work in enabling digital transformation at all levels of the UNDP’s activities is evident, what he also makes clear is that the organization cannot do it alone. As he concludes:

The corporate sector will be key to us achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. People often categorize the public and private sector as being completely separate, but there’s no way we’ll get to where we need to be with just public sector intervention. In order to achieve our ultimate vision, we need a thriving private sector to be profitable, sustainable and inclusive too.