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Meet Robert Opp -- the United Nations' first Chief Digital Officer

The UN's first CDO joins us to talk transformation, inclusion, and more.

Updated 11:48 GMT, February 11, 2021 to change CTO to CIO in paragraphs 4, 7, following an internal title change at the UNDP.

Robert Opp is Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It's a new role created in 2019 and the first CDO position in the sprawling UN network. Opp’s not a UN neophyte brought in to inject a veneer of top-down digital transformation, however. He cut his teeth with the organisation working on the ground for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Angola during its vicious civil war, leaving the UN to take up a role at the Boston Consulting Group, where he tells The Stack that he learned “a lot of things that I wish that I had known in the UN before; about management systems and structured problem solving and change processes.”

It wasn’t long before he hankered after a role with real purpose again; returning to the UN as Director of Innovation and Change Management Division at the WFP – where he went on to set up an Innovation Accelerator platform in Munich, Germany, foster and lead its “ShareTheMeal” smartphone app for individual fundraising, and run a multi-million dollar corporate initiative to realize greater efficiency and effectiveness across the WFP.

“The context in which development is taking place is fundamentally changing as a result of new technologies.”

His hiring as the organisation's first Chief Digital Officer came as UNDP management in 2018 recognised the growing need to create a digital strategy for the organisation. As he puts it: “This really came as a result of understanding the need to modernise. The context in which development is taking place is fundamentally changing as a result of new technologies. And this is something that goes much beyond the United Nations, because the primary role of UNDP is to work with partner governments on national development plans; poverty eradication, sustainable development; climate change; emergency response, and other governance issues.”

Opp's remit would be hard to execute without modernised systems and he was hired at the same time as a new Chief Information Officer (CIO) who has the parallel challenge of fundamentally modernising the UNDP’s corporate IT. (The hire and that project would turn out to be prescient, ahead of the Covid-19 outbreak.)

As Opp notes: “From the beginning we had a kind of ‘fresh start’ partnership: asking what the corporate IT function was doing? How are they structured? What's the technology architecture? So we essentially built an IT strategy, and we've also built a data strategy for the organisation that is close to sign-off.”

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The two work closely together, but have different reporting lines. As Opp puts it: “What I'm trying to drive is a corporate transformation process. That is more than technology. What he's trying to drive is getting the technology infrastructure in a place where it can support the ambitions and vision of the organisation.

"We're a nice tag team: he's got a lot on his plate to get the fundamentals in place and get the architecture renewed, modernised etc. And I have a lot on my plate to get awareness of these programmatic areas really up and running. He’s a very enlightened CIO. That’s vital because corporate IT, like in many organisations, used to be a couple of IT guys sitting in the corner they had all the answers and no one else in the organisation or company knew anything about IT. But as digital becomes [central to] programme instruments, if corporate IT can't keep pace, users go and do their own thing anyway; without any framework, policy environment, controls, awareness, anything and running a lot of risks in the organisation. So one of my roles is making sure that the pacing between these two things is kept in sync, and that we are creating enabling environments: let's give tools to business innovators, so that they can build it themselves, but [make sure] they're doing it within a framework that is providing some corporate assurance that we're not running huge risks with data or digital systems.”

What’s the digital vision for the UNDP

As Opp notes, technology and digitalisation are increasingly recognised as enablers in development in ways they weren not in the recent past: “Ten years ago or so it wasn't obvious [to the broader development community] that innovation or technology really did play a role in the space of development or humanitarian work," he notes.

"There were many sceptics [towards technology as a key enabler], and even more towards the private sector; there were sceptics saying we shouldn't even be working with the private sector. Yet partners with specialised skills have tremendous potential for impact on our core mandate of achieving sustainable development goals. And I think that over the last 10 years, there's been a huge shift of mindset. People are now in the position of recognising how important it actually is; but are not always being equipped to take full advantage.

"It's not a fight anymore to convince people, but rather a figuring out of ‘how do we do this?’ [digital transformation] in organisations with very long histories and legacies of doing things in a different way. They [stakeholders] know they need to act differently. So it’s a matter of connecting the dots and really trying to get a collective step change. Because we're way off track in terms of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. We have to drive acceleration and see how we can leverage digital to help deliver impact.”

To deliver impact, first, bring in your people…

As Opp puts it, the initial flurry of activity was modernising corporate IT. Then, from a position of understanding (and modernising) the digital core, his team started looking at the capacity around people in the organisation, and how the staff of UNDP understand digital as an opportunity: “We have set up accelerator labs in 90 countries, which covers actually about 130 [countries], because some of them are multiple country offices.

“There about 2,000 to 3,000 UNDP staff members that have been trained up [in digital skills]; we're also just in the process now of creating a network of digital champions in the organisation. There'll be one digital champion in every organisational unit who will be an ambassador for digital transformation. They will receive special training and have a community of practice and so on. So we have quite a lot of fairly new, energetic innovators.

"The challenge is how you get from the local experience to the global experience: we are building a programme around innovation, scaling support. And so for that we built up a digital scaling accelerator called Digital X, which is now virtual at the moment, but it may eventually have a physical component to just take in projects that look like they're working locally and try to build them in a global digital solution for the organisation.”

He adds: “Obviously 17 people or 20 people [in the CDO’s office] is not enough to service 170 countries.

"This is about learning how to do things in a different way; with a more agile mindset: we have to set up the organisation in a way that it is able to continually innovate"UNDP CDO Robert Opp

"We have to rely on identifying either the individual experts, or other organisational partnerships that we might have, and how to draw in other digital assets inside the organisation. e.g. We have a government partnership with Bangladesh, which that has built up a UNDP-supported innovation office with all sorts of development capabilities. We can use their capacity for other projects. A similar team exists in Serbia, where they've created out of need for their own programmes extra capacity for developers and programmers, and we can pull them in.

“Normally mapping this kind of fragmented capacity and capability creates quite a lot of process and delay", he notes. "But Covid meant we were able to increase the pace at which you were responding and gave that impetus to force people to work together in ways that might have been much more challenging without the Covid crisis.”

To Opp, recognising and building on technology partnerships has also been important.

“We've already concluded an agreement with Facebook for the use of their ‘data for good’-type programmes; we’re building a partnership with Google, we've got a good relationship with Tableau and Salesforce, and are starting to really develop those partnerships. But this is not about the technology; nor is it specifically about incorporating technology available to us in 2021. This is about learning how to do things in a different way; with a more agile mindset: we have to set up the organisation in a way that is able to continually innovate.”

"We've tracked about 250 UNDP digital responses to Covid"

The UNDP – which works in about 170 countries and territories on tackling poverty,  inequalities and exclusion – has a mandate to help countries develop policies, leadership skills, partnering abilities, institutional capabilities and build resilience in order to sustain development results. Post-Covid that has never been more important and digital has been a big part of enabling those responses.  As Opp notes: “We started tracking the digital responses to Covid very early on. The innovation architecture was already starting to respond at the country level.

"We've tracked about 250 UNDP digital responses to Covid.

“They range from connecting governments to infrastructure, so they can work remotely - literally, extending video conferencing services, or remote infrastructure for remote working; even giving like solar kits to public servants, so they can power their computers at home – through to citizen engagement platforms for getting messaging about Covid out. Bangladesh for example put 8,000 doctors on a telemedicine platform in really short order, supported by the UNDP. Another example: we saw the Philippines wanting to integrate data between four ministries so that they better understand their health system response to Covid; understand where there were empty hospital beds across the country and be able to direct ambulances and health services there.”

The pandemic not just turbo-charged a recognition of how important digital channels are to the UNDP, like it has so many organisations, but also cast a harsh spotlight on problems around inclusivity, he notes however.

"Governments can put as many services online as they want. But if people can't get online themselves, that’s a fundamental problem. This is not just about extending infrastructure: there are about 3 billion people who live in areas that are covered by infrastructure, but they are not able to either afford the devices and airtime, or they're not able to use them because they don't have the digital skills necessary. This [usage gap] is as big a part of the digital divide as the connected, physical infrastructure side.”

Buy-in for change.

Many digital leaders in the corporate world will recognise that ambitious change management programmes often live or die according to support from the top. How robust is Opp’s mandate from the UNDP administrator? “I would not have accepted a job if I didn't know that he was 100% devoted to this. Our administrator told the executive board immediately after I started, that, we're either going digital, or we're going out of business.

“That's a good burning platform for driving change. So at the highest level of leadership, it's never been a problem for me to have to sort of advocate too much. Sometimes there's an issue of pace, like how much can the organisation take in terms of absorption? So I'm always obviously trying to push, but he's often ahead of me, saying, ‘how come we haven't gotten there yet?’ and I’m saying ‘we can only put so much down in the pipe at the same time. So that's a nice tension. [Meanwhile] our partners are surging with digital requests.”

"Right now, we need to be pulling our data assets together. Because there's nobody else in the world that has the same view and footprint on the ground, because the UNDP has been leading socio-economic impact assessments in 170 different countries and territories. So [the question is] how can we leverage not only that those sort of data assets, but other bringing it together, combining it with public data assets, other things to drive innovation.”

Grassroots talent: “Such depth of innovation and creativity”

Meanwhile the UNDP CDO's team just closed its first round of applications for proposals under his new innovation accelerator; an RFP that went out to the entire organisation seeking the best digital innovation ideas.

As he notes: “Our main interest is in finding things that have already been proven and working to scale them. But we're also interested in those early stage ideas that people are playing around with, because there is such depth of innovation and creativity there. The idea is that we work with those [local] teams, to make them successful in building that innovation and work to see how it actually could work as a corporate solution.

"There's a couple ways that that can happen. One is that it becomes a replicable example, that could be lifted and shifted to another country. The other is that we build a global architecture, or maybe even a new digital public good, that could be used by multiple countries. I think we owe it to ourselves as an organisation, to pull anything positive out of the tragedy of Covid and learn from it to keep working toward agility and resilience.”

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