After months of preparation, hundreds of applications, dozens of team submissions and a series of mentoring and design workshops, the moment was finally here: the commencement of the Lesotho PFM Hackathon. Over 72 adrenaline-packed hours, teams of software developers, business analysts, enterprise architects and cyber-security experts worked round-the-clock on proposals to address a pressing business need for Lesotho’s Ministry of Finance.
Hackathons are a new approach in the IMF’s capacity development toolkit and a neat fit with our growing focus on GovTech. The adoption of technology in public finance is expanding rapidly and has substantial scope to enhance public finance outcomes and strengthen fiscal institutions. By bringing together diverse communities of talent, hackathons can crowdsource innovative solutions that could be missed by traditional approaches.
DIGITALIZING PFM IN LESOTHO
The Fiscal Affairs Department (FAD) conducted a diagnostic study of the digitalization of selected PFM processes in Lesotho to understand critical enablers and constraints to adopting digital technologies. The diagnostics revealed that the absence of a mechanism to securely authorize financial transactions led to parallel manual processes – adding a layer of bureaucracy and reducing efficiency. Accordingly, the purpose of this event – led by FAD and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - was to develop a prototype to authenticate transactions in Lesotho’s financial management information system harnessing the country’s existing national ID database.
The level of interest was striking. In total, 651 participants registered, generating full proposals from 61 teams drawn from 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. These numbers underscore the breadth of interest and the potential of hackathons to source valuable, homegrown solutions from within the region. Engagement with such a wide community also promoted awareness of the GovTech sector and the potential for careers in this specialism.
From these 61 teams, the top ten were selected, and this group was later reduced to the five teams that competed in Lesotho. Over 72 hours, the teams worked day and night, taking only necessary breaks for sleep and re-fueling. The atmosphere in the room was palpable – as enthusiasm and concentration gave way to fatigue which was in turn overtaken by adrenaline-driven excitement as the end neared.
While there can only be one winner, the judges were struck by the quality of all proposed solutions. It became clear that the event generated several potential viable, open-source prototypes. The victorious team, Tech Gang 2.0, was from Malawi and Eswatini. In their remarks, the judging panel singled out this entry for its successful demonstration of how to harness the power of the national digital ID in signing transactions online. The resulting prototype will now be taken forward by the finance ministry to inform a lasting solution.
The Lesotho PFM Hackathon was among the IMF’s earliest forays into this area and the first since the pandemic. Several valuable lessons can inform future events:
- Successful hackathons are like icebergs: the actual gathering – in this case 72 hours in a conference room in Maseru – was merely the tip. Its success was the product of months of planning, refinement, mentoring sessions, design workshops and logistical preparation.
- Outreach, outreach, outreach: The abundance of talent in the region was clear. But participants did not arrive in Lesotho by accident. The success of the Hackathon was due in part to an intensive process of outreach, social media campaigns, awareness building exercises and workshops to promote participation in the event.
- Cut your cloth to measure: The optimal structure, timeline and split between online and in-person elements will vary according to the problem to be solved. The Lesotho PFM Hackathon sought to design a particularly complex technological prototype and hence warranted the full 72 hours in addition to the build-up. Other Hackathons could be completed over a shorter period.
- Ensure the problem to be addressed is well-targeted: for optimum results, the specific objectives of the Hackathon should be closely targeted to the local context and the specific problem to be addressed.
- The agenda is key: a 72-hour event is a big ask of all involved, especially the participants. The timing and sequencing of everything from mentoring sessions and “war rooms” to the timing of meals, availability of comfortable break-out areas, and access to snacks is critical. The agenda must be carefully calibrated to support the teams and get the most out of the talent in the room.
Hackathons will play an increasing role in supporting GovTech. The potential benefits are obvious, just make sure you stay fueled and get some sleep.
Website: Lesotho Public Financial Management Hackathon (lesothopfmhackathon.com)
 GovTech emphasizes three aspects of public sector modernization: citizen-centric public services that are universally accessible; a whole-of-government approach to digital government transformation; and simple, efficient and transparent government systems.
 The practice of obtaining information or input into a task or project by enlisting the services of a large number of people.