Digital transformation and its role in advancing the public sector

Both public service and technological innovation should ultimately result in tangible improvements in people’s lives, whether at the point of daily service delivery or whether larger projects for the greater long-term good are involved.

If there is good faith commitment to this idea from both the public and private sectors, then our potential for the development and continuous improvement of civic service is without limit.

We have seen – both locally and as well as internationally – compelling examples of the benefits of digitising public-sector and adjacent institutions.

Perhaps the most well known in South Africa is the digital transformation of our revenue service.

It has almost eliminated the use of paper, speeded up its processes significantly and strengthened its control of risk.

Revenue collection ensures tax compliance and ultimately results in an improved fiscus which is deployed back into the country through capital projects that serve our communities.

Enhancing the citizen experience

When we look at how to assist the public sector, it is important that we do so from a functional point of view, always taking the end user and optimisation into account.

It is helpful to distinguish between spheres of government – municipal, provincial and national – in terms of how they operate, their mandates and the services they offer to the citizenry, in order to determine how technology can best serve them.

There are obvious opportunities to capacitate public servants, by for example, allowing them to report on revenue and spending more easily and accurately.

You can also empower citizens, for example by introducing a fault-reporting mechanism that allows them to easily report potholes, power disruptions and other challenges faced daily within the community.

Data optimisation

There are also opportunities for improvements in the way disparate systems connect to one another and seamlessly share data.

It makes sense to look at the health, social security, finance and other clusters to find ways in which integration and interoperability of systems can result in efficiencies and a simplified interaction with the state.

I recently travelled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and the experience was educational. I filled out a single form electronically before departure and took a selfie, both of which I sent to the travel agent.

Upon arrival in Dubai, I looked into a camera which performed an automated verification against the selfie I had previously sent and that was it.

When I left, I did the same thing. I did not have to provide information more than once and it was accessible and verifiable across the various touchpoints.

Once you have experienced a simple, joined-up technology platform it becomes very hard to justify an inefficient status quo.

In South Africa there are obvious examples of data sitting in silos and structures existing simply to transfer that data manually onward in its journey to where it is ultimately needed. These structures are perfectly suited to automation, which will have significant benefits in terms of cost, accuracy and speed.

Consider someone who has just bought a home and wants to go through the deeds registration process. Today, deeds registration does not integrate with the relevant municipal infrastructure and systems – the systems that are on the end-to-end critical fulfilment workflow are not automatically reconciled.

They don’t even speak the same language! As a consequence, you have third party service providers who move paper and other physical assets around and translate the language between systems. This is an unjustifiable inefficiency this year.

The end goal – a single citizen platform that encompasses everything from updating a driver’s license to receiving a social grant, registering a business and applying for a visa – is still some distance from becoming feasible.

But we can make steady, incremental progress towards this goal without leaving behind the implementors, the people. Often these automated systems fail as the implementors are disruptive due to their fear of job security.

This fear may well be mitigated through change management, cultural engagement and collaboration, assurances around job security through the re-skilling and upskilling for varied roles which provide for a better user experience and greater scaled output.

Enhancing public-private partnerships

One major obstacle to the union of state and technology is the fact that our framework for public-private partnerships (PPPs) needs to be updated to suit the unique requirements of at-scale digital projects. The existing legislative PPP framework is intended to accommodate large-scale physical-infrastructure projects.

They struggle with smaller budgets and shorter time frames. Another obstacle to effective digital-oriented PPPs is the decline in technical skills in the public sector. The IT landscape is exceptionally competitive. Many talented professionals working in government are often headhunted by financial and other institutions.

In my opinion the best way forward is to drive an outcomes-based model in which risk, capacity and expertise are shared between public and private parties.

The private sector would provide funding, there would be agreed-upon expectations of performance and expected delivery outcomes, as well as structures for the protection of intellectual property.

This latter is a contentious yet important point.

There is a tension between transparency in bid and tender processes and the protection of competitive advantage that is so crucial to this industry.

Another tension lies between efficiencies and economies of scale, and the desire to involve a range of small, medium and micro enterprises in large-scale projects, to effectively “trickle down” or “share out” the opportunity.

These tensions can certainly be resolved through communication and consultation, and I do not believe there are any insurmountable obstacles to a constructive PPP model fit for the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions and conceived in the spirit of the National Development Plan 2030.

It’s about the greater good

Let me conclude by reiterating my opening point, that digital transformation always needs to be viewed in the context of the end consumer – our citizens.

We have recently been involved in a project for the Namibian Social Services Commission. Its CEO Milka Mugunda led the initial conversation by defining success as “when the beneficiaries of our services are able to seamlessly interact with us in a way that suits them”.

She didn’t begin with what would be convenient in terms of their existing capacity.

By beginning with the preferred experience of the end user, she effectively gave the project licence to begin from the ground up and examine which underlying systems could provide the flexibility that beneficiaries might require.

It was a more involved, complex and expensive process than simply creating a new website as a surface-level touchpoint. But it lays the groundwork for a truly citizen-led experience.

We need to continue to have courageous and open conversations if we are going to remove the impediments that still exist within government, capacitate our civil servants and create a more engaged, educated and empowered citizenry. They are conversations worth having and which we, as EOH, would welcome.

We see our work with the public sector – and I speak here broadly of the IT sector – as crucial not just to our businesses, but to improving the lives of our fellow citizens and the creation of an optimistic future for everyone.

Ramoriting is the EOH group executive, iOCO Technology.

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