This week American president Barack Obama issued a memorandum called ‘Building a 21st Century Digital Government’. In the memorandum he outlined a government-wide strategy to build a 21st century digital government that delivers better digital services to the American people.
He directed each State department and agency to implement the requirements of the strategy within 12 months and within 90 days create a page on the government website to publicly report progress.
Departments and agencies now have to use this strategy as a framework in order to identify and implement ways to use innovative technologies to streamline their delivery of services to lower costs, decrease service delivery times, and improve the customer experience.
After 18 months of meeting upon meeting with government officials about the benefits of using technology (in the form of Mobilitate) to improve service delivery and the way in which they engage and interact with citizens , Pres. Obama’s memorandum sounds like a dream come true. Unfortunately the dream is not yet coming true here in SA.
In September 2011 the South African government endorsed an Open Government Declaration. In the Declaration it states that SA and seven other countries (including the UK and the US) acknowledge that people all around the world are demanding more openness in government. They are calling for greater civic participation in public affairs, and seeking ways to make their governments more transparent, accountable, and effective.
The eight countries committed to the following:
- Increase the availability of information about governmental activities
- Support civic participation
- Implement the highest standards of professional integrity throughout their administration
- Increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability
This is very encouraging indeed but the devil is in the details.
In the Declaration it also states that: “We recognise that countries are at different stages in their efforts to promote openness in government, and that each of us pursues an approach consistent with our national priorities and circumstances and the aspirations of our citizens”.
From Pres. Obama’s memorandum above it is painstakingly clear that “countries are at different stages in their efforts to promote openness in government…”
Where are we in South Africa and how much of a priority is it to promote openness in government?
The short answer could be that it is too far down on the list of priorities. But there are significant complexities that make this a not-so-short answer.
The notion of participatory government and direct democracy is on the rise worldwide. It is also enshrined in South Africa’s constitution, writes Ivo Vegter, columnist on technology and telecommunications, on WebInformatica.
According to a recent University of Western Cape report on participatory government, public participation in government is limited to local level, and suffers from “low levels of participation, the unrepresentative nature of participants, and insignificant impact on decision-making”.
This is a pity because, writes independent information technology and services professional Rodney Wiedermann, while all levels of government are important; the one that sits closest to the citizens is local government.
“As the ‘face’ of the ruling administration that talks directly to the people, its place at the forefront of service delivery and citizen interaction makes it the easiest target when service delivery is not up to scratch,” writes Weidermann.
According to estimates some four fifths of all citizen-government interaction takes place at the local level, indicating just how important this area of interface is. For this reason, writes Weidermann, it is crucial that the State devise and implement an effective e-government strategy post haste.
And of course we agree. Hence our efforts over the past 18 months to try and convince any government official who is willing to listen that the implementation of Web 2.0 platforms like Mobilitate is crucial for interaction between local government and citizens.
As Sean Shine, managing director of the Public Service, Systems Integrations & Technology divisions of business consultancy Accenture, puts it: “Clearly, there is a future for Web 2.0 technologies in connecting agencies with their citizen constituencies, and in connecting citizens with each other to deliver timely information and better service.”
But and here comes two big but’s.
One. A key obstacle in South Africa is the low level of Internet penetration, and its high costs. Vegter writes that estimates of the extent of desktop connectivity, in which a PC-based browser is connected to the Internet, remain below five million of the population. “By contrast, more than 80% of South African households have, or have access to, a mobile phone.”
Rick Joubert of Vodafone estimates that over 10 million people now access the Internet using the latest WAP, or some more sophisticated mobile access technology.
“The mobile phone is rapidly becoming the first, and often only, device through which users access the Internet,” writes Vegter.
This, he says, suggests that governments, especially the South African government, are in a unique position to steal a march on the market by addressing this segment, designing, developing and populating Web 2.0 infrastructure designed to reach a broad mobile market.
The US government has certainly optimised this and will do so more with the implementation of their digital government strategy.
Locally we are underway. Certain municipalities, especially the metros, allow for citizens to log issues on their mobile phones via mobi sites. Communicating to citizens via SMS has also increased significantly. Yet there are so much more that can be done.
Carel Alberts, freelance technology writes, says it is no secret that South Africa’s e-government journey has been long and fraught with side issues.
“To cut a long story short, the outcome of this was an ignominious slide in world e-government rankings in 2012. After rating our e-government maturity a respectable 61st in the world in 2008 (first in Africa), the United Nations pegged SA at a lowly 97th in 2010 (fourth in Africa after Tunisia, Mauritius and Egypt)”.
The Mobilitate mobile application, for instance, can be branded and personalised according to the needs of a specific municipality, and allows citizens to report any municipal issue from their mobile phones. It also allows for interaction between municipalities and their citizens.
“Citizens are increasingly expecting simple yet sophisticated ways to engage with and influence the companies and agencies with which they interact,” writes Vegter.
And now to the second but.
Vegter points out that using Web 2.0 platforms and collaboration internally is often hampered by a lack of adoption of relevant technologies by government employees.
“The reason is that while these platforms are exciting for the so-called geeks in the organisation, changing the way most employees perform their duties is a far bigger challenge”.
We did not encounter this once or twice but endless times. People are scared of change. They have a way of doing things and do not convince easily that another way is better.
Therefore it is so important that an e-government strategy should be made a priority by the national government.
According to Alberts the first good sign came after a particular low period in the SITA’s (State IT Agency) history during which five acting CEO’s failed to deliver. A permanent CEO was appointed in 2010.
“Despite many failures and maddening shenanigans, SITA still asserts it has a central role to play in re-energising and properly guiding SA’s e-government efforts,” writes Alberts.
Thuli Radebe from the Centre for Public Service Innovations says citizen-centricity is clearly not simply a case of talking about e-government; we are none the wiser and many crucial catalysts of progress are on the backburner.
“There is a lack of standards but more importantly, a lack of communication about the link between ICT and service delivery innovations,” she says.
“All e-government role players must collectively take ownership of the country’s challenges and kick-start a conversation on how we will develop enabling technologies to enhance service delivery”.
To conclude with Vegter’s words: “Whether at the superficial level of public participation, to deep organisational design at the heart of the civil service, Web 2.0 is the only way in which government worldwide can keep up with the changing needs and demands of the citizens they are elected to serve.
The South African Constitution was visionary in anticipating this need. The time has come for technology and public service management to catch up and make the vision a reality.”
We can only remain hopeful that one of these days Pres. Zuma will issue a memorandum similar to Pres. Obama’s with these words: “As a Government, and as a trusted provider of services, we must never forget who our customers are… the American (read South African) people.
Because what we all here in SA strive for in the end is summarised in Mobilitate’s mission statement:
“to enable, foster and promote
the communication, collaboration and participation
of all citizens, communities and government
toward a prosperous South Africa for all”
Credit to: WebInformatica and contributors Ivo vegter, Rodney Weidermann and Carel Alberts.