“The system is down”. It’s a phrase that’s so common in the South African lexicon that it tends to elicit eye-rolls and frustrated sighs amongst anyone trying to get service out of a department in South Africa’s public sector. You might even hear a few people mutter “typical” under their breath as they either walk away from the queue or settle in as they wait for the system to come back online.
Based on those experiences, you’d anticipate that South Africa’s public sector lags behind when it comes to digital transformation. That perception is created when vital pieces of online infrastructure, such as the Department of Labour’s temporary employer-employee relief scheme (Ters), for instance, is described as being “more down than operational”. Nor is it helped by ministers and department officials blaming each other for system downtime. There’s also a sense that even when government branches put in the effort to digitally transform, there are parties who will do everything in their power to ensure that it can’t. The recent robbery of the City of Johannesburg’s municipal offices, which saw 20 computers vandalised (apparently in a bid to thwart digitalisation) is an example of this.
A few bright lights
Of course, stories like those don’t present the total picture of public sector digital transformation in South Africa. There are, in fact, a few shining digital lights that deserve recognition and attention.
Over the past couple of years, for example, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) has revamped its eFiling service, aimed at improving its usability across a range of devices. People doing their tax returns will have noticed that it now auto-populates certain sections with third party data and that the overall functionality of the eFiling portal and app have improved. SARS also recently announced that it would be scaling up digital transformation and increasing data usage to “improve the facilitation of trade, revenue collection and compliance by import and export traders across South Africa’s borders.”
The Department of Home Affairs’ Smart Identification Card System, rolled out in conjunction with banks, is another example of a successful digital transformation project implemented in the last decade.
There are also signs that the state is increasingly willing to work with experienced technology providers when it comes to digital service delivery.
The overall picture is, however, bleak. The National Planning Commission’s (NPC) report Digital Futures – South Africa’s Digital Readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is particularly harsh. It suggests that there has been wholesale institutional failure on the part of the state when it comes to digital transformation. It cites the botched broadcast digital migration process and the debacle over the release of high-demand spectrum as two of the most egregious examples of this.
A lack of skills
Even if the state successfully turns things around when it comes to the implementation of digital technologies and services, there are still other things standing in the way of real public sector digital transformation.
The most important of those elements is a shortage of skills. In 2021, for example, it was revealed that 62% of municipal councillors lacked the basic computer skills needed to pass municipal budgets. It’s crucial, therefore, that the state not only builds digital skills into the education system, but also equips all the people within its employ with the skills needed to provide efficient and effective digital services to South Africa’s citizens.
A concerted effort
Of course, everything currently standing in the way of public sector transformation in South Africa can be addressed with a few easy steps. Begin by delivering secure, streamlined experiences that are tailored to the citizen’s needs and by prioritising their needs in the immediate strategy.
Self Service Portals
Build specialised portals that authenticate users, so users can securely access appropriate, useful information and collaborate with others. Personalised portals, whether for citizens or government employees, can make it easier for users to find what they need, increasing trust and improving mission outcomes.
Create protected, customised intranets that enable employees to find the information they need when they need it. Secure, modern intranets help employees better manage their benefits and career planning, allowing for higher satisfaction and better employee retention
Design sites that appeal to citizens, improve user experience, and boost engagement. Create both appealing and efficient web experiences that solve the users problem in a single location.
This can be achieved if the state is willing to work with private sector organisations that have a strong track record when it comes to digital transformation. These organisations should enable the state to open data between departments and provide a strong, consistent experience for ordinary citizens accessing their services.
By Greg Gatherer, Account Manager, Liferay Africa