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SA needs national strategy for digital public service

By CHRIS NORTON, country manager for Veeam Africa

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As the world accelerates deeper into the fourth industrial revolution, every aspect of our lives is being augmented and improved by technology. Businesses are scrambling to implement their Digital Transformation (DX) strategies to fight off disruption and remain relevant and competitive. It should be no different in the public sector.

The promise of technology in the public sector makes a compelling case for a sound DX roadmap. All tiers of governance, from national to provincial and municipal, stand to benefit from enhanced data security, service delivery efficiency, responsiveness to the citizenry and new revenue streams.

However, there is a haphazard response to the need to digitise across the public sector in South Africa. It would be inaccurate to say there is not a political understanding of the need to fast-track the country’s public sector digital migration. Luminaries, from our president to premiers and ministers, often speak of the critical need to invest in digital skills and accelerate digitisation programmes. However, the challenge lies in using this positive political will as a catalyst to a meaningful and coherent national strategy.

Various departments and structures have their own digital plans that exist in silos. This is counterproductive – because the nature of public service means that there is crossover and interplay between various structures, with large amounts of data. The interplay between the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission and the South African Revenue Service is just one, obvious example.

Currently, messages around the need for investment are making their way up the chain from technical people in various departments and it is being lost in transformation. The country’s DX strategy should be led from the top, not the other way around. Just like an enterprise C-Suite, the very top echelons need to define a clear strategy and roadmap that is implemented down and across the complicated tiers of the public sector. This process should be seen as an empowering journey, one that will result in improved service delivery and which could generate new revenue streams, which in the South African context is crucial.

The next step would be to invest in the skills needed to realise government’s strategy. South Africa is not alone in facing a massive information technology skills shortage.

Simultaneously, the country must address the critical barriers to adopting digital strategies across the various tiers of the public sector. In South Africa, many municipalities are bankrupt, and their focus is on keeping the lights on. A concerted effort needs to readdress the funding allocation all the way up from municipal level.

It is imperative for South Africa’s development that the public sector sees Digital Transformation as an investment in its own viability and future success.

Another barrier has been data sovereignty; however, local data centres have gone a long way to allaying this concern.

Education is vital. This does not mean that all stakeholders need to understand the technical aspects of various platforms and services. Rather, they must understand the need for a comprehensive strategy as well as some fundamental pillars, such as the objective of migrating to a hybrid and then multi-cloud environment, security and compliance, back-up, and automation. Education includes dispelling the myth that Digital Transformation entails flipping a switch from ‘not transformed’ to ‘transformed’, that it is a long-term journey of dealing with legacy systems and processes.

Security is naturally a major concern, especially considering cyber-attacks that often make the news. This ties into ongoing digital education and building an understanding of what steps departments and organisations can take to shore up security.

Compliance, especially considering the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) coming into force, is another obligation that may be seen as an obstacle. However, trying into the broader education, by empowering decision-makers on the types of services and platforms that can manage data, and the crucial role that sophisticated data back-up plays in this process, the country’s digital journey starts appearing less intimidating.

A concerted effort to reduce the arduously long supply chain processes would go a long way. A key word in a digitised entity is agility, and one cannot be agile when it takes years and various layers of bureaucracy to make important decisions. This is yet another area where a carefully designed strategy at the top determines how the various legs embark on their transformation journeys.

Especially to the backdrop of South Africa’s unique and complex challenges, government, and all arms of its administration, needs to leverage technology to drive better enablement of services and support active citizenry. This can be achieved through investing in automation, modern data protection and other tools, to going as far as laying the groundwork for contextual cloud applications and more – imagine a single call into a call centre picking up the entire history of the citizen, their problem, their payment history, the next steps and so on.

One need only consider the drastic changes in customer experience that many corporates have been able to enjoy – government can, and should, be doing the same thing. Beyond the cost savings and efficiency, the ultimate beneficiaries will be the citizens of the country.

While there are legacy challenges in the country that still need to be addressed, such as a lack of widespread access to fast, reliable internet, the beneficiaries of a well-executed DX strategy are not just those privileged enough to read this article, but citizens all over the country that rely on government for basic services.

This is not fantasy. COVID-19 has shown us that with clear leadership and wide buy-in, it is possible. The Veeam Data Protection Report 2021 reveals that while 50% of African organizations accelerated their DX initiatives, it also exposed a greater “digital divide” between those who had a plan versus those who were less prepared. The country’s technology-driven service that users can access via an app that shows their exposure and potential risk of contracting COVID-19 demonstrates that our country has the skills and fortitude to make public sector DX a sustainable reality. However, progress shouldn’t be limited to being reactive only, but about proactively driving a DX strategy that will make a long-term difference to citizens.

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