FREEMAN NOMVALO

State of IT

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At the head of the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), Sithembiso Freeman Nomvalo takes the reins as he leads this vital state institution to new heights.

The State Information Technology Agency (SITA) has since its inception in 1999 consolidated and co-ordinated Government’s information technology resources, and has, with its annual GovTech conference at the end of last year, provided relevant stakeholders the opportunity to engage with the latest offerings in the sector.

Joining the organisation in June 2013 as CEO, is Sithembiso Freeman Nomvalo. In an exclusive with Service, Nomvalo elaborates on his role and function at the institution and tell us more about the crucial role IT has to play in public sector today.

Initiating the discussion by giving us some background on himself, Nomvalo points out that he was the Accountant-General of South Africa at the National Treasury for more than nine years.

“My responsibilities included setting and executing the strategy for financial management improvement and governance in the South African public sector. Pursuant to my work at the National Treasury five years ago where I pioneered a leadership development programme, I had the privilege of being invited as a faculty in the programme offered by Harvard Kennedy School of Government called The Art and Practice of Adaptive Leadership Development.

“I served on various boards of directors and trustees on behalf of the South African Government, including the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors (IRBA), which regulates the auditing profession and the Accounting Standard Board (ASB). I also served on the advisory committee of the University of Pretoria’s faculty of Economic and Management Sciences. My view on corporate and financial governance saw me working with the Commonwealth Secretariat since 2009 in a quest to improve the financial governance in 18 Commonwealth Caribbean countries,” he says.

2014 strategy

Nomvalo says he has played a pivotal role in developing the new strategy for 2014. He explains that the SITA strategy was developed around three main strategic drivers in relation to core ICT services: ICT infrastructure, e-government and ICT security.

“On joining SITA, it was evident that the staff morale was particularly low, mainly as a result of ongoing transformation processes which had displaced a large number of staff, leaving them feeling insecure and uncertain about their future with SITA. At the beginning of the 2013/2014 financial year at least 1 127 employees out of about 2 631 employees were in the pool (unplaced). The issue of displaced employees is now resolved. The agency was awarded Top Employer status in 2014, recognising it as an organisation that demonstrates the highest standards of employee offerings,” he says.

Looking at the way in which technology links to the concept of empowerment in today’s day and age, Nomvalo admits that advancements in and the uptake of technology has been proven to empower individuals and communities across all economic and social classes. He says from an economic perspective, the World Bank Report (2011) has found that in low to middle-income economies such as South Africa, a mere 10% increase in broadband technology penetration caused an economic growth of 1.38%.

This, he says, ultimately translates into more jobs. “Our Government broadband policy (SA Connect) strives for broadband penetration throughout the country, including to rural communities, to harness this catalytic effect that technology has on empowerment.

“From a social perspective: individuals and communities are empowered through faster and accurate information, societies are interconnected, and citizens are better educated and enabled to participate in the democracy of our country. Despite very high economic inequalities in South Africa (a Gini coefficient of 63.1) we have a good social grant system that enables even poor households to use technology to access and use communications services,” he says.

Technology has changed

In terms of the contribution that the ICT sector is making to Government and Local Government processes at the moment, Nomvalo says technology has changed significantly over the past 20 years of democracy. He says since the dawn of the information age a few decades ago, Government has been on a continuous path to modernise, automate and integrate tedious and inefficient business processes by means of technology across all functions of government. The priority to digitise Government was the establishment of formal structures such as SITA in 1999, the introduction of a CIO in every government department in 2000 and the development of the South African e-Government Policy in 2001, Nomvalo explains.

“During the 20 years of democracy, Government remained the largest consumer of ICT in South Africa. In 2012/13 the estimate National and Provincial Government spent on ICT products and services was about R22 billion. Administrative functions, such as financial management, supply chain management and human resource management, are supported by dedicated ICT solutions, called Basic Accounting System (BAS), Logistic Information System (LOGIS) and Personnel and Salary system (PERSAL). These do not only enable more efficient accounting on Government resources, but also enable a single view of Government’s financial performance, assets and employee records across national and provincial spheres.

“Although the business processes were updated to comply with Government’s financial policies, the technology and the functional richness of the ICT systems in this space has remained, to a large degree, unchanged over the years. These challenges are currently addressed by the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMS) project – where the ICT sector will have the opportunity to contribute to this massive technology modernisation effort,” he says.

Nomvalo further explains that the introduction and modernisation of Municipal Management Information systems at many local authorities have significantly improved the way that local authorities manage the affairs of and services to their respective constituencies. He says that, for example, improved metering and billing processes allow citizens to interact and pay on-online; the trend to electronically distribute municipal accounts to residents has drastically reduced the burden of handling the proverbial snail-mail; pre-paid electricity technology reduces the burden of collecting meter readings and empowers citizens to manage their own electricity consumption; and automated help desk technology and workflow enable citizens to report problems and request on-line for service and maintenance.

He says surveillance technology, such as street cameras and number plate recognition technology which have been introduced in the transport, safety and security sectors are also a more efficient and accurate means to monitor, identify and enforce safety and security. The modernisation of the entire National Transport ICT system portfolio (called eNATIS) has simplified and integrated many disparate processes and geographic regions at the convenience of citizens and efficiencies and higher level of accountability in government. For example, he says, vehicle licenses can now be renewed at any local post office as there is one integrated vehicle database that is used across National, Provincial and Local government officials, Police and Financial institutions.

Significant convenience

According to him the introduction and modernisation of the Social Pension and Grant ICT systems and smart card technology resulted in significant convenience in the electronic payment of social grants and pensions to beneficiaries. This reduced the burden and risk associated with handling of cash at pay points.

“Basic education, the largest sector in government, has also been on a technological modernisation drive over the past years. For example, the introduction of on-line learning material at its Thutong Portal, where both learners and teachers are equipped with curriculum matters, sample exam papers; the recent introduction of tablet technology at selected schools – although in its infant stage – is doing away with the logistics of printed textbooks and learning material.

“The Senior Certificate System is also making it much more efficient to process Grade 12 results and issue senior certificates of about ¾ million Grade 12 learners; the Learner Unit Record Information Tracking System (LURITS) enables Government to keep a central education record per learner across most of the approximately 30 000 basic education schools in South Africa. The school to parent communication system that was introduced at many schools now empowers parents with news, events and administrative affairs of the schools. The current broadband roll-out programme to schools promises to bring even more schools on-line to benefit in the use of technology,” he says.

Nomvalo also points out that the Department of Home Affairs, the recognised authority of citizen’s and foreign visitor’s identities has to the convenience of the public of South Africa, re-engineered its business processes regarding the processing of ID and visa. Applicants are notified every step of the way, making it so much more convenient and faster to obtain an ID or visa than in the past, he says. The recent introduction of a Smart-Card ID, according to him, is also reducing the risk of identify fraud – a trend that is plaguing nations alike. Many public and private institutions – especially the finance institutions – for security reasons are verifying citizen identities against the National Population Register database.

“Technology has also drastically improved revenue collection processes for both citizens and business alike by means of the of SARS e-Filing system. The foreign trade system has been revamped to improve the management of customs at all ports of entry across South Africa. The Department of Labour has also introduced technology to electronically submit and process Unemployment Insurance Fund transactions.

“The ICT sector, has to this end without exception contributed significantly to all of the above technological advances in Government. We believe that the ICT sector will continue to contribute as we move Government to the next wave of technological modernisation, such as the roll out of broadband telecommunications as well as the provisioning, development and integration of modern e-Government solutions that will improve South Africa’s e-Government Ranking World Ranking and instil confidence that will attract foreign direct investment,” he says.

Smart city technology

Referring to some of the latest technological innovations in Local Government, Nomvalo highlights that Local Government is exploring “smart city” technology to enhance service delivery, which includes smart metering to remotely measure the consumption of basic services. He says innovative ideas on the integration and sharing of data and systems between National, Provincial and Local Government are already under development that aims to reduce duplication and enhance co-operation across al spheres of Government. Here he makes reference to the collaboration between Metro Police, SAPS, Transport and Emergency Services regarding crime, traffic – and integrated vehicles. He also says new broadband infrastructure (including public WiFi) is increasingly made available as local authorities are pursuing their respective service delivery improvement plans.

When asked about the biggest challenges we face in the ICT sector, Nomvalo says these are centred around several complex factors. ”Firstly, as a developing country, we are confronted with high levels of social inequalities and a huge digital divide. More than half of our people live below the poverty line, which demands huge budget to be allocated for social support. Secondly, although South Africa’s literacy rate is fairly high (92.9%, according to STATSSA), our education qualifications are weak, which inhibits the uptake and effective use of technology.

“Thirdly, South Africa is highly urbanised with more than 50% of the population residing within urban areas and the remainder of the people living in spars populated rural areas. The latter areas are not economically attractive to ICT investors to achieve economies of scale and return on investments. Fourthly, the cost of ICT is fairly high compared to other developing nations, which limits or deprives the poor communities from the full benefits of technology. And last but not least, is the shortage of local skills to develop and sustain the ICT economy in South Africa,” he says.

Maths and science skills

There has been noted that a lack of proper Maths and Science skills in South Africa has become an issue in many industries. Looking at how this impact the ICT sector, Nomvalo says the field of ICT was developed from innovations in the scientific field. Therefore, he says, Maths and Science are essential education prerequisites to the ICT sector – especially regarding the engineering of ICT that involves design, development, integration and maintenance.

“For the end-user of ICT, basic user training or education is essential. As a self-sustaining organisation we require a diverse set of skills of which the core comprises ICT leadership skills and ICT engineering skills. Both these skills require tertiary qualifications or equivalent which are based on Science and Maths. The need for such skills have always been there, and we have to compete in the ICT sector to attract and retain such skills amidst the shortage of same in the market,” he says.

Finishing off with insights on how South Africa’s ICT sector compares with the rest of the continent, Nomvalo says we keep abreast of the relevant international rankings, such the World economic Forum e-Readiness index and the United Nations e-Government Ranking. According to the UN E-government Ranking 2014, South Africa is ranked six on the continent behind Tunisia, Mauritius, Egypt, Seychelles and Morocco.

“Besides the technological advancements cited earlier, we have also over the past few years increased on-line presence of Government by means of websites to inform citizens on Government affairs and related services, we have introduced SMS notifications to many systems to inform subscribing citizens on progress and events, we have increased pubic kiosks in the form of Thusong Centres to bring Government on-line services closer to communities and we have increased the use of social media in Government,” he concludes.

 

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