GOVTECH 2013

Empowering local government

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Many new burning issues were highlighted and debated at the 2013 GovTech conference–with some insightful input from both the Minister in the Presidency and the Minister of Public Service and Administration.

Under the broader theme of innovation, some of the more prominent topics at this year’s SITA GovTech conference (themed Innovation Technology for 21st Century Government), included among others smart cities, cloud technology, best practices and social media and how these can be integrated in government practices to improve service delivery and municipal efficacy.

The event saw delegates from around the country amassing in eager anticipation of what this year’s contribution had in store.

Among the many esteemed guests and speakers, we found a refreshing display of leaders from all walks of life including government and media, as well as representatives from the private sector contributing to the many debates and showcasing the latest trends in the technology sphere.

Keynote speakers, Minister in the Presidency, Trevor Manuel, and Minister of the Public Service and Administration, Lindiwe Sisulu, set the tone for the event while reflecting on where we stand in terms of integrating ICT today, seeking to empower and integrate local government and ICT solutions for better and faster service delivery.

Among the burning issues requiring innovation in (local) government focussed on integrated government, reducing the cost of ICT, ease of delivering government services, the guarantee of security of information and government enabled innovation to mention but a few.

Minister Manuel told the nearly 2 000 GovTech attendees that new information technology is reaching the world’s poor much faster than food and toilets – and technology offers great potential to enhance education opportunities, dramatically improve health outcomes, promote free speech and democracy and offer greater access to global markets.

Manuel said information technology has the power to change the way we live and improve the quality of life of all South Africans on many levels. He identified a number of issues in this regard: e-government, education, information documentation, healthcare, government billing, general information, dignity and rights and open source programmes.

”The Constitution’s preamble asks of us that we must ‘raise the quality of life of every citizen and free the potential of each person’. It doesn’t provide options about leaving people behind if we have not started some of the processes. It asks of us, and we recognise that IT, the great enabler, will be able to help to free the potential of each person. Your responsibility at this GovTech conference and beyond is to understand that and to push the boundaries to enable people through information technology.”

As for e-government, Manuel said it is important that the sector is clear on what services are needed; how we ensure access; how we ensure competent, regular back-office support because it cannot be a flash-in-the-pan process; how will we ensure that the speed of response is always available; and how will we, at the same time, create demand from people who don’t know how to access information technology.

Regarding education, the minister left delegates to ponder many questions; “We have a responsibility to ensure adequate bandwidth availability at every school regardless of where it is geographically located in the country. How will we do that? When will we do that? And how will we be accountable for it? When we have the bandwidth, how will we begin to harvest it for advice? What will it tell us about the systems of inventory management? How will we be able to prevent the calamity that Limpopo province experienced with the delivery of books? How will we know that the books have been ordered and delivered? How will we know that teachers are in school and in class teaching? How will we know that the school infrastructure is in the state that it is meant to be? How can we use information technology to drive content in education?

“I know that wealthier schools are using IT differently. They use plato.com for teaching physics and they use numeric.org for mathematics. How do we close the gap? How do we enable young, enthusiastic learners not to wait on recalcitrant teachers but to use IT to drive a different programme in education,” he said.

As for issues regarding information documentation; “Tomorrow I will be collecting my smart card ID. It is a very exciting breakthrough in our country. Where do we have the discourse about what information gets loaded onto the chip and how do we construct the firewalls to protect the privacy of individuals? How do you deal with these kinds of issues in a rational and ordered manner?”

Manuel said another important challenge relates to healthcare. According to him the National Development Plan reflected on the enormous challenges in healthcare. Spending on healthcare reflects that just under 20% of the population have access to medical aid and the amount spent is about the same as on the 80% who are dependent on public health services. “How do we begin to change the quality of public health using information technology differently? There are a range of issues related to information systems such as inventory management, dealing with tele-medicines in the current systems and how we drive research and development in health systems. All of these should be part of what the public health system should be engaged with.

“Then, there is the issue of general information. We see what the private sector is able to do and how they shape preferences about buying just by picking up on geographic information systems. How do we begin to use this differently? The question that I would like to answer is, what does the next census look like and how do we drive IT smarter? When we look at Brazil we recognise that their level of development is not significantly different to ours, yet they can do their voting electronically. What kinds of innovations do we want in the way in which services are supplied by people who exercise choice in a country like ours.”

Manuel believes that what the South African Constitution requires of us to do is to ensure that everybody in the country has a visible identity.

“Ensuring that people have IDs and that this can be used in the best possible way is one part of it but the other is having an address. I no longer want to say that my address is c/o McCarthy’s General Dealer in Qoboqobo, village number three. I need to be able to have an address and with available geo-spatial information, we should be able to change this. It is up to us to drive that change.”

The minister told the conference that he is not only a general believer, but a believer in open source and that we have not begun to tap this well to drink from. He said that in what we do, we should be able to write the code, protect the code and use it differently for government services.

“A recent UN report suggested six billion people have access to mobile phones, while only 4.5 billion have access to working toilets. There are around one billion mobile phones in both China and India. Africa is home to twice as many mobile phones as the United States and is the most advanced continent when it comes to mobile money. Developing countries accounted for 80 percent of new mobile subscriptions in 2011, with the number of internet users doubling over a four year period.”

Manual said the internet is the key driver of global connectivity and opportunity, but different bandwidth speeds, limited access, and contrasting levels of openness can mean that the internet exacerbates rather than offsets inequality.

“Recent reports indicate, for example, that less than 15% of the Indian population (150 million) have access to the internet, with only 3% connected at home.

“The WTO’s TRIPS Agreement commits developed countries to providing incentives to the private sector for technology transfer to developing countries, but implementation remains weak.”

“Once online, the inequalities persist. Data speeds in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia will reach current North American speeds by 2017. In 2017, those regions will be home to internet speeds that are roughly six times slower than networks in North America.

“I plead with you to take these issues, debate them, discuss them, sequence them but by all means we’d like to hold you accountable for the decisions you take,” he concluded.

Minister Lindiwe Sisulu looked critically at innovation from the vantage point of utility and reason in her GovTech address. She said that innovation without appropriate reasons can be counterproductive.

She referred to often having to ask in a government capacity whether, “technologies are built with us in mind, or are we just part of the sales chain?”

She added that the importance of negating instances where technologies that are bought into, “do not enable us to build decent, affordable homes for vulnerable citizens; do not empower our teachers to educate our children effectively for the future, both our rural and urban, advantaged and disadvantaged alike; do not equip our police men and women to secure our homes, businesses and workplaces, so that the system at the border post speaks to the condition that we have of borders to control; and do not fortify our society’s battle against corruption.

“Good innovation for us must be rooted in our landscape. It must be inspired and driven by our necessity and must harness our own ingenuity.

We need ask ourselves how the technologies we have adopted and procured as a state have helped to accelerate service delivery. Have we done enough as a country, both government and the private sector, to ensure that the benefits of ICT’s are accessible to all our people; what is South Africa’s market share of the global knowledge-based economy? What is our thinking with regard to a procurement strategy that prioritises locally created applications, software and technological devices? And we need to ask ourselves where is South Africa’s hub for ICT development?”

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