OPINION

Wanted: a mobile government

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South Africa truly is a mobile nation. We literally have more cell phone accounts than people—a third more, to be precise. Nearly half the population (47%) has a smartphone and access to the Internet (49%). For increasing numbers of South Africans, mobile devices will be the sole entry point to the Internet (40% already access the Internet this way, according to Internet analyst, Arthur Goldstuck).

South Africa’s, and Africa’s, embrace of mobility means one thing for sure: governments are under pressure to redefine drastically how they engage with, and deliver services to, their citizens.

Government has recognised the opportunity that such a universal communication platform offers. In particular, progressive city administrations are using free Wi-Fi hotspots to fast track citizens’ access to broadband. This is important because of the correlation between broadband penetration and economic activity: World Bank research indicates that every 10% increase in broadband penetration boosts growth by 1.35%. Hence, the National Development Plan makes the provision of high-speed broadband one of its enabling milestones.

The cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Ekhurhuleni and Tshwane, to name those most in the news, have all announced various programmes to roll out free Wi-Fi hotspots. Johannesburg’s Executive Mayor, Parks Tau, sees the Wi-Fi rollout as a way of re-industrialising the city for the 21st Century economy, and as a way to uplift the previously disadvantaged. Such initiatives effectively allow all South African’s to benefit from the rollout of a national fibre-optic broadband network, for which Telecommunications and Postal Services Minister Cwele recently announced an “open-access” policy.

Heightened expectations

Initiatives like this are laudable but we should also realise the challenge they pose to government itself. As citizens move online, so their expectations rise. An increasingly connected citizenry sees how technology is enabling personalised communication and service by their banks, insurance companies and retailers—and they want the same from government. These expectations are heightened still further in the mobile world, in which mobile apps are setting high standards of convenience and personalisation. Mobile or m-government will need to offer the same type of experience. The plus side is the chance to connect directly with citizens—who are also customers.

Identify quick wins to build momentum

The trick here, I believe, will be to balance the need for a clear and coherent vision for m-government with the imperative to act quickly. Two sides of the same coin, but the rollout of intelligently-designed, easy-to-implement apps that meet real needs should take priority. Home Affairs is doing it brilliantly by using SMSs to alert citizens of the progress of ID or passport applications through the process—and the citizen feels the system is actually working for him or her.

These quick wins can turn around public perception by individualising service delivery. The trick is ensuring they are part of ongoing improvement, and not just an isolated flash in the pan.

Arguably, the same approach could even help ameliorate the massively negative fallout from load shedding into a positive demonstration that the situation is under control, and that government cares.

In general, as government develops these services, it should give thought to the citizen experience. Each app needs to form part of a coherent whole, particularly when the services emanate from a single entity, and it should be easy to use. For example, multiple log-ins and prompts to access services from one’s metro can create frustration rather than delight.

When it comes to strategy and implementation, the focus should be on three priorities: securing each transaction; ensuring that the right processes and infrastructure are in place to deliver high-quality apps rapidly; and using good analytics to drive continuous improvement. Security is probably paramount given that these transactions can involve sensitive information: trust really is the currency of the online world.

Focusing on quick wins—but without losing sight of the bigger picture—helps government to take its services directly to citizens, the unique advantage of mobile technology. This can help reduce pressure on traditional service-delivery channels, but the real benefit is surely to begin redefining a relationship with South Africa’s citizens.

Johnny Moloto

(Executive: Government and Regulatory Affairs, IBM South Africa)

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