SITA boss looks to change agency’s ‘reactive’ response

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 19 Jun 2023
SITA MD Dr Bongani Mabaso. (Photograph by Karolina Komendera)
SITA MD Dr Bongani Mabaso. (Photograph by Karolina Komendera)

The State Information Technology Agency (SITA) needs to become “radically good at partnering”, to cover the gaps where it falls short.

This is the word from SITA MD Dr Bongani Mabaso, in an interview with ITWeb.

While it sits as a central pillar of government's IT procurement arm, SITA has beenplagued by challenges over the course of its more than 20-year history.

These include allegations of corruption and mismanagement, wearisome procurement processes, leadership instability and a client base that is increasingly frustrated with the poor level of service delivery. It’s also been flagged by the auditor-general (AG) for irregular and wasteful expenditure.

Mabaso, the new SITA boss who became the first permanent MD since Dr Setumo Mohapi's exit in March 2019, also previously highlighted gaps within top management.

However, he believes it’s possible to turn things around, including the agency’s “reactive” stance when it comes to addressing its clients’ needs.

Courting partnerships

According to Mabaso, part of the challenge for SITA is that it takes care of the ICT needs of diverse government departments, including policing, health, education and tourism.

It’s impossible to become an expert in all these sectors, he says, noting the organisation needs to partner well to help cover the gaps where it doesn’t have the necessary expertise.

SITA is considering a model that will facilitate the exchange of goods and services between its clients and partners, but without delegating its powers, he notes.

“Right now, we’re trying to be good at issuing tenders and that’s fine, but part of our future and rebuilding means we need to be radically great at partnering, so that we don’t just provide one solution to a problem, but we provide 10.

“We are building a framework with guidelines. We’re partnering with the AG as well, to ensure those processes are auditable, so that our clients don’t follow this new process and then still have challenges with audit findings in the future.

“You want to make sure this is done in a way that is responsible and doesn’t take away SITA’s mandate, but still promotes innovation, speed and fair pricing.

“The future SITA we’re trying to build is one that promotes innovation in the ICT sector, speed and partnership, but still has the controls and guardrails of SITA.”

One area where SITA looks to partner is in the implementation of the R6 billionbroadband project it was recently tasked with.

Mabaso reveals the agency is already looking at various partnerships to fast-track the rollout of the connectivity project, which is aimed at complementing SA Connect.

Amid its challenges and the various technological advancements, some have questioned whether the SITA Act needs to change, to which Mabaso responded by saying “potentially”.

However, he adds, the interpretation of the Act is the biggest issue.

“Right now, SITA is known as the state procurer of ICT. For me, that is problematic and is holding us back. We can’t be known as the state procurer of ICT; we’re not just about procurement. We want to be known as a facilitator of the economy in the ICT sector, so that we can allow a platform for the public sector and the private sector to interact in a safe way.”

This, he says, means playing on both sides of the economy. “I see this as SITA being more proactive. If you play on both sides of the economy, rather than where we only deal with our clients (the demand side of the economy), you can facilitate the exchange of goods and services. Right now, we just worry about our clients; we wait for them to give us a task, and that ends up in a government order.

“It’s only when we have to go out on tender that we involve the private sector – that’s too reactive. Why do we have to wait for the client to task us?”

Mabaso wants SITA to engage clients proactively and be “like a mini Deloitte or Accenture”, providing advisory services. “We need to go to the client and enquire about their landscape, where their challenges are and where we can assist in building a strategy to move them forward.

“The second thing is whether we can proactively vet the solutions of the private sector – can we go and meet various suppliers and partners and work with them to vet solutions, from a cyber security, networking, hosting and data management perspective.

“Can we pre-vet them and place them in what I call the SITA marketplace, so that when your public sector client wants them, they are there and pre-vetted. It’s not a reactive thing, but something that has been done ahead of time.”

Planning ahead

Expanding on the idea of the SITA marketplace, he believes this is where small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can participate, as SITA will be proactively looking for solutions.

“If SITA had a marketplace with vetted video-conferencing solutions from SMEs, for example, you can put them on equal footing with the likes of Microsoft Teams, Google Meet or Zoom.

“This gives the client choice, and I can tell you that every single one of my clients has a mandate to support SMEs and they will try it, especially if it works the same way and is cheaper.”

Despite assertions of SME development in tender processes, he highlights that the system as a whole, and not just SITA, is rigged against SMEs.

“It’s very difficult to land those big tenders if you don’t have the history of having done a similar project before. Sometimes you need guarantee funds like R50 million in your bank account – SMEs don’t necessarily have that. It makes it very challenging for them to be able to win those tenders.”

He points out that SITA partnering with and pre-vetting as many SMEs as possible puts SMEs in a good space for clients to try them and their solutions.

Mabaso concludes there’s a big role for SITA to play, as people don’t understand the consequences should it be taken away or just switched off.

“We absolutely see a future for SITA going forward, especially if it takes up its mandate fully. Not just working with the clients, being tasked and then going out on tender, but actually being a facilitator of growth in the ICT sector.”