Journey to a digital future

Government has made some bold statements about how digital technologies will empower and enable South Africans, but what does a realistic picture for a digital government look like?
Read time 5min 40sec
Mandla Ngcobo
Mandla Ngcobo

What does a digital future really look like? For government CIO Mandla Ngcobo, it all comes down to information. With digital technologies, governments have so many more ways to make smart, strategic decisions. This is where the real value lies for public servants and the average person on the street. For example, when government started brainstorming the idea to build the Gautrain, it first had to ask, 'Why are we doing this?'. And the answer was clear. After doing research, government realised that a large number of people travel between Johannesburg and Pretoria every day and that many of these middle-class professionals are regularly late for work because of bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was based on this data that government made the informed move to build the rapid commuter rail system. “For digital to be impactful, it must be guided by facts, by intelligence and by data,” Ngcobo says.

“It’s my job to promote a more realistic vision of what our digital future, and our digital government, will look like in South Africa.”

Mandla Ngcobo

This focus on data ties into another important aspect of our digital future – customer service. According to Ngcobo, digital technologies provide governments with new opportunities to understand customer (citizen) experience-related problems. New technologies are also empowering citizens by opening up lines of communication between government officials and the general public. In the past, it was unthinkable that an average citizen could send a message to the president, but with social media and other communication platforms, these lines of communication are more open than ever before. One such platform is a digital communication channel called GovChat, South Africa’s largest civic engagement online platform accessible on any mobile handset or feature phone. Something like GovChat gives government a better handle on what people want or need and citizens feel like their elected officials are actually listening to them. “We mustn’t forget that governments can only improve if we get the right feedback. Digital makes it easier to provide that feedback.”

Establishing new norms

“As government CIO, it’s my job to develop e-government and information security norms and standards in order to create a shared vision around what digital means for government,” he says. “But before we can even think about going digital, we need to be well-organised internally.”

For this to happen, it’s critical for different government agencies and departments to be on the same page when it comes to digital strategies and innovation investments. Shortly before sitting down with Brainstorm for this interview, Ngcobo attended a government AGM in the Free State where various government IT heads came together to discuss how different areas of government can use technologies to collaborate more effectively.

Inspired by Estonia

According to a PwC report, as of 2019, roughly 99% of Estonia’s public services are available to citizens via e-services. The country’s digital service success is made up of three key ingredients:

  • Using digital to deliver new, improved ways to enable citizens to engage in their communities and receive the public services they need.
  • Using new technologies to connect data and services in a mobile, connected world.
  • Leveraging the ideas of entrepreneurs, innovators and SMEs that have often worked in public services and understand the value of delivering improved outcomes and more efficient public services.

The aim of the event was for everyone to develop a shared vision, informed by each department’s priorities. If everyone implements the same strategy to advance government’s move to digital, this will streamline the process of making government services more readily available online, he says. As part of this AGM, members of the new Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) were in attendance to discuss why all government entities need to work together to take advantage of the opportunities presented.

Ngcobo is tasked with separating the hype from the reality and promoting the most viable applications of digital innovations. “Most of us will have seen the hugely futuristic, sci-fi-inspired versions of the future, but it is my job to paint a more realistic picture of what our digital future and our digital government will look like in South Africa.”

So, where are we on the digital transformation journey? Ngcobo believes that progress is being made in certain pockets of government, but acknowledges that it’s happening slowly. In attendance at the recent IT AGM were members of the SA security cluster, which includes the South African Police Service, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Department of Correctional Services. As an area of government, most South Africans will have engaged with some aspect of the security cluster at some point in their lives, even if it’s just getting police officers to verify a document, he says. In working with these different components of government on their digital transformation, it’s about trying to use technology to promote efficiencies, to resolve faster, improve service delivery and, in the case of the security cluster, aid justice.

Public/private partnerships

What about SITA?

In December 2019, Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, announced that the department would be reconfiguring various entities that fall under her portfolio. SITA is one of these entities. According to Ndabeni-Abrahams, the restructuring will see SITA becoming a state IT company. According to government CIO, Mandla Ngcobo, the Government IT Officers Council, SITA and his own department were all created as part of a model for the delivery of digital services in the early 2000s. But since then, each of these different institutions has changed and been moved under the control of different departments. “This means that the model is broken. As such, it often requires a lot more effort for us to coordinate activities across these different entities.”

But government can’t do this alone. There’s a real need for government to work with various partners across the public and private sectors, much like the partnership that exists between the Department of Home Affairs and various local banks around the issuing of IDs. “Banks already have information about citizens and can verify your identity so it makes sense that they can partner with us to issue IDs. Similarly, being a largely Christian country, many South Africans are at church on a Sunday. Wouldn’t it make sense for us to partner with churches to deliver government services to citizens before or after their Sunday services?”

Speaking of identity, Ngcobo is also working with his peers across government to improve their approach to identity management. People don’t want to have to reintroduce themselves every time they move from one department to another. “We’re developing new ways to identify people – using biometrics – so that the process is faster and easier.” Once implemented, this digital national identity system will serve as a master source for citizen data and will make it possible to automate many of the Department of Home Affairs’ key processes.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done. As I said before, certain foundations must be in place before you go digital,” he says. “You can’t go digital if you don’t know how to handle your data. You can’t go digital if you don’t know how to manage security. Any country or business will struggle to reap the rewards of digital if they don’t understand who their customer base is. As South Africa, we need to understand our realities and these realities must inform our strategy and our approach to digital transformation.”

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