President side-lines ICT expertise on advisory team

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The Economic Advisory Council (EAC) announced by president Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday is lacking in innovation, and seems to have neglected the role played by ICT in economic development.

According to analysts, the EAC appears to be weighted in favour of academic economists.

Ramaphosa announced an 18-member council “to ensure greater coherence and consistency in the implementation of economic policy to ensure government and society in general is better equipped to respond to changing economic circumstances”.

The group comprises local and international economists and technical experts drawn from academia, the private sector, labour, community, think tanks and other constituencies.

However, missing from the list are people with ICT economic expertise and analysts have now raised concerns about this, saying it’s a costly oversight considering the government has been punting the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) as the centre of SA’s future economic development.

In April, the president announced the presidential 30-member Commission on 4IR, which ignited enthusiasm among many.

The government’s desire to place technologies at the centre of the economy accelerated in July when SA launched the 4IR SA Digital Economy Summit, where the president noted South African society is in a process of renewal.

Massive disconnect

Now, with the EAC in place, analysts say technology should not be viewed as optional, or just a concern of a few, but key to economic development.

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, says: “There is already a massive disconnect between government policy and the lip-service behind the various councils.

“The latest South African ICT Skills Survey highlighted the role that such skills could play in the economy, the shortage of the skills, and the need for economic policy to address them. Without a mandate to do so, and the knowledge underlying these fields, the councils are unlikely to achieve much.”

There is a chronic shortage of all types of ICT skills in SA required to help local organisations succeed in the digital economy.

This is highlighted in the 10th edition of the South African ICT Skills Survey, carried out by the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering at Wits University, in partnership with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA).

Adrian Schofield, production consultant at IITPSA, says there is no doubt ICTs are crucial for the growth and sustainability of the South African economy. However, he notes “there is a severe risk of disconnected activities failing to synergise resources and timing to accomplish outcomes. The president’s office has a vital role in overseeing and coordinating these groups.

“It is essential that we have a connected society that is able to take advantage of current and emerging ICTs to improve productivity and service quality,” he adds.

He also notes that some could argue the 4IR Commission would provide more than enough input on the importance of ICTs “but it would depend on the two groups setting up a communication channel and sharing relevant information on a regular basis”.

Fractious initiatives

Independent analyst and researcher Dr Charley Lewis is of the view that the members of the EAC council can hardly “be unaware of the hype and prominence surrounding the technological developments associated with the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’.

“One trusts that there will be a formal and structured engagement between the two entities with a view to ensuring that each takes into account the positions of the other in achieving a measure of alignment and synergy.”

Lewis says a broader level of integration is needed to ensure the alignment of both councils with the National Development Plan.

“It is critical that the Presidency ensures we do not end up with a series of divergent and fractious initiatives competing against each other – the 4IR Commission, the newly-appointed Economic Advisory Council, Treasury’s draft Economic Development Plan (with its appallingly weak ICT section) and the soon-to-be-revised National Development Plan.

“Without a degree of coherence and an overarching vision, our economy will continue to wallow in the doldrums of high unemployment and stagnant growth,” he says.

Commenting on the issue, director for pricing research at Africa Analysis, Ofentse Dazela, shared similar sentiments.

“My view is that this sort of an advisory council should indeed be made up of the best ICT brains the country has to offer for it to have a meaningful contribution and impact to government’s endeavours to accelerate economic growth.

“If the council is deprived of the necessary expertise, then this will be a futile exercise that will yield little or no progress at all.”

Dazela adds the ICT sector has, over the years, showed great potential as one of the sectors that can underpin economic growth in SA, as well as creating jobs.

“The government is aware of this potential and to my knowledge is currently working to introduce new policies, as well as to amend current ICT policies in preparation for the 4IR and to stimulate economic growth.”

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