Time to transform

Digital transformation in the public sector post Covid-19.
Read time 10min 30sec
Mandla Mkhwanazi, Digital Business Leader at Transnet.
Mandla Mkhwanazi, Digital Business Leader at Transnet.

The deadly coronavirus Covid-19 has massively disrupted the way the world operates. The negatives, from loss of life to economic recession, are well documented, but if you’re looking for an upside, it has given us the opportunity to reflect and reassess how we do things – perhaps that’s how frequently we travel abroad, how well we are able to work remotely, or the need for digital transformation of our organisations and wider society.

During the lockdown period, I spoke to Mandla Mkhwanazi, digital business leader at Transnet, and chair of the Public Sector ICT Forum. Our topic of discussion was centred on digital transformation at Transnet and across the wider public sector, but as with so many conversations in recent weeks, we couldn’t help but infuse the impacts and effects of Covid-19 throughout.

There are, believes Mkhwanazi, a number of similarities and lessons to be learned from the government’s handling of Covid-19 and the broader approach to digital transformation across the public sector.

“Leadership is vital,” he says. “If it’s to be successful, digital transformation has to be driven from the very top.”

Before the pandemic’s effects kicked in, President Cyril Ramaphosa placed the Fourth Industrial Revolution high on the government’s agenda, Mkhwanazi continues, recognising that we need to transform South Africa to capitalise on this opportunity.

Similarly, Ramaphosa won over critics by his decisive approach to taking the country into lockdown when he did – an unpleasant but unavoidable course of action.

“The President had time to see how other countries were reacting to this pandemic, what was working, and which countries were suffering the most. Given the situation our economy is in, it was a hard choice to make,” says Mkhwanazi.

Getting buy-in to digital transformation and adherence to the lockdown have similarities, he adds. “Communication and awareness are vital. People have to understand why these actions are taken, but also how they benefit directly; from discussing with frontline public sector employees how the automation of a process can help improve their effectiveness and better deliver services to citizens, through to explaining to minibus taxi drivers why a full vehicle increases their own risk of infection and isn’t in the interests of their own health or that of their passengers.”

Spheres of government

In response to the pandemic, we’re seeing more distinct ownership by ministers of their own areas of mandate, but also greater collaboration as they work together to try to find each other.

Collaboration is a key component of digital transformation. Within the public sector ICT context, there is the well-established SITA, which is currently undergoing a refocus in its mandate, the Government IT Officers’ Council, the Government CIO and the informal Public Sector ICT Forum, of which Mkhwanazi is the chair.

“We all understand our own remits, and respect those of the other entities to ensure we don’t overlap and duplicate efforts. For the good of the country, it’s important that we work together in harmony.”

Digital transformation is nothing without the adoption of new technology trends.

“We can talk about digital transformation as though it’s something that’s futuristic or far away, but much is possible today with technologies that are already at our fingertips. Technology is able to help government fill gaps when we face shortages, such as 3D printing parts for ventilators for hospitals in short supply; you have to use the resources and skills available to you.”

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Mkhwanazi highlights the use of drones, which could be used to fly over cities and metropolitan areas and provide aerial footage of crowds larger than the regulated group size. An alternate use in the pandemic comes from a recently initiated project between the University of South Australia and drone specialist Draganfly to create a platform that uses computer vision and sensors to identify potential carriers of respiratory disease within a crowd.

Transnet has some degree of experience of using drones, says Mkhwanazi. Responding to allegations from news reports and a 2016 Treasury report that the state-owned entity’s ports aren’t as efficient as other large ports around the world, he says Transnet has been piloting drones for some time to assist in improving its operations.

“Drones are used at the port in Durban to monitor traffic congestion, such as when there are backlogs of trucks waiting to collect or deliver containers, which can often overspill onto the public roads. The drones are also used for terminals security, which is particularly relevant when containers with high value cargo are being moved or stored.”

The port also uses underwater drones to assess water pollution at the harbour, he adds.

Another initiative being undertaken to improve efficiency at the ports is a push to integrate schedules from some of the major shipping companies, such as MACS and `K’ Line. This increased visibility into vessels at sea and their schedules will enable better planning, Mkhwanazi says, and feeds into a bigger plan for greater visibility.

Planned timelines and reality, especially when you’re dealing with vessels travelling thousands of kilometres on the open seas and potentially carrying 2 000+ containers, can sometimes drift apart. Ships could arrive early, having bypassed a particular port on their journey due to bad weather, for example, and other ships get delayed, which means that Transnet has to be somewhat flexible in moving docking slots around, based on which ships are at anchor outside the port.

Given this backdrop, keeping track of containers and cargo can be hard. As such, Transnet has put in place a central platform to track cargo, once it has been unloaded, says Mkhwanazi.

“It's all about cargo movements,” he says. “If there’s a delay at the port, how do we track and tell the cargo owners there’s a delay? A container might not be on a train to Johannesburg as expected, because it was misplaced in the stacking in Durban or the ship hasn't even docked. Within Transnet, we might have that data, but the cargo owner doesn't have the information.”

The platform has been designed so it can provide alerts to the shipping lines that there’s congestion at the port, so they can slow down their ships and save fuel by closing off some engines. It will also provide notifications for those tracking their cargo from China, Europe, or US that it has arrived onshore. Or alerts of delays can be sent to those cargo owners who are waiting for it to be transported overland.

“The platform we’re creating is to improve efficiency, but also transparency.

“Currently, we send alerts, through SMS, for example, which is one step ahead of what we did in the past. However, the long-term ambition is to give them access to the platform. We’re working out how to address concerns around sensitivities of cargo and customer data, and SARS information, as it’s also part of the chain and the solution. SARS’ Customs division need to know what cargo is moving and if it’s been properly declared.”

Track and trains

As the state-owned logistics service provider for the country, and increasingly into SADC, it’s not just the cargo that Transnet needs to keep tabs on, but also the transport itself. A tracking tool is gradually being implemented across the fleet of locomotives and wagons to provide near real-time visibility into the freight rail network.

“Using a combination of satellite and GSM, sensors on the train provide near real-time tracking. We used to rely on fixed-position wayside readers, which would only detect the train when it went past, but now the sensors are embedded in the wagons themselves. If there’s something wrong with the train stopping, a disturbance or an interference, a security team can be deployed to the train. We're now tracking the cargo on the train, plus the train itself.”

The sensors can also track aspects such as the condition of the train and faults can be sent to on the on-board computer in the driver’s cabin instead of them walking outside the kilometres-long train to inspect it.

A pilot of the system was run last year, with plans to spread it more widely across the fleet. In addition to data from the trains themselves, other sources of data from various suppliers will be fed into the overarching system, such as geofencing. There are also data streams from weather services used to anticipate extreme weather conditions.

“As it evolves, we will add more features. This solution improves productivity, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of our operation. The more you have to deal with uncertainties and run an operation that you don't understand, the more expensive it becomes.”

As widely as we can digitally transform we must, that’s not just Transnet, but across the public sector.

Some insight gained from the first trip of the pilot project showed a train was delayed in Komatipoort, close to the Mozambique border, for some time. “The infrastructure is not the same across Africa, so we had to change locomotives and the supporting crew, which obviously took the time.”

With trains travelling from Richards Bay in KZN up through various countries to the Democratic Republic of Congo, there’s a need for integration with different players across the continent.

“There's a lot of international collaboration with this project, because everyone acknowledges that you can't be a master of all, and you might need each other. I think after Covid-19, you'll find people who were previously reluctant to collaborate, and even competed, there will be an understanding that the more you share, the better it is for the community.

Call to arms

Slipping back into his role as part of the Public Sector ICT Forum, Mkhwanazi says: “As widely as we can digitally transform we must, that’s not just Transnet, but across the public sector. Take education. It’s probably easier for the children who are at the well-resourced private schools to adapt to the Covid-19 lockdown; they have tablets or notebooks, and are experienced with classes and lessons being conducted online. But what about the public schools, where children don’t have access to such devices?”

One criticism often levelled at government is its slow pace, due to the bureaucracy and requirement to consult with many stakeholders before a decision can be made. What this Covid-19 situation has proved, says Mkhwanazi, is that government can move with agility. “We’ve seen various new regulations introduced in this state of disaster. We’ve also seen decisions made, which have quickly been changed. And this is one of the key points in digital transformation. Failure is not seen as the be-all-and-end-all. The problem is if you don’t learn from the situation; fail fast, fail forwards. The ability to be agile and pivot away are key traits of a digital mindset,” says Mkhwanazi.

We know that when ‘normal service is resumed’, government won’t be able to continue to act with such impetus, but perhaps the agility we have seen can be applied going forward.

“When the lockdown has ended and we transition back, things will never be the same as they were before. We can hope that some of the momentum that has been built, and the agility, can continue, and that this situation leads us to reflect on how better to infuse digital transformation across the public sector for the benefit of all,” he concludes.

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