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Communications supports public service resiliency


Johannesburg, 21 Oct 2020
Read time 5min 50sec

The COVID-19 pandemic proved that the unexpected and unprecedented can happen, and when it does, communications with citizens is crucial for ensuring public safety, service delivery and overall resiliency. But communications is a two-way street, and future-proof local, regional and national government has to enable effective citizen engagement using digital channels.

This is according to AWS, which is set to host a webinar on "Citizen engagement as an enabler for smart cities of the future" this month.

Open and constant communication between the public sector and citizens improves service delivery, promotes transparent and effective interaction and enhances the level of public trust between authorities and the populace. Today, citizens also expect real-time, two-way communications customised to be relevant to them, using digital platforms they are familiar with. Crucially, these platforms must be able to scale immediately in the event of the unexpected.

Enabling such engagement means building a stable and scalable digital trust and communications platform is an important component of long-term continuity and resiliency planning, says AWS. This should encompass internal and external stakeholders – both city or government employees – and citizens.

Zubin Chagpar, head of Middle East and Africa Public Sector Sales for AWS, says one example of a successful citizen engagement platform is South Africa’s GovChat chatbot, which became the official platform for citizen engagement with the South African government in 2018.

To date, GovChat has let about 50 million South Africans communicate with the government via mobile handsets across platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. In response to COVID-19 in South Africa, the government appointed GovChat to help co-ordinate its response. GovChat provided several departments with a channel to share information on services, like water and electricity, and gain feedback from citizens during the country’s lockdown.

GovChat helped the South African Social Security Agency manage 4.4 million digital applications for a temporary social relief grant. GovChat needed to act quickly and provide an infrastructure that could rapidly scale as more people responded to the offer of government support. To provide speed of delivery and scalability while keeping costs down, GovChat turned to AWS.

GovChat built the chatbot using AWS Lambda, a serverless compute service, and Amazon Lex for voice and text conversational interfaces. To make sure sensitive data stayed inside the country, GovChat used the AWS Africa (Cape Town) Region. Within days, the chatbot was handling up to 14.2 million messages a day across social media platforms regarding the social relief grant. By September 2020, it had processed in excess of 250 million messages. In addition, citizens were also using the GovChat platform to help them contact local authorities, find the nearest COVID-19 testing station, and access COVID-19 test results.

“Without the scalability and flexibility of the cloud, this pivot would not have been possible and service delivery could have faltered,” says Chagpar.

Five ways the AWS cloud supports public sector service delivery

“Over the past few months, we have seen the incredible ways public sector organisations have responded to the impact of the global pandemic. The need to be agile only underscored the importance of having a robust technology infrastructure to adapt quickly and minimise service disruption, particularly when these services have a direct impact on citizens’ lives,” Chagpar says.

“Every single day over the past few months, we have seen organisations turn to the cloud to expand, or stand up services, at a speed and scope that would have seemed unimaginable to them a few weeks before. What’s more, they have done this under immense pressure, and in many cases, literally overnight.”

He cites the example of the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), which was able to migrate its Learning Management Systems (LMS) to the AWS cloud in just two weeks. By using AWS, Wits could ensure its LMS environment has high availability and was fault tolerant, meaning that even at peak demand, over 40 000 students and 3 000 lecturers could access it.

Citizen engagement – keep it (smart and) simple

One lesson in recent months has been that familiar e-participation tools such as social media, SMS, chatbots and apps, as well as digitally enhanced but ever-popular voice communications – can inspire better citizen participation and collaboration by easily involving the citizenry in crucial governance processes such as decision-making, policy inputs, budget prioritisation and resource allocation, says Chagpar. Overly complex interfaces or applications that utilise a large amount of data can deter citizens from engaging, which ultimately excludes them from digitally enabled public service and communications, he says.

Speaking during a recent AWS webinar in South Africa, Muhammad Simjee, co-founder and CEO of innovative solution developers A2D24, said his company had found that the most complex digital channels were not always the most effective: “In some communities, we have had to customise our approach depending on where we are trying to implement our technology. What we found is if we customised the channel to suit user needs, we saw increased user adoption. One surprising thing we found is that voice remains a pragmatic way to get to patients, so using a combination of voice and familiar channels like WhatsApp increased adoption in some areas.”

In many cases, the platforms used to engage with citizens are most effective when they are the simple, familiar platforms citizens use daily, Simjee said. The real impact of this engagement rests on the advanced technology behind the scenes, with cloud, AI and machine learning enabling scale, agility, personalisation and vital analytics.

Citizen engagement and the use of the cloud to support public sector service delivery will come under discussion at the AWS webinar: "Citizen engagement as an enabler for smart cities of the future", which will be hosted in collaboration with ITWeb on 22 October. The discussion will be facilitated by Aki Anastasiou, a well-known technology influencer, contributor to CNBC Africa, NewzRoom Africa and tech feature writer for the Gordon Institute of Business Science’s publication Acumen. Mandla Ngcobo, deputy director-general: CIO at the Department of Public Service and Administration; Pierre Schoonraad, Head of Research and Development at the Centre for Public Service Innovation; and Eldrid Jordaan, CEO & Founder of GovChat.Org, will be among the guests participating.

For more information, and to register for this event, go to https://www.itweb.co.za/webinar/opening-engagement-for-a-connected-government-and-citizenry/index.html.

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