What can the private sector offer when it comes to modernising South Africa's civil service?
The elections are all over bar the shouting, parliament has been sworn in and the president wants to build a futuristic utopia of gleaming skyscrapers, bullet trains and flying cars (well, two of the three, anyway). Every politician worth their salt knows that a major speech must include the phrase ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, because that’s what it’s all about, right?
As is so often the case, there’s a considerable distance between the vision and the reality on the ground. In order to try to gauge how big that gap is – and what the private sector can offer to fill it – Brainstorm convened a roundtable of expert technologists and business leaders. Together, they discussed the real state of the nation when it comes to emerging technologies, and how we can work together to deliver the dream.
The challenge is neatly summed up by Software AG’s CTO for Africa, Patrick Shields.
“The nice part about government is that we have the plan laid out as to what we want to achieve,” Shields says, referencing the National Development Plan and other department-specific documents. “The problems are well expressed; what’s missing is the execution. There’s a myth that needs to be dispelled that if we plan it well enough, execution happens.”
The majority of strategies fail in execution, and not just in the public sector, he points out. The focus needs to be on the connection between strategy, planning and `the outcome you’re after’.
So what should CIOs and CTOs in the public sector be prioritising? Marleze van Loggerenberg, head of business development for WiPro in Africa, says what’s currently missing is a vision for organisational transformation.
“Everyone is on the digitalisation bandwagon,” Van Loggerenberg says. “But what they really need to do is go beyond automation of current processes and look for innovative solutions that serve citizens. Look at what that means, then look at applying technology. At the moment, it’s the other way around.”
Everyone is on the digitalisation bandwagon. But what they really need to do is go beyond automation of current processes and look for innovative solutions that serve citizens.Marleze van Loggerenberg, WiPro
Digitalisation isn’t always the answer, she adds. In many cases, manual processes need to be in place for those citizens who don’t have access to smartphones.
Many departments aren’t even at that stage, says Simbo Ntshinka, MD of Itec Tiyende. “What we’ve experienced is that many departments love to use paper,” he says. “In one instance, we couldn’t meet with a CIO because he was presenting in a court, and they refused to take part in a video conference even though the technology was in place. They wanted us to travel.”
Ntshinka agrees that the lack of organisational transformation is key.
“A lot of the digitalisation is haphazard; you end up with expensive deployments like broadband in the Eastern Cape, which is very underutilised. There are good policies, but they fail on implementation.”
Problems within procurement is also an issue to address. While it’s understood that government has to follow processes, and be seen to be careful in the wake of state capture revelations, it makes engagement with the private sector difficult.
“The procurement process is messy,” says Mncedisi Moyekiso, business development executive at Internet Solutions. “You get rushed through a procurement process, and then there’s no response from the government side. That process needs to be simplified, that could mean passing responsibility for decision-making further down the chain. I’d also suggest that government needs to move away from ‘Big Bang’ procurement of technology. It ends up too complex, expensive, messy and hard to measure success. Procurement needs to be almost incremental, in the same way that you maintain roadways.
“The other part is that legislation hasn’t kept up with technology. Things as simple as today’s technology is sold on a consumption basis, so prices go up and down depending on use, and that’s not accounted for in procurement processes.”
“The CTO in the public sector needs to be visionary,” says Skhumbuzo Ngcobo, associate director of technology at Deloitte. Referencing the ex-CIO of Accenture, William Mzimba, Ngcobo adds that we need to move from requests for proposals (RFPs) to requests for innovation (RFI). “We need to be able to try ideas, fail, and incrementally improve solutions. It comes down to being able to frame the problem correctly, and allowing for innovation.”
Ngcomo adds that the Public Finance Management (PFMA) Act is likely to be amended soon, and the private sector has a responsibility to raise these issues as changes are drawn up.
“Cyril Ramaphosa has shown that he’s open to consulting and listening to people outside of government,” says Justin Ludik, business development manager at Axis Communications. “That lesson can be taken to the public sector at large. When procurement kicks off, officers need to ask what is it that we want to achieve – are we open to conversations, are we going to brainstorm around solutions?”
Many of the roundtable participants are optimistic about the future, and on the whole welcome the plans coming out of SITA to improve procurement processes.
“The SITA I see today is very different to the one of a few years ago,” says Shaun Reuben, chief sales officer at Liquid Telecom South Africa. “The leadership has driven fundamental change.”
Reuben points out that there are pockets of excellence within government, and many projects that the private sector is involved in that are successful – from procurement to governance. “For the vast majority that don’t get it right, it’s because the basics aren’t in place,” he says. “The technology is available, and we as the private sector can play a role because some of the tools we have are designed to make digitalisation a success. Forget the outcome, just in terms of project management and communication with stakeholders, we have a lot to offer.”
The problems are well expressed; what’s missing is the execution. There’s a myth that needs to be dispelled that if we plan it well enough, execution happens.Patrick Shields, Software AG
“There’s a lot of interest in the public sector around AI,” says Julie Tregurtha, regional vice president of sales for Africa at OpenText. “It’s something they’re curious about, and it’s partly about the threat to jobs. But there’s opportunities there to take people whose roles can be automated and cross-skill them into something that will maintain their employability. We need to bring the unions into that conversation as well.”
The IT skills challenge in the public sector goes deep, Tregurtha says. An open forum to discuss needs and availability of training would help, she says.
“We don’t speak with one voice as an industry,” says Lenny Naidoo, applications sales director for public service at Oracle. “We need to get to a point where we can communicate things clearly, and help government understand what constitutes a good solution.”
“There isn’t a forum currently available to consolidate all of our input,” says Liquid Telecom’s Reuben. “Maybe what we need is a body that operates just above the level of SITA, an offshoot of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, somewhere we can share content and avoid repetition.”
The public sector’s challenge around recruitment and retention of IT skills is a hot topic. “There was a time when the private sector was losing skills to government,” says Ngcobo. “SARS was absorbing proper technology skills as part of the modernisation programme and paying better than the private sector.”
Others agree that the SARS of a decade ago remains the best example of how government could operate and digitally transform. The will to repeat that success is there.
“Almost everyone who moves to the private sector from this industry says that they want to make a difference,” says Shields. “They see themselves as public servants.”
Simultaneously, he points out, transformation can’t be built on personalities. “What’s needed are models that continue to drive change when key personnel move on.”
Skyscrapers and bullet trains? Maybe not. It’s going to take time for the public sector to recover from the years of poor management and blatant pillaging, but judging by the reactions of the roundtable participants, there’s plenty of goodwill and desire to help get it back on its feet to meet the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and delivery for ordinary citizens. If only everyone could just sit down and talk.