IS DIGITAL THE PANACEA FOR THE PUBLIC SECTOR?

Africa International Advisors (AIA) has worked with a range of clients, across the private and public sector, to carry out digitalisation, business process reengineering and operating model re-design work to improve clients’ administrative efficiency.

South African citizens rejoice at the new efficiency and convenience of eHome Affairs, SARS e-filing and online scheduling at traffic departments. Gone are the days of standing in horrific queues to submit your documentation while waiting months for the application to be processed, all the while hoping that your application has not been misplaced. It is now significantly faster and less painful to obtain a Smart I.D, a passport, or schedule a date for your license renewal or file your taxes. This transformation of South African public administration services has been entirely technology driven: online scheduling and form submission, SMS and email notifications to signal receipt of documents and dates to remember. There is no doubt, the improvements to productivity, process efficiency, innovation and scale can unlock billions of Rands of value in the economy. However, the automation of even simple routine administrative processes can be a challenge within a complex organisation, lifting back the hood, the digitalisation of the public sector is an undertaking beset with landmines. There have been far more failures than successes.

With readily available and cost-effective technologies becoming more available, digitalisation has become a buzzword in both developed and developing countries. In the latter, digitalisation has been constrained by infrastructure considerations, an absence of manual processes and customer profiles that are not suited to digitalisation. With globally significant rates of mobile penetration, South Africa’s customer profile is well suited to digitalisation. With 63% 4G/LTE coverage in urban areas and 38% rural areas, more than half of the South African population is online and that number is set to grow. This number should increase in line with further investment into ICT infrastructure. Two caveats remain, the price of data is high and the threat to infrastructure posed by the uneven service of power utility Eskom. Excepting these concerns, the environment for digitalisation of the public sector is fecund. The benefits for the South African public are extensive, the least of which is increased convenience. Low population density presents a challenge for those living in far-flung places to access crucial services. Likewise, for people living with disabilities. Access to digital services removes the need to physically visit a department and the burden of cost to travel to city centres.

If digital administration is the answer to so many issues, why do digitalisation projects fail so often? Why is it that digital penetration is so high in our personal lives but government departments are often lagging? Uptake of digital enablers for public administration has lagged due to multiple factors. Rather than a simple application of technology to an existing system, unanticipated challenges could be attributed to poor manual processes. If the processes underlying automation are not aligned to strong business principles the result could be augmented inefficiency. Bill Gates articulates this phenomenon well in saying, “…automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency…Automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” Simply put, a poorly undertaken digitalisation project is paramount to wastage and may not justify the return on investment. In a fiscally constrained environment such as the public sector, efficiency is crucial.

It is, thus, necessary to take a holistic approach to digitalisation, including a reengineering of manual processes where inefficiencies, bottlenecks and gaps were found. This is achieved through a detailed mapping of the business processes of the whole organisation and the organisational structure. This is to ensure that where silos exist across the organisation, they can be integrated within the new digital structures to be more efficient and cross functional. This reveals the organisation’s inefficiencies, areas of improvement, limitations, challenges, strengths and opportunities. While implementing enabling technology could happen overnight, a holistic approach can take weeks and even months if done thoroughly to capture accurate cycle times and time/volume data to achieve a truly successful outcome. Based on this information, a new operating model is developed that incorporates the digital enhancements. This assesses the people, infrastructure and system technology requirements.

New technologies often demand new skillsets from staff. Staff, particularly aging staff, could be resistant to changes that required them to adapt to new software and technologies. Computer literacy is a must-have for government staff in a rapidly digitising era. This demands training, and revised job specifications. Within the organisation, through change management, staff must buy-in and trust the new technologies they work with. This is a difficult task and the transitioning process for staff should not be underestimated. New workflows and tasks for staff require organisational redesign and necessitates a process of change management. This is also to embed a culture that is receptive to the challenges and changes that digitalisation presents. It is also to accustom staff to assisting clients who may also struggle to use a digital interface.

Infrastructural requirements can easily eat up the biggest portion of a budget and require specialised knowledge. Staff must be equipped with computers, that also require regularly updates. Servers require regular maintenance. To mitigate against load shedding (particularly in SA) which can down systems, emails and cause interruptions to service, generators are nice to have but can be expensive. Moreover, the nature of the South African public sector is such that the budget and implementation of infrastructure falls on the Department of Public Works and on SITA for ICT needs. Adding additional actors, layers of complexity and a bureaucracy, this can constrain and delay the necessary infrastructure requirements for a project if service is slow.

Software development for administration can be done with off-the-shelf products but also with an in-house (or not) development team. However, the off-the-shelf software is readily and affordably available for most administrative tasks. While protocols and SOPs must be updated in line with new processes, management of data from the new system is also an important concern. Clients personal data must be stored and handled in line with the POPI Act (No. 4 of 2013). Similarly, performance data must also be recorded for monitoring and evaluation, to be used to improve current and future processes to drive the purpose of the organisation. It is often unclear what data should be collected from processes, requiring expert M&E application to adequately assess the needs of the organisation.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the greatest concern for administrative digitalisation in the South African public sector is leadership. A lack of coordinated project management can result in delays, wastage and poor execution in an already fiscally constrained macroenvironment. It is often found that as a project concludes, the whole effort was merely ‘digital sugar-coating’ and has not resulted in any meaningful organisational improvement. Inefficiencies remain embedded in the organisation. While less flashy, it is recommended that clients view digitalisation as a long-term project of small, incremental steps and an emphasis on continuous change. Consistent and sustained implementation should supersede aggressive structural changes, reflecting the time is takes for all components of an organisation to adapt and respond to transformation. A concept that is a challenge for the public sector when leadership changes every four years along with national imperatives – imperatives which departments are often organised to discharge.

Ultimately, a well-defined digital strategy is crucial to transform an organisation. This aligns an organisation to business principles which is a far more challenging and resource intensive process than a straight forward digitalisation project. Digital, is thus, not the panacea for the public sector, as poor execution can lead to wastage and increased inefficiency. The improvement of the public sector is not a small undertaking and digital is certainly a necessary component. However, it is coordination and integration of an organisation’s components that yields success rather than the ‘best’ technology. Digitalisation projects in the public sector, thus, must consider the complexity of the task.

Lest they step on any landmines…




Category 1 B-BBEE Contributor