Forays into public sector digitalisation and e-governance are laying a foundation for a future in which large-scale digital adoption by government systems has the potential to vastly improve the lives of citizens on the ground in emerging economies, says management consultancy multinational Kearney partner Prashaen Reddy.
Public sector digitalisation offers other advantages to governments, such as the financial benefits accrued through cost efficiencies and material savings, the competitive edge garnered by a more attractive investment landscape, greater ease of business and swifter, more efficient interaction with a more transparent, accountable bureaucracy.
“Analysing the historic trajectory of public sector digitalisation, a narrative emerges in which countries leading the charge have steadily built up towards pre-emptive citizen-centric governance over the decades, beginning around 1995 when the migration from paper-based to electronic systems began,” explains Reddy.
By 2005, countries including Switzerland, South Korea and the US had established centralised data access points and implemented service provision through mobile device technologies which were already widespread in these societies.
By 2015, these countries had put in place intelligent e-government services, leveraging innovations in cloud computing, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence.
These improvements have allowed for, besides others, standardised user experiences across government departments and predictive models that pre-empt public needs, explains Reddy.
“Although our digital policy and initiatives may be nascent in comparison to global peers, South Africa has made some strides and is now ranked seventy-eighth globally and third on the continent in terms of metrics defined in the United Nations’ E-Government Development Index, behind the Seychelles and Mauritius, whose populations are far smaller.
"Traditionally driven by the raised expectations of technology-savvy young citizens, the trend towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has been lent new urgency in the time of Covid, as the digital delivery of public health services becomes ever more imperative."
By carefully observing the successes and setbacks of our international peers, emerging markets can take profound learnings to leapfrog into accelerated digital transformation in the public sector, Reddy says.
The Department of Home Affairs’ online identity document system, and the South African Revenue Service’s recent injection of R3-billion into its digital strategy are promising cornerstones for a future of strong e-governance in South Africa, he says.
“The many structural obstacles we face on our path to digitalisation are highly varied, requiring a deep understanding and a broad range of strategic insights to traverse,” he highlights.
Kearney has mapped out eight key challenges faced by the public sector in closing the digital transformation gap, including the burden of over-regulation in the public sector, the impulse for job preservation which restricts automation, skills shortages and security risks.
A centralised digital transformation strategy that takes cognisance of a challenging environment beset with widely varying levels of digital maturity, buy-in, implementation delays and disparate budget allocations is important.
“Unfortunately, the continual cyber-attacks and flawed data and cloud policy will continue to contribute to the many challenges faced by the government,” he states.
LESSONS FROM PEERS
In mapping a way forward for South Africa, Kearney has identified several key take-away features from international peers for high-impact digital transformation, including an ambitious yet holistic and inclusive digital transformation strategy, removal of bureaucratic red tape for ease of digital implementation, citizen experience (CX) as a central design consideration, meaningful stakeholder engagement and the co-creation of the vision for digital transformation to ensure long-term buy-in and the collaborative sharing of resources, to leverage mature public entities’ existing infrastructure and capabilities and ignite meaningful public-private partnerships.
A control tower approach, with the establishment of a centralised government digital transformation organisation (DTO) that would act as a driver, overseer and support structure and provide capability enhancement as a shared service, could be effective, Reddy suggests.
“With access to public sector databases as well as normalised data sourced from various pools across government, a DTO could begin to work towards seamless, standardised CX through data-driven insights, ultimately pre-empting the needs of the public and thereby providing improved service delivery.
“We recommend that budget allocations be channelled to ensure the success of digital transformation through a focus on digital penetration, widespread connectivity, digital literacy and getting more people online,” he states.