The tiny ex-Soviet republic of Estonia is often held up as a digital utopia for government services. Its civil servants often host visiting dignitaries who want to understand and emulate its incredible success with digitisation.
Billed by Wired magazine as “the most advanced digital society in the world”, citizens can vote without leaving their houses, fill in census forms from their laptops, and they have an online tax system that makes SARS’s much-lauded eFiling look like a moderately sophisticated abacus.
You can incorporate a new company in less than an hour, and forget about filling in forms when you go to a hospital. In Estonia, even your health records are available online. What’s more, the country has begun adding health records to a Bitcoin-style blockchain, something few governments are even talking about yet.
Its pursuit of ever-greater efficiencies and public-sector innovation is marked out by the fact that it has a “zero bureaucracy” task force that aims to cut red tape wherever it finds it, and streamline whatever essential processes are left.
There are, of course, qualifying factors that help to explain why Estonia is doing things that other governments can only dream of. It started with a relatively blank slate in 1991, following the collapse of the USSR, and adopted high-tech government solutions with an unmatched zeal. More importantly, with a population of just 1.3 million people, it’s effectively half the size of Cape Town. Estonia is a unique product of unique circumstance, but there is still much that can be learned from it.
Ian Houvet is a director of Pretoria-based Boxfusion, a software developer that specialises in systems for South African government departments. Its customisable SmartGov platform is in use at national, provincial and municipal government levels, including the City of Tshwane and the Department for Social Development.
“There are huge opportunities for automation,” Houvet says, “and a lot of the time it’s not even a question of awareness that’s holding things back. There are very few areas of government where software solutions don’t already exist, but getting through the process of procurement and implementation needs political will and time.”
Some of Boxfusion’s most successful projects have been the ones that, to the observer, are the simplest. Many departments and agencies still work on paper submissions and memos, and automating these processes can make a huge difference.
“Within one metro it was taking two weeks from the time a problem got reported for the submission to get to the right area and actioned,” Houvet says. “That’s a critical process to automate, and there are a number of adjacent processes which can be tackled too.”
There is, however, increasing appetite to transform within government, Houvet says. The procurement process is becoming easier as more platforms such as Boxfusion are added to pre-approved supplier lists. Moving ICT services to the cloud helps a lot too, especially when talking to municipalities that don’t have big income streams.
“There is a huge gap between the metros and the smaller municipalities,” Houvet says. “The only way new technology can be brought in at an affordable cost for the latter is with the cloud. Also, a lot of these solutions require some level of technical expertise, and that hasn’t always been easy for small municipalities, but is much easier with hosted solutions.”
Automation of back-end systems is critical, Houvet adds, but the fastest-growing area of interest is overhauling citizen-facing services. Boxfusion recently launched a phone application for smartphones and USSD menu systems that allows citizens to log issues without visiting an office or dialling in to a call centre. Because the process is fully digital, issues are directed to the relevant department and job queue instantaneously.
“Oliver Tambo district is launching this app in the next few weeks,” Houvet says. “Right now they have a customer centre of sorts, but no real case management system or way of tracking calls. With the cloud-hosted app, issues automatically get logged and routed to the right place, and you don’t need much expertise on the ground.”
BCX, the newly rebranded enterprise and public-sector arm of Telkom that was formed following the acquisition of Business Connection, has plenty of experience with government implementations. Both companies that have merged to form BCX, Telkom Business and Business Connection itself, were major suppliers to government.
Arnold van Huyssten is the managing executive at BCX for Direct Connect, and overseas the firm’s “unified communications” products. He says that while there is an appetite for modernisation within government, there is uncertainty about the best way to tackle it.
“A lot of government departments have fallen so far behind that there is a tough decision to make,” Van Huyssten says. “Do they leapfrog generations of technology and go straight to cutting-edge hosted cloud deployments or do they need to take baby steps and get there gradually, one thing at a time? Lots of private-sector customers have the same issues when digitising their businesses; they have to decide where to spend investment: on processes or collaboration, for example.”
Van Huyssten says the problem is widespread. Many departments are reliant on obsolete technology, such as on-site telephone exchanges (PBXs), for which spare parts are no longer manufactured.
Certainly the problems aren’t insurmountable, if there is will, and money. Microsoft South Africa’s chief technology officer, Warren Hero, agrees that even though digital transformation is high on government’s agenda, “the clarity about how to achieve the intended benefits of this transformation is opaque”.
Microsoft has worked on several projects, Hero says, including a reporting app for the Johannesburg Roads Agency, and electronic invoicing and payments to ensure providers are paid on time. Including citizens in the process of planning new solutions is vital, he says.
“Start with design – design thinking,” Hero says. “Ensure that we plan our cities around people, not cars – for sustainability, as well as to ensure that our cities become more efficient at their carbon footprint and larger environmental impact. Work from the outside in – start with engaging citizens at every part of the planning, implementation, beneficiation and review cycle.”
In addition to efficiency and cost savings, digitising public services can also help with accountability and transparency, as South Africa’s own eTenders website has shown. The mandate to accept only digital submissions means that not only are open tenders visible to all, but other companies can also interface directly with the platform, offering value-added services for those looking to apply. A challenge for government is that not every new digital tool is going to be successful, however.
“A culture that is predisposed to innovation requires failure,” says Microsoft’s Hero. “Hopefully the failure is fast and inexpensive. How else are new service delivery designs created if we expect, as government and as citizens, a 100% success rate? Co-ideation and co-creation with the citizenry could be the bridges needed to build this essential risk appetite for shared experimentation.”
Experimentation is one thing, but it should never be forgotten that big public-sector ICT projects all over the world regularly eat up billions of rand, and fail slowly and expensively – Sweden’s R24-billion attempt to digitise social security records, for example, or the R11-billion border control system canned by the UK three years ago.
Perhaps those districts still doing it by pen and paper are on to something after all.