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Structuring SA’s digital government: the road not traveled?

- Lucienne Abrahams and Mark Burke

The potential capabilities afforded by digital technologies should not be ignored in the current stage of design of the future government administration.

Speculation about the future composition and organisation of  the government in SA as a crucial state capability to shift the development path of society towards a more equal, inclusive and sustainable one, is rife at the moment. With about a week to go before President Cyril Ramaphosa announces his Cabinet, which will give an indication of his thinking on the reconfiguration of the state, various ideas have been put forward.

There is some speculation that the configuration of the government will merely revert to the composition before the process of unbundling and fragmentation that took place in the past 10 years. It is understandable that political motivations will dominate the decision on the composition of the Cabinet and government departments. Tough political bargaining, aimed at bringing on board the most important constituencies of the governing party, while also providing a level of legitimacy and stability for anchoring the new administration, will leave an indelible mark on the choices made.

However, the composition of the government cannot be left to only politics if there is to be a developmental commitment to building a capable state. It must also take account of the changing conditions under which this administration will come into being and must, by design, be congruent and responsive to major developments impacting the ability of the government to perform.

One of the most dramatic influencing factors to emerge since the turn of the 21st century is the extent to which digital technologies now shape our lives. Increasingly, they are impacting the very notions of identity, the relationship that citizens have with the state, the nature of policy-making, and the opportunities and constraints for delivery of services. Digital technologies now afford governments the opportunity to develop new, and strengthen existing, capabilities necessary to address some of the most intractable challenges in our society.

For instance, big data has the potential to better target distinct packages of social insurance to the most marginalised in society, with predictive analytics capable of modeling cause and effect to channel support to the most effective forms of social insurance. In healthcare, artificial intelligence (AI) can assist in diagnostics, estimating the probability of disease outbreaks, and monitoring specific illnesses, for example.

The value of these kinds of digital technologies can only be harvested optimally for policy-making and service delivery when large scale data sets are established in ways that enable databases to interface with each other to form cross-departmental digital platforms. Such digital platforms provide the foundation for sharing data and services across previously independent (but now inter-dependent) government departments and entities. These ideas have found traction over the past few years in terms of thinking about government-as-a-platform (GaaP).

Our purpose here is not to promote specific paradigms of technology use in government, or advance some form of technological determinism; rather, it is to suggest that the potential capabilities afforded by digital technologies should not be ignored in the current stage of design of the future government administration.

Digitisation must lead to digitalisation

Historically, SA’s dominant focus for digital government formation has been on automation. This is a necessary process by which analogue and paper-based processes in government are digitised. Once digitised, such information and processes have the potential to contribute to the digital transformation (digitalisation) of government.

In addition to the focus on automation in government, there have also been a few large-scale investments in systems aimed at the consolidation of databases into standardised single platforms such as the automated biometric identification system (Abis) and the home affairs national identification system (Hanis). The integrated justice system (IJS) brings together eight departments, agencies and authorities in the criminal justice value chain to produce an integrated digital platform to manage the information exchanges across the criminal justice system.

The effective formation of such digital platforms requires, among other things, integration across individual departmental boundaries, which represents a significant challenge to organisational autonomy, accountability and inter-operability. While the technical infrastructure is available to link systems across organisational boundaries through networks, the institutional infrastructure — including incentives, procedures, and cultures that underpin the required inter-operabilit — needs much greater attention.

The barriers to integration exist mainly because the design of government is based largely on the outdated Weberian model of state organisation developed in the 18th century, not allowing for the greater flexibility needed today. In this model, governments are arranged as organisational units concerned with the provision of services to meet specific needs, such as education, healthcare and welfare, or support for economic sectors, such as agriculture, mining and various branches of industry.

This organisation is framed by a reductionist and rationalist worldview, in which problems can only be understood by reducing them into elementary building blocks that can be addressed independently. Sectoral interests and practices thus dominate government programmes, trapping them in modes of operation that are confined to narrow, sectorally focused approaches to problem-solving. This limits the flexibility necessary to respond to continuously changing ways of living and doing business.

In this next period, the major challenge for the government is not the technical infrastructure, but instead, the re-organisation of the institutional arrangements that make possible a citizen-centric approach to policy-making and service delivery. Yet, it is the re-organisation, interconnection and integration made possible by networked digital infrastructure that policy makers least consider in the organisation of the state.

The path to a digital government is not without risk. Privacy, data integrity and cyber-security are some of the key risks on this path. These risks need to be weighed up against the capabilities afforded by new and, at times, disruptive, digital technologies. But can SA afford not to take advantage of the capabilities afforded by digital technologies in the re-organisation of government?  Rehashing a mode of organisation fit for the 20th century is unlikely to enable government to cope with the complex governance and service challenges of this century.

The composition of the Cabinet and the next administration provides a first opportunity for considering how to embed new modes of organisation in the form of post-Weberian networks, ecosystems and platforms, to inform the future organisation of government. Not taking this opportunity will, in future, come to represent the road not traveled towards effective structuring of government administration and service delivery, for addressing inequality, poverty, sustained low economic growth and unemployment.

Dr Lucienne Abrahams is director at the LINK Centre, Wits University; and Mark Burke is a visiting researcher and convenor of the Frontiers of Digital Government Programme: LINK Centre, Wits University. This article was first published in Business Day.