straight to the point – from different points of view

COVID digitisation

COVID digitisation

Did you know that we have a Ministry of government laser focused on fully digitizing services to the public in sweet T&T? The Ministry of Public Administration and Digital Transformation is charged with the task of moving away from bureaucratic paper bound systems to efficient digital systems. More importantly, they are charged with the responsibility to build/acquire and implement digital solutions that enhance the delivery of government services.

Two key forces have been at play here. First we have the words of the current administration in two successive manifestos. They have heralded the advent of data driven policy and decision making. They have also made many statements discussing their drive towards a more digitized future (some key quotations below). Then there is the impact of the COVID19 pandemic. There can be no doubt that the pandemic has already accelerated a move to greater digitization, firstly with regard to meetings and group activity of various sorts and eventually we hope, to deeper digitization. We need only look at the report of the Roadmap to Recovery Committee for evidence of that thinking and statements of commitment.

I think it is then reasonable to reflect on what we have achieved thus far in our move to digitize both our public and private sectors. How has the government done against the goals they set for themselves? How have they done against international standards? How have they done against our expectations. Before trying to answer those questions we can set the scene by recalling some of the governments own statements.

This from the Minister of Finance – Imbert contends the ministry also has been mandated to create an electronic population register or E-identity for every citizen, to facilitate the data transmission to all agencies. He said this is expected to streamline processes, as well as identify and eliminate waste and duplication and inefficiencies.

The fiscal package also offered incentives for companies investing in technology with the establishment of a Tech Investment Fund and a special purpose Tech Promotions and Development Company.

A Tech Investment Fund and a Tech Promotions and Development Company will be established. The Fund will be available to viable tech start-ups and new tech businesses. It is expected that the new digital economy will transform all industries and be vastly different from the old economy,” explained the Finance Minister.

He added: “The allowance is set at 150 per cent to the cap of $3 million. A tax allowance will be given to businesses engaging in technology solutions and digitization. Incentives will go to businesses creating employment in technology industries.”

Have we heard anything since about this E-Identity? Well actually we did hear from our most promising and exciting local technology company WI-Pay that offered to deliver an E-Identity solution for free. This is a company in which Republic Bank has invested and which is in partnership with MasterCard. You could not get better credentials yet the result has been that we failed to accept their offer with no reason given publicly. Whats more, the company has been wooed by other islands to move their headquarters elsewhere, so attractive a proposition that they have become.

One presumes that we prefer to seek an E-Identity system at great cost from a foreign supplier. We lose both time and money as a result of such a decision. We should also be very clear that the E-Identity platform is at the heart of all other digitized services provided by the government. Without explanation from our leaders, we have delayed its design and implementation with disastrous consequences for the timeliness and appropriateness of this bedrock technology which in turn will negatively impact the delivery of all our other digitized services.

I am of the view that we have the best solution to the E-Identity challenge in front of us despite our rejection of WI-Pay. Along with a few colleagues I will be writing a special paper on the matter as we are all agreed that getting this wrong, as our leaders seem determined to do will have a catastrophic impact on our digitization efforts for years to come. We cannot afford that.

Now back to the Digitization Ministry and their impact. You would expect that such a Ministry would be a beacon of light and hope with respect to the promotion and use of digital technology in all its forms. That is why it is so disappointing to not receive a reply to two emails I sent to them. If the Digitization Ministry is unable even to reply promptly to emails from the public, what should we expect from other Ministries. I must add that I tried the phone in exasperation but after going through the switchboard got no answer.

A properly digitized Ministry would have records of all calls and other messages coming into the Ministry. It should also have records of who should have answered them and whether they did or not. Calls can be redirected when an officer is not at their desk. This is not at the cutting edge of technology. No Ministry should be excused for such pathetic service. I hope you understand what it means for the digitization thrust when the Ministry at the helm is unable to set an example with its use of basic digital technology.

T&T needs digitization to work. By their utterances, Ministers share that view. We need a step change in our leaders efforts and most importantly the results. I feel compelled to make a few suggestions today, some of which I will expand on in coming weeks.

The effort to constrain the pandemic has resulted in the wholesale, though unplanned use of some aspects of digitization with the impetus coming from the users. This has been most noticeable in the utilization of remote meeting and learning tools. There has also been an uptick in the use of the Internet to facilitate business transactions. Some of these changes will not be easily reversed and we should be planning for them in open discussions.

Those changes are rooted in technologies built in the first instance for social media. They are now ubiquitous and welcome. The other perhaps more important component of a public sector digitization initiative has to do with data. We have to develop new data capture methodologies and build systems that give much easier access to that data from remote sites but with adequate access control and security built in.

Whether in the public or private sector, the conversion and entry of masses of data is often the biggest challenge of digitization. It certainly was so during the latter part of the last century and the early part of this one when we had to covert legions of manual data to a digitized format.

I make the case today that documentation and understanding of all the data held across the entire public sector is the first and most important challenge to be faced in an effort to successfully digitize operations. There should be a team dedicated to that task starting now and reaching into every crevice of the public sector. Only then will we be able to design and build solutions fully capable of meeting our needs.

Without a data map for the public sector to guide us we will assuredly fail. That data map starts with the E-Identifier which will be discussed separately but will cover every aspect of government operations. Any talk of digitization without it is just more hot air. It is the beating heart of any digital organizational structure. The government needs to address it, and to commit the funds to do so, and do it now.

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