The idea of a digital state in which different areas of government digitise data and collaborate to provide services to citizens has been a long-stated ambition of the SA government as part of its push to embrace the fourth industrial revolution, but now it is more important than ever.  

Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, digitisation is a must-do public health imperative that is likely to save many lives. In fighting the coronavirus, governments around the world are now sharing best practices to respond effectively to the pandemic.

One of the most important ways of combating the outbreak is to track and trace those who are or may become infected. This is a priority initiative by governments in developing and advanced economies.

We must ensure that public workers are well equipped to provide digital services.  

Since SA has long had Rica (Regulation of Interception of Communications Act) requirements to register SIM cards, the health authorities have the potential to better understand the movement of the virus without having to develop a new system from the ground up. However, it is important to balance the utility of using cellphones to monitor the spread of the virus and the need to protect privacy.

Cellphones are so widely adopted in SA that they are the most vital tool in enabling the digital economy, allowing us to bypass many fixed infrastructure challenges. This public health digital use case should be leveraged by other areas in government to foster wider and more effective service delivery.

Cellphones should be leveraged not just for tracking but for two-way citizen engagement so that people can interact with public health services to not only receive health advice but also to  pre-screen and submit questions and express their health concerns.  

This model could also be used for many other interactions with the government, such as receiving quick financial support, and would greatly reduce the need for long queues and endless forms.

EY in India has developed an app that is proving a boon in managing the spread of the coronavirus. It allows people to do a quick health check on themselves and get medical advice directly from the government, while real-time infection tracking means the government can inform its citizens of high-risk infection areas.

It is an example of how the government can facilitate two-way communication to help its citizens, many of whom live in similar disadvantaged environments to South Africans.

We must ensure that public workers are well equipped to provide digital services. The question is how to ensure state employees offer these services to citizens. They must be equipped with laptops, wi-fi and the software to enable them to serve the public on their terms. The public sector can take a great step forward by modelling its working methods on the private sector businesses that are already doing this.

We encourage the government to formulate a national digital strategy detailing how it plans to deliver efficient and accessible public services while optimising the citizen experience. The ultimate goal is not merely government transformation but a wider societal transformation that produces better outcomes for all.  

Government departments, agencies and local governments must drive digital transformation, both within their own organisations and by collaborating with other agencies. And businesses, entrepreneurs, universities, non-profits and citizens themselves must be willing to pool their knowledge and resources.

The government must work hard to break down silos and achieve data sharing between different systems, databases and registers to provide one-stop access to public services.

Government platforms should be configured to slot into the services of any agency, supporting a range of applications and services such as identity management, payments, messaging and notifications. Leveraging a single citizen identity database for all services identification (public and private) would greatly reduce fraudulent identity use and data storage capacity requirements across the ecosystem.

The US, UK, France and Australia, have created a centralised digital service or transformation office to lead their efforts. This approach should be adopted by emerging countries such as SA as they provide a single framework and digital services adoption blueprint to guide the ecosystem (both public and private) on the digital journey.

The government should ideally engage and incentivise private businesses to help deliver the necessary digital infrastructure, train a digitally literate workforce, and enable secure access to digital services.

• Hlophe is EY partner and Africa region government and public sector leader, specialising in digital transformation.  

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