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When it comes to SA employers, no-one plays a bigger role than the state. It employs more than 1.3-million people. Alongside the bureaucrats most of us think of when we picture state employees, that number includes teachers, nurses, doctors, municipal workers, police officers and military personnel.

The public sector pay bill was R665.1bn in 2021/2022, and is expected to reach R702bn in 2024/2025. Most taxpayers would not object to absorbing this expenditure if it meant improved service delivery. But it does not. Even when public sector professionals put in their best efforts, they are limited by antiquated working patterns, ineffective IT systems and a slow digitalisation deployment.

One of the many factors contributing to these constraints is widespread concern that digitisation will result in job losses. But this does not have to be the case if the necessary skills are present. In fact, contrary to popular belief, digital transformation has the potential to create new job possibilities.

Several parts of the government have been slow to adapt to digital change. While we should be cautiously optimistic about the state’s desire to work with experienced tech companies, the overall picture is bleak. The National Planning Commission released a report, “Digital Futures: SA’s Digital Readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, which illustrates just how dire things are. The state appears to have suffered catastrophic institutional failure regarding digital transformation. Moreover, there is an obvious lack of competence.

It was determined in 2021 that 62% of municipal councillors lacked the basic computing abilities required to implement municipal budgets. For example, the department of employment & labour’s temporary employer/employee relief system (Ters) has often been described as “more down than operating”. As demonstrated by Transnet’s collapse in 2021,  the government has not only failed to embrace digital transformation but has left itself open to attack.

Some people are actively attempting to avoid digitising because they are afraid it will cause job losses. At its worst, this fear can lead to people destroying technology. For example, within two weeks this year, Johannesburg was subjected to two computer and hard drive attacks.

The nature of the incidents at the time was a strong indicator that residents were opposed to a proposal to digitise building blueprints

According to Johannesburg mayoral committee member Belinda Echeozonjoku, the nature of the incidents was a strong indicator that residents were opposed to a proposal to digitise building blueprints. Even if this is just one case, it is apparent that similar resistance is slowing digitalisation countrywide (not just in the form of vandalism but also in the failure to accept new technologies and processes).

All of these incidents and indictments have occurred as the government prepares for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Is it possible for 4IR to be realised without the company’s own staff embracing digital transformation? How can the state attract foreign investors and encourage young South Africans to become digital-first entrepreneurs if it is not digitally transformed?

To overcome these worries and other challenges, public sector workers must understand that offering secure, streamlined experiences tailored to citizens’ needs is in their own self-interest.

The better and more efficient service delivery becomes, the more appealing SA becomes to domestic and international investors. With a stronger economy and lower unemployment rate, the tax base will be higher, allowing more money to be spent towards public sector programmes. There thus will be more jobs, not fewer.

Individual departments can alleviate concerns that digital transformation will cause job losses by ensuring that everyone has the skills required to benefit from new technology. After all, if you grasp how something works it becomes significantly less frightening.

Departments can greatly ease the transition to digitalisation by selecting the appropriate technology such as the following:

  • Thanks to specialised self-service portals that authenticate profiles, it is now possible to secure access to useful, helpful information and collaborate with others. Personalised portals for residents and government officials alike can increase confidence and improve mission outcomes.

  • Protected, customised intranets enable employees to find the information they need when they need it. Secure, modern intranets help employees better manage their benefits and career planning, allowing for higher satisfaction and better employee retention.

  • The best websites appeal to citizens, improve user experience and boost engagement. Ideally, a site should provide appealing and efficient web experiences that solve the user’s problem in a single location. 

For these changes to be effective, however, they have to be implemented right now. This is not something that requires a commission of inquiry, followed by a report that sits on a desk for months before any action is taken. SA needs improved service delivery if it is to have any hope of quelling the groundswell of frustration among its citizens.

We know digital transformation is one of the best ways of achieving this, especially when it takes a citizen-first approach. If people fear that their jobs will be at stake as a result, they must be convinced that in reality the opposite is true. 

• Gatherer is account manager at software company Liferay Africa.


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