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Modern technologies are transforming economies, nations and organisations and redefining traditional business models and value propositions. Smart companies are adapting fast and leveraging powerful technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics to drive their business strategy and operational excellence, improve customer experience and outsmart competitors.

In their book Competing in the Age of AI, Harvard Business School professors Marco Iansiti and Karim Lakhani demonstrate how artificial intelligence and data analytics enable businesses to drive operational scale and learning, and overcome constraints associated with traditional operating models. Businesses that fail to adapt to this digital era go belly up. Governments elsewhere are also modernising and becoming digital. Our government too should embrace technology to modernise and improve its performance.

In his book Leading in the 21st Century, Tshilidzi Marwala, one of the foremost authorities on AI, calls for the country to position itself to benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). However, the government remains steeped in traditional models and practices and lags behind business and society in adopting digital technology. It is high time our government becomes digital to respond to the needs of the 21st century. Building a modern digital society and economy in SA should begin with digital transformation and the modernisation of government as a leader of society.

What then needs to be done to reimagine and transform the government from a monolithic traditional bureaucracy to a modern digital organisation to serve citizens better? The government’s digital transformation journey should begin with a clear digital strategy. The strategy should inform appropriate technologies to be deployed across different government functions and services. These could include AI, data analytics, blockchain, robotics, the internet of things, 3D printing and cloud computing. All applications, renewals and payments for government services, licences, permits, fines and other front-line services should be done on a single, integrated whole-of-government digital platform equipped with AI capabilities to authenticate all online transactions. Frontline customer service automation through AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants will facilitate a 24/7 service to the public and help with the management of citizens’ queries and complaints.

Such digital innovation will give citizens more convenient access to public services any time anywhere using their mobile devices. These technologies will also modernise the government’s antiquated systems and practices, leading to improved operational efficiency and better government planning. For example, the automation and optimisation of business processes and operational workflow will help reduce the administrative burden on officials.

In his media interviews, SA Revenue Service commissioner Edward Kieswetter has lauded the positive affect of AI and data analytics on tax collection and fraud prevention. Data has become a key asset to drive innovation and revenue opportunities in business. The government should also use data with the help of machine learning and data science tools to improve service delivery and public policy effectiveness.

This, however, requires the integration of existing data silos into a single government data platform for seamless departmental interfaces, including effective background screening, financial disclosure verification and fraud prevention measures.

Other measures are necessary for the government’s digital transformation success. First and foremost, the government needs to cultivate an enabling culture and break the current functional silos and bureaucratic mindset. Second, the whole-of-government approach is required due to the transverse nature of digital transformation. Third, a digital transformation unit should be created, led by a chief digital officer, to drive the overall government digital strategy. Fourth, the service delivery model should be re-engineered and aligned to an overall digital strategy. This should include the integration of various technologies to support both front-line services and back-end business processes across different government functions.

All of these will require the modernisation of the government’s IT function for effective digital service delivery. The need to upskill public servants with digital skills and attract new-generation skills cannot be overemphasised. These include machine learning engineers, data scientists, data engineers and cybersecurity experts to build the core capabilities required to drive modern digital government.

The government cannot do this alone and therefore requires collaborative partnerships and an ecosystem to foster greater innovation and the co-creation of digital public services. This should be underpinned by a sound governance framework to manage inherent risks, safeguard data privacy and security, promote ethical and social justice principles, and foster greater public trust and legitimacy of the system and its algorithms.

Still on governance, AI regulation should also be uppermost on the public policy agenda, but this is a topic for a different conversation. Mobile data should also become more affordable and accessible to bridge the digital divide and facilitate wider access to digital services while maintaining traditional service channels for citizens with no access to digital platforms. For better outcomes, the focus should be on improving both the transactional and operational efficiency of the government and bolstering public sector capabilities and innovation to improve public value and democratic governance.

The digitalisation of government services will go a long way in addressing bureaucratic pain points and improving public service efficiency, access and convenience. Government efficiency will also benefit the economy and contribute to the country’s global competitiveness.

Overall, digital transformation offers a compelling proposition to reposition the government for the future and bring about a fundamental shift in how it operates and delivers services. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; our government should learn from others. Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi has announced various technology-based measures to fight crime in the province. This is a step in the right direction. Our government needs to move with the times or it risks falling behind and missing out on 4IR opportunities and benefits.

•Dr Ramogayane is chief director: municipal performance monitoring & evaluation in the Gauteng department of co-operative governance & traditional affairs. He writes in his personal capacity.

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