EDITORIAL: State tech capacity out of sync with policy aims
The department of communication has an impossible dream
The department of communication’s latest policy on digital data, has laudable objectives but rests on the ideas premise that the government can legislate success and needs centralised control of functioning areas of the economy.
The communication department has its hands full thanks to the cash-strapped SABC and the Post Office, which are in a perpetual state of turnaround. The department now wants to take control of “data” by creating regulations and authorities to oversee the use of data. The policy, out for comment, explains that it aims to help SA benefit from the digital economy.
The government realises that big data — which could be anything from information on customer shopping patterns and credit data, road users’ driving history, the population’s health information or computer users’ search history — is valuable. It says that because data is the “central productive force in the digital economy, the SA government is compelled to play a more central role in the collection, dissemination and analysis of data”.
The government wants to run its own data-processing centre that would store large amounts of computing data from every government department, a service usually provided by the Amazons and Facebooks of the world. Such storage centres require huge electricity backup systems to keep cooling systems for servers running.
The reality is the government’s tech capacity is out of sync with the policy’s aims.
For example, the website set up by the Treasury to allow government departments to advertise tenders and improve transparency in the awarding process has not worked since mid-March, with no proper reason offered.
The SA Revenue Service (Sars) was caught out earlier this year when taxpayers could not use forms on its website as it relied on a piece of software called Flash Player that was discontinued, a full four years after the software-owner Adobe warned it would stop the programme.
Last week the department of education distributed software to schools used for the capturing of pupils’ marks more than a week late because of a technical issue, delaying the issuing of school reports. And the Sassa website’s pilot project for people to apply for grants online is on hold.
In this environment, the department of communications has created a policy proposing running an academy in artificial intelligence. It wants to walk before it can crawl. The policy states that the government must digitise all government documents, a move way overdue in a country in which most of the population relies on paper-based health records, less than ideal when SA is about to embark on a mass Covid-19 vaccination strategy.
The policy speaks to the vital role the state information technology agency (Sita) plays in helping departments, cities, and state-owned enterprises manage their own IT systems. It fails to mention the trouble Sita has. Sita presented a turnaround plan to parliament for March. The agency last announced a turnaround plan in 2013.
The most recent annual Sita report notes that since its inception in 1999, the average tenure of a CEO was 1.5 years. Many senior management positions remain unfilled with outdated government software, according to Sita’s own reports, which also complain of a lack of skilled staff.
Concurrent annual reports state Sita does not have sufficient capital for investment, with 80% of its budget going to the maintenance of existing computer systems. Yet the department of communications wants to run its own data analytics and storage centre. The policy also proposes that large private computing data centres must be set up outside Johannesburg and Cape Town to grow small businesses.
Is the department not aware that poultry producer Astral hauled the National Treasury and a Mpumalanga municipality to court for failing to provide reliable water and electricity supply to its Standerton business?
If many small municipalities have collapsed, why not create a policy suggesting companies such as Amazon set up infrastructure in small towns?
The policy, which corporates have to spend time and money to respond to, is written as if the government is entirely unaware of its inability to get the basics right.
Tech experts warned it could create a negative environment for IT investment in SA.
What SA needs are functional government websites, digitised health records and a regular electricity supply before it drowns the growing tech industry in red tape and proposes more committees funded by the taxpayer.
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