South Africans are no strangers to the frustrations of dealing with the government. From queuing for hours to apply for driving licences and passports, to waiting for months for unabridged birth certificates and the finalisation of deceased estates, we all regularly experience frustration and bewilderment when interacting with government bureaucracy.

While these examples may be mere inconveniences, state inefficiency and incompetence can be much more costly for many South Africans. In the context of hospitals, for example, ineffective mismanagement quite literally costs people their lives. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

After independence from the USSR in 1991, the Estonian government rigorously pursued a policy of ensuring good quality and cost-effective public service provision, in contrast to the corruption and bureaucratic inefficiencies of the Soviet era. At the time, its GDP per capita was a paltry $100, compared with SA’s $3,285. Today, Estonia’s GDP per capita is $22,986, compared with our unimpressive $4,736.

Estonia achieved this by digitalising as much as it could, an approach that was cheaper and quicker than revamping old, analogue record-keeping systems and physical offices. Today, more than 99% of Estonia’s public services are available online, with only three legal transactions — marriage, divorce and the sale of immovable property — requiring any in-person interaction with the bureaucracy. The result is a highly efficient state that has built a thriving and resilient economy since independence, with low unemployment and a high human development index.

South Africans urgently need a public service that works for them. Digital technology has made this easier than ever before, and our government must grab the possibilities that will enable it to govern with purpose — before we are left stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Adam Craker, CEO, IQbusiness

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