CTIN latest activity: Increasing awareness on the use of civic tech to digitalise local government
We recently shared our insights on interesting initiatives that aim to link people to governance processes in inclusive ways and to share our experiences and insights on digitizing governance processes.
CTIN recently participated in a session by South African Cities Network’s Built Environment Integration Task Team (BEITT) which is having a series of conversations to discuss and brainstorm ideas around the role of cities in post-COVID-19 recovery. This particular session was focused on “digitizing” local government and its processes. It focused on understanding how this can be achieved in inclusive ways by exploring practical experience and examples. What would radically transformed local government systems post-COVID-19 look like?
The themes of the Post-Covid19 Recovery sessions, including digitising local government, were raised by the BEITT team practitioners as areas they feel these themes are critical during this time and need more attention.
The participants were development and planning officials from South African metro governments, and the invited speakers were from CTIN (Geci Karuri-Sebina — National Organiser, and Melissa Zisengwe — Project Officer) and the World Bank (Collen Masango). In the main,the discussion focused on three questions which were framed by Dr Sandile Mbatha of Research & Policy Advocacy in eThekwini Metro:
- Why has it taken us so long to digitize, and what continues to keep us second guessing this process?
- How can we include communities in the digitization process?
- How do we determine where to start?
Slow progress: Why has it taken us so long to digitize, and what continues to keep us second guessing this process?
Geci offered that one of the reasons why digitizing local government has taken so long is because a whole range of issues have been conflated in the agenda, leading to a lot of complication which has avoided the possibility of taking baby steps — an approach which several international lessons point to, including from the experience of Cape Verde which today is a continental leader in e-government. Specifically, she explains that we have not even properly distinguished between digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation, and have ended up pursuing varying and inadequate extents of each across our cities.
“We have mixed them all up and missed an opportunity to be more incremental about these processes. As a consequence,we haven’t managed to adequately put the basics in place- which would be the basic efficiencies enabled by digitisation,” Geci says. She suggested that “Digitization, digitalization and digital transformation need to be distinctly understood. Generally, digitisation refers to converting previously analogue data, docs and/or processes into digital format — e.g. scanning paper documents or recording sessions. While digitalisation is more about how we automate current business processes using digital data and technologies — e.g. paperless systems or e-registrations, and digital transformation is the more radical change or modernisation of our business processes, models and culture — such as moving to full e-production or e-governance where things may actually be done quite differently.
Collen, who comes from a long history of working in the metro environment, says across different cities there have been different ideas and products sold to them by vendors for digitizing local government. This leads to cities becoming boxed into one solution because that is what they are familiar with. Another challenge with digitizing government is that different departments use different ways to share data, and they can have completely different processes. He agreed with Geci saying, “we have over complicated so many issues that could have been simplified. In some cities the ICT unit doesn’t even know what the innovation unit is doing.”
Another challenge, Collen offers, is that city officials tend to personalise the issue of digitizing government. “We agree that everyone needs to automate, but because there are certain officials responsible for certain processes, they will make it about themselves and that has been our experience. The automation is stifled by individuals’ personalities.”
What’s missing: How can we include communities in the digitization process?
One of the major challenges with digitising local government or government in general is that the communities tend not to be included in the processes of innovating the services they have to use. Perhaps governments on any level should look at local formations who can assist with government digitalisation efforts. We need to think about the fact that there are effective practices and innovations and understandings that are already out there; it is not a blank slate and there is a lot that can be leveraged endogenously.
Another discussant explained that one of the issues with innovating in or from government is that the process will require going through a lengthy and onerous procurement process. Therefore the government tends to opt for solutions from big companies such as Huawei because they would have large-scale solutions and corporate capabilities that they can engage with more easily.
We need to make sure the public sector isn’t saddled with unnecessary barriers of entry. It is pointless to talk about going smart before we deal with simple, local issues. It is also pointless to have all the smart technology but that is too complex to use in the current environment. Government could look into adopting some of the existing local civic tech solutions that people are already familiar with. Examples were given of such low-tech, but highly innovative and effective solutions — e.g. Govchat which uses WhatsApp to connect South Africans and the government. Government solutions should be mindful of the level of digital literacy and access in the country, and the technological solutions should meet people where they are.
It was proposed that we can actually counter the fear of exclusion and ensure greater participation through the purposeful use of the new technologies. We can democratise DATA by opening it up to everyone, focus on expanding ACCESS to ensure that everyone can access the platforms and the processes, and VOICE to ensure that everyone can participate and contribute to decision-making equitably.
Starting Point: How do we determine where to start?
A city official shared some thoughts on where we can begin to digitalis local government: “Part of the big problem is that the procurement processes are not watching the right issues in local government… The procurement systems are not enabling local innovation or finding value for money, and cities do not have negotiators that can bridge the deals.”
It was reiterated that another big challenge for cities now is in ensuring that ALL voices come through, and that this is preceded by access. “We want to balance socio-political imperatives with solutions that respond to our problems. How do we balance getting solutions locally with also considering tech companies internationally that can also provide relevant technologies? Local governments have been giving digitalisation a stab but we haven’t fully embraced it.”
Melissa pointed out the importance of institutional innovation, offering that “we cannot change anything with new tech when the old systems remain the same; we need to go beyond the current capabilities in government. When you see tech that’s working, build on it… If you don’t understand your own capabilities, the tech can’t save you.”
Geci suggested that we recognise that there are places much closer to us that we can learn from; for example Cape Verde has half a million people living on 9 islands — all very different from SA, yet their e-governance could be a case study for us to look at and learn from: “You start from the people you have by understanding your capabilities and limitations because if you don’t understand those, the tech cannot save you. We must understand who we have access to, what’s important to us, and what we can and can’t do. You start from the people you have (or can get; in the case of Cape Verde they were very effective in tapping into their diaspora), not the technology that is out there. But having said that, just because we haven’t achieved digital literacy doesn’t mean that we can’t build it. We just need to decide that it matters. Wits School of Governance and other institutions and bespoke programmes are already offering data and digital literacy training for people charged with public and private sector governance.”
COVID-19 has shown that the rulebook is not cast in stone! On an organisational level, there is a need to drastically transform local government itself, and technology can be an enabler — but there are clearly some chicken-and-egg issues between technology, public sector capabilities, and community inclusion.It is clear that South Africa needs a digitalised — and digitally transformed — local government, however these processes should not (and need not) result in a widening the current digital divide.