Written by ITWeb Informatica
Sounds far too good to be true, in a country where service delivery is hampered by limited resources and a still-skewed distribution of those resources. However, there are some bright possibilities where e-government is concerned, and one of the brightest is directly linked to the cellphone, ubiquitous across all strata of South African society. That’s according to Joe Phago, Public Sector Chief Technology Officer at Business Connexion.
He points out that the adoption of cellular phones in South Africa – and indeed, across all of Africa – is unprecedented. “Just about every citizen of this country has a cellphone and knows how to use it. The presence of these devices in every home provides an unmatched opportunity for government to reach the citizen and start providing access to services more effectively and without the inconvenience of standing in queues.
Phago points out that examples abound in the private sector of how cellular technology has been adapted and adopted to improve service delivery. “The banks provide a great example; services are delivered on standard handsets, allowing customers to access their accounts, make transactions and communicate with their bank.”
Such examples break and prepare the ground for government to take advantage of an existing infrastructure which is practically universally used.
But while Phago has the vision for service delivery through cellphones, he adds that it should never be seen as a replacement for present ‘over the counter’ approaches. Again, he turns to the example of banks: “What cellphones present is an important additional channel, not one which supersedes or replaces existing methods for service delivery. The advantage is that it can bring convenience to the citizen, while the traditional over-the-counter interactions remain as an essential support mechanism.
From communication to much more
Pointing out that the service delivery protests taking place throughout the country have as a common characteristic a lack of communication between government and the citizen, Phago says the cellphone provides a ready solution. “Using a phone for its intended purpose – communication – is perhaps one of the simplest, yet most effective applications for government,” he notes. “SMS technology makes possible one-to-many communication which can allow government to reach citizens more effectively than ever before.”
Phago notes that mass communication is a difficult challenge, especially when reaching citizens who may be illiterate and who do not readily have access to the Internet, television or newspapers. “It is not that government isn’t making the effort; it is, through, for example, the Government Communication and Information System. However, despite that, many citizens are not getting the message; many citizens who almost certainly have a cellular handset.”
From this obvious application of cellular technology, Phago says a context can begin to be established in the citizen: that the phone is a link to government. Once this mindset is created, the door starts to open for more advanced applications and possible service delivery methods. “Many services require some sort of information access and then some sort of transaction between the citizen and the government department. Information exchange becomes very important when one considers that many services require some queuing and waiting; using the cellphone, it becomes possible for government to improve scheduling and to notify citizens when, for example, documents are ready for collection,” he explains.
For the citizen, Phago points out, this beats waiting in a queue all day long with the possibility of not achieving anything. “We know there are stories of people waiting to collect passports or ID books, for example, taking a day of leave to achieve this. It is not good for productivity and it adversely affects the citizen’s perception of government’s ability to deliver service.”
More advanced applications become possible as a consequence of two factors, Phago continues. One is the establishment of the context of the cellular as a service delivery channel. The other is the maturing technology of handsets and networks. “This is something which takes place almost as a standard effect of the ICT industry: we see even entry-level handsets today loaded with advanced capabilities such as EGDE and 3G connectivity. Meanwhile, developments in undersea cables and the deregulation of the telecommunications market is resulting in bandwidth becoming more and more affordable.
As the pieces fall into place, the possibility for citizens to interact, communicate and transact with their government become an increasingly viable reality.
He has mentioned it already, but Phago drives home the point about overburdened government departments. “We have to remember that there are now nearly 50 million customers which government is obliged to serve. It is therefore inevitable that there will be long queues in some departments as demand is great. By giving people the ability to self-service – and also by being in better contact with the citizen – government stands to reduce these queues substantially. That is a win-win situation. Government can reduce the cost of servicing each citizen, while each person will have an improved perception of service delivery,” he says.
Business Connexion, Phago says, brings not only an innovative mindset to creating viable mobile solutions for government to bear, but also a proven capability in delivering such solutions in the private and public sectors. “As an organization which works closely with a wide range of South African government departments and the private sector, we offer a proven capability for identifying and then enabling mobility solutions – for the benefit of government and for the benefit of South Africans,” he concludes.
Public Sector Chief Technology Officer Business Connexion