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How tech is reshaping the public sector

There’s a long way to go, but Covid-19 is accelerating the adoption of tech solutions.
Any trepidation about a complete tech infrastructure overhaul can be countered by focusing on those tools that can deliver an immediate boost to productivity with minimal disruption. Image: Shutterstock

The public sector has been slow to embrace the IT revolution that has been adopted by the private sector, but that is changing.

SA ranks 84 out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business survey, having fallen from 34th a decade ago. Rankings such as these prompted the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) to deploy technology to solve the problem. The result was the launch of its BizPortal online platform which allows anyone to open a company in minutes, for R175. It also allows them to open a bank account, register for tax and with the Unemployment Insurance Fund and get a B-BBEE certificate.

BizPortal is able to achieve in hours what previously took weeks or even months.

This was no mean feat, requiring the CIPC to interact with databases hosted by the departments of Home Affairs and Labour, as well as the SA Revenue Service (Sars) and other data providers.

Imagine life without eFiling

Another example of technology being deployed to speed up public sector delivery is eFiling, a service launched several years ago by Sars, permitting taxpayers to submit returns online.

In August, Sars started rolling out auto-assessments to taxpayers. The revenue service is now able to complete your tax return based on third party data alone (such as IRP5 tax forms from employers, as well as medical aid contribution data and investment statements). The intention is to save costs associated with filing and streamline the process.

Sars has also announced that it is using artificial intelligence (AI) to help identify tax avoidance schemes, such as those where taxpayers earn rent from multiple properties without declaring this income.

The Department of Home Affairs has likewise attempted to reduce congestion at its physical offices by allowing passport applications, renewals and other services online.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg, says Sikhumbuzo Ngcobo, public sector director at Microsoft South Africa.

“The opportunities for vastly increasing productivity in the public sector and better serving citizens are massive. The Covid-19 lockdown has added a sense of urgency to the need to find ways to interact with citizens online. What might otherwise have taken years to accomplish in terms of technology adoption has now been done in months, or even weeks.

“Some government departments were able to introduce bots within weeks of Covid-19 becoming apparent, to help track and monitor infections. This opened many people’s eyes as to what else could be accomplished with some smart technology combined with AI.”

It is only a matter of time before South Africans should be able to renew their drivers and car licences from their mobile phones, says Ngcobo.

“We have seen government customers who have modernised their technology and tools very rapidly in response to new working conditions caused by Covid-19.”

Meeting the work-from-home demand

In response to the pandemic, many government departments deployed Microsoft Teams, migrated systems and data to the cloud, and found new ways to use cloud-based tools like Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Dynamics 365 to facilitate employee collaboration from home, adds Ngcobo. Now they are seeking new ways to provide, and even improve, public-facing services within this new environment.

The Covid-19 pandemic prompted a spike in demand for Microsoft tools such as Teams, which allows large groups to work remotely, interact with clients and manage complex tasks, all backed by high-grade security.

Microsoft was able to meet the huge rise in demand for Teams, which has more than doubled since the onset of the pandemic.

Ngcobo says public sector adoption of technology is driven by three dynamics:

  1. The need to modernise tech infrastructure to improve productivity and transparency;
  2. The drive for remote working solutions such as Microsoft Teams; and
  3. Enhanced citizen engagement.

Tight budgets and creaky legacy systems hobble efficiency in many public sector departments. There is also the fear of doing a complete infrastructure overhaul, given the disruptions this can cause. One solution is to focus on those tools that can deliver an immediate boost to productivity with minimal disruption. Microsoft Teams is a workforce-enabling tool with a full audit trail, all based in the cloud.

Perhaps the most powerful force driving tech adoption in the public sector is better citizen engagement, driven by demand from citizens themselves.

“What citizens want is convenience, and there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that public sector departments can pursue,” says Ngcobo. “For example, paying fines online, or renewing licences.”

When it comes to modernising systems around areas such as procurement, this is where technology is likely to pay for itself many times over.

“Many public sector procurement systems are antiquated, but once you start to embrace the possibilities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and AI, the cost savings are vast. We are able to build in fraud detection systems using AI, and to completely change the way the public sector is perceived as a service provider,” says Ngcobo.

“For example, small businesses often wait months for payment, and this threatens their survival. This is a relatively simple thing to automate so that the payment of invoices can be speeded up.”

Brought to you by Microsoft SA.

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A bit like the SABC is adopting digital migration, correct?

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