Minister of Digital Transformation Hassel Bacchus.
BitDepth 1365 by August 1, 2022
The problem with the adoption of public service technology is a governance problem.
To truly understand the challenge, it is important to consider how Trinidad and Tobago is governed.
A political party, like a company, works like a living organism, mobilizing around its reason for being.
For living beings, it is the continuation of life. For business, survival is defined by profitability. For a political party, it is acquiring a majority of votes.
As with living things, this is not a hard line.
For human beings, there is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which codified a scale of desires that go beyond basic survival and reach to the foundations of civil society.
A party in power has two responsibilities, to govern the country profitably and to ensure its permanence in power.
To ensure that there is a balance between these often divergent ambitions, the practice of governance is filtered through the public service; a permanent institution that is expected to provide non-political advice on government proposals and to execute its programs.
That process, inherited from this country’s colonial overlords, has often been constrained by bureaucratic process, meant to provide checks and balances, albeit with little publicly visible transparency and accountability.
By the second oil boom, between 1999 and 2008, impatience with delays in public service delivery and the perception of a stagnant bureaucracy led to the creation of quasi-governmental agencies that existed outside ministries and an increase in external consultants. which effectively replaced the role of senior civil servants.
Working as a public servant has long had the allure of tenure. There was little expectation of job satisfaction, and advancement was measured in decades and was usually unrelated to job performance, but the civil service was a lifelong career.
Unsurprisingly, the government is the largest individual employer in the country.
Every effort to transform the public service has resulted in total defeat while political interference has increased.
Digital transformation promises greater efficiency, empowering fewer people to do more work with more responsibility for delivering the work. This is a dramatic departure in thinking from the public service status quo and has been largely unpalatable.
Any serious digital transformation project will take years, maybe even a decade to complete. The challenge facing the government in digitizing the public sector is not that different from the task of creating the Point Lisas Industrial Estate.
But that happened under the PNM marathon race, between 1962 and 1986. Since then, no government has been guaranteed anything beyond the five-year term for which they have been elected, resulting in a continued emphasis on short and medium term. project design.
Five years in office is really only three. The first year he dedicates himself to establishing himself and the last year he sells the value of the party’s business to the electorate.
To achieve long-term transformational goals, these projects must, with the agreement of the opposition, exit active government to become true public service projects with budgets and goals that are detached from the immediacy of political expediency.
The violently antagonistic relationship of the two major parties, the quiet disregard for public service, and the idea that permanent secretaries get the praise for transformation make that a remote possibility.
No government will say that major improvements in accountability and transparency are undesirable. A minister will never say no to digital transformation projects. The word does not invite the question, why?
Instead, you will hear detailed and vague plans, including the opening of community centers with WiFi.
A government that does not want to do something has many words, most of them populated with an impressive number of syllables, to achieve the same result.
In her speech at AMCHAM’s THIS conference in July, Public Administration Minister Allyson West asked AmCham to explain its requests for relief needed to develop a digital economy.
Should this be interpreted as an admission that your ministry does not have the resources available to assess these proposals in the context of government support for projects?
That particular speech offered a masterclass in problem recognition, pointing to a surprising future, implying that a great deal of effort was being made without identifying a single plan that could have an identifiable impact on the electorate.
Is it possible to continue with citizen participation when almost all the public arms of government seem committed to disregarding the client?
The lack of enthusiasm of successive governments for the enactment of procurement legislation (which was ultimately reduced to an acceptable form), the legislation required for electronic payments within government, and any technology initiatives that enhanced public scrutiny of governance will account for legal diligence and care.
TTConnect is in its third week of severely limited functionality. There is no explanation for the problems that have led to the collapse of the government’s only digital delivery arm.
Is any minister willing to come forward to explain why, after 30 months, an international vaccination certificate issued by this country only includes vaccines against covid-19?
How many different silos do the health records of the citizens of this country inhabit?
Any government TT can run with clearance. When that doesn’t happen, the wheels not only run out of grease, they quietly coagulate into submission.
When it comes to technology projects, there are companies that the government clearly wants to work with and others that they quietly sideline or endlessly thwart out of indifference or outright disinterest.
The scandalously underfunded Ministry of Digital Transformation will receive a US$120 million development loan from CAF, the Development Bank of Latin America, but has deftly married its connectivity goals with the Telecommunications Authority.
TATT has been investing in its multi-million dollar Universal Service Fund aimed at connecting remote areas of the country to build the Ministry of Public Administration’s TTWiFi project in 12 bus terminals and 23 public libraries.
That caused TATT’s spending on a project it’s not supposed to be involved in to increase by an allocated $55 million.
Is TATT a division of the Ministry of Public Administration or an independently convened telecommunications regulator?
TATT’s organizational charts do not assign any direct oversight beyond its board of directors to a line minister.
At the recent AMCHAM conference, Bernard Myerson, IBM’s Chief Innovation Officer, Emeritus, summed up his keynote address at this year’s summit with the words, “When in doubt, do it.”
When the government considers digital, the current thought process seems to go from delaying to not doing it and finally letting it die.