Mon | Sep 23, 2019

Technology in Focus | Jamaica pushes towards digital society goal

Published:Wednesday | July 24, 2019 | 12:05 AM

Imagine being able to visit one website to conduct all government transactions.

Jamaica is one step closer to that reality with the project, gov.jm, which is now available online in phase one of its development. The next two phases will be designed to be a one-stop shop and facilitate access to more than 200 government organisations via a single interface.

Other countries’ websites, such as gov.uk, provide a model for Jamaica to make interacting with the government a seamless experience. This is done by packaging backend services to meet the needs and convenience of everyone – from rural Jamaicans to members of the diaspora, overseas investors, and even public-sector workers.

However, this entails the digital transformation of government, which, as chairman of the National ICT Advisory Council Trevor Forrest says, is much more than a buzzword. He maintains that it plays a critical role to achieve efficiencies under the wider public-sector transformation process.

Phase two of the project is the hardest, Forrest stated, and consultants are currently working to develop a sustainable business approach, which will integrate all government services and different platforms.

“Phase two will also create a direct link to the services within the portal. Ultimately, we need to ensure that three mouse clicks away is the maximum it will take anyone to access the service they need, and we want to reduce that to two or one by the end of phase three,” said Forrest.

“Some ministries and agencies are themselves at varying stages of readiness and, over time, we will need to bring everyone up to a certain level. For example, the Tax Administration Jamaica [already] provides services online. Therefore, their operations are at a more mature state. However, there are agencies which are barely online with a website. They do not have online forms and need to be brought to that level,” he said.

Pay attention to real core

President of the Jamaica Computer Society and head of School of Computing and Information at the University of Technology, Jamaica, Dr Sean Thorpe, emphasised that “It is extremely important to realise that digital transformation on a whole and the initiatives that come with it – regardless of government, private enterprise or even educational institutions – must place a very high priority focus around people and the culture awareness on the use of ICT if we are to truly realise a digital society as observed in places like Estonia and otherwise. It would be an unfortunate mistake if all efforts are not expended to ensure a heightened educational awareness around this digital agenda.”

He cautioned that if the underlying ICT infrastructure is not put in place in a wholesome way to provide these digital services as a part of the daily processes, the Government would be paying lip service on achieving this necessary digital transformation.

“Interfaces and how people use them are vital, but the real core of a service are the processes and the people inside an organisation which support it. Therefore, more work must be done in the internal culture to ensure that organisations are ready to support these services. You can think of it being like a beautiful-looking new sports car, which looks beautiful, but without the right engine inside, it will not perform as its appearance promises,” said Thorpe.

“As ICT professionals, we want people to be able to trust us. Trust can only be built on reliable infrastructure which performs for them, whether they are clicking online or transacting in person. This is the same for digital infrastructure, such as a network of online services, as it would be with the physical infrastructure of a road network,” he explained.

Need to get all citizens to buy in

Another important consideration, Thorpe said, is to appreciate the profile of the different types of citizens to be served, that is, from the young to the old and the variances of responsiveness within these groups as it relates to ICT adoption.

He said that while the digital world has raised expectations generally, tech-savvy persons, especially millennials, will demand services which match their digital literacy and lifestyles. For other older persons, they might want a service that feels as close as possible to their more familiar analogue experiences.

“When getting it right, the public sector can actually lead the private sector,” Forrest says. “For example, ‘Live Chat’ was available on the website of the Jamaica Customs before the two telecommunications operators offered it as part of their customer service. However, the digital transformation which underpins services such as gov.jm actually becomes harder in the public sector.

“It is almost infinitely more difficult to achieve in government because there are certain constraints that do not exist in the private sector,” he explains. “The decision-making regimes in the private sector are quicker, where a guy gets up in the morning and says we have to do this. However, a lot more is required in government, because you are using taxpayers’ money, and there is accountability, the availability of resources, funds and people.”

Could cost billions

Added to those concerns is the factor of risk, and while a failed ICT initiative could cost a business millions of dollars, for government, that could, in a worst-case scenario, mean billions. Even the best-in-class gov.uk project was informed by lessons learned from previous ICT failures that cost billions in pound sterling.

“One aspect which will be troublesome will be the change in culture, as it relates to citizens. Government can do digital transformation, but building and hoping they will come will be another thing. We will need to bring the citizenry along with us, because they must trust and use those services, which leads you to the next buzzword, which is ‘digital society’,” noted Forrest.

“We need a policy which really speaks to what the Jamaican digital society will look like, and we don’t have one of those now, therefore, we need to define a policy around what it will look like. Why? Because a digital society is not just the technology; it is about touching every area of everyday life,” he explained.

Among other legislation relevant to digital society Forrest cites is the Data Protection Bill, for which a parliamentary joint select committee has being reconvened to review the recommendations received. Under the bill, Jamaicans will broadly fall into two categories: data subjects, whose data is collected; and data controllers, whose role in collecting and using of user data will entail responsibilities to safeguard that data.

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