Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Digitalisation can help boost Botswana’s ebbing productivity levels and thus enhance competitiveness

For over a decade now there has been talk about getting Botswana government digitalized. That has not happened. Even in some crucial ministries we still have officers who have no access to a computer, much less to internet. More embarrassing is the fact that we still have permanent secretaries, ministers and indeed parliamentary backbenchers that are computer illiterate. The situation is worse at Local Government level where we still have Councilors that have never seen the inside of a classroom.

A computer is to them an alien instrument. In Government a computer is still considered a luxury if not counted among the trappings of power. With such pervasive digital and computer illiteracy in our public system is it any wonder that our public service is among the least when it comes to productivity. The story of digitalization in Botswana is a story of a promise unfulfilled. It has not been without costs. Money was released by parliament for purposes of e-Government, but never unaccounted for. And in here we are talking of millions. For a government that has prided itself with fighting corruption, the story of the missing e-Government millions, is a story that will go down into history as a glaring example of untold incompetence. While it is important that the millions that were meant for e-Government are recovered one way or another, what is even more important is that there is need for a new plan that would aim at vigorously overhauling information and the way of doing business inside Government.

In short there should be a clear digitalisation master plan inside Government. Increased productivity is by far the surest bet to revive and revitalize Botswana’s economy. And in the same, digitalisation is by far the surest path towards productivity. Elsewhere it has been found that digitalization, other than enhancing the quality of work, actually could improve productivity by between 25 to 30 percent. That is exactly what Botswana needs given the sagging economy on account of declining mining revenues. As it is, if such a plan is adopted, its key feature would include retraining a sizeable portion of the public service. Such retraining would in the long term ensure that the country’s workforce is deft at adapting to new technologies and indeed to new trends. At the moment we have a rigid workforce that is not only resistant to change, but is also acutely hostile to such new ways of doing things. Digitalisation should not only be confined to Government.

It should start at schools. And the private sector, by no means among the most productive in the world should also do their bit. As it is the private sector is too weak to go full throttle towards achieving required levels of digitalisation. One way to help the private sector might be establishing a fund, which can only be accessed by meeting a certain threshold. There are cost implications. But coming up with such incentives is important given what benefits the country stands to gain from digitalization. For as long as our education system does not embrace the use of computers as an integral component, it would be wishful to suppose that the work world could be the starting point. Digitalisation of Government, by its nature is likely to have a spillover effect in fast-tracking industrial development.

Here Government does not have to go far but look at what the Botswana International University of Science and Technology is already doing. BIUST is in a very big and deliberate way commercializing what its professors and students are doing in its laboratories. The university is putting to practical use what ideas were in the past left to gather dust in specialised journals. That by the way is just what are universities have long been doing in other countries. Companies have been started and are now thriving including employing people by just putting to practical use ideas that started as incubators in laboratories. Faced with an economy that is fast losing its dynamism, Botswana Government has been flapping around for new ideas to kick-start the economy.

There is consensus that the era of a resource reliant economy is gone ÔÇô certainly for good. And that the future will be based on ideas. There is also consensus that unless the country’s productivity levels increase significantly, there is simply no way the economy will be restored to the kind of growth levels we had become used to and had come to take for granted. Such productivity, we cannot reiterate strong enough is only possible if aggressive measures are put in place to go digital in every sphere of our economic production ÔÇô be it manufacturing or service; public or private.

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