Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Serame seems unaware of ‘the system is down’

At the precise moment that civil servants in some government offices across the country would have been telling clients that “system e down”, the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Peggy Serame, was touting the virtues of that same system to the nation.

“Mr. Speaker, Government is working steadily to achieve a digital economy that is catalysed by Information, Communication and Technology (ICT), innovation and an agile policy framework. This will result in advanced electronic services, increased productivity and efficiency, as well as increased job creation, particularly for the youth,” said Serame when presenting her maiden budget speech.

Like the presidential state-of-the-nation address, speeches of this nature are celebratory in nature. On the other hand, the reality is that more than a decade after migrating its services online, the government has yet to harness the power of ICT in an optimal manner. The 2019 Social Progress Index proves as much. From a total of 149 countries which were surveyed, Botswana is ranked 97th for the Access to Information and Communications dimension and 133rd for the Access to Online Governance indicator under it.

Even without the SPI having to make this pronouncement, e-governance is clearly failing to do all the wonders that the nation was promised. System e down (Setswana for “the network is down”) has become the second national anthem in both the public and private sector. While citizens have been promised that they could interact with government officials online, that is actually still more aspirational than realistic. The result is that as they have over the past 56 years, most citizens still visit government offices and join long, slow-moving queues towards a service point whose network is prone to giving out periodically.

For some obscure reason, the situation has not stopped the national leadership from raving about something that members of the public are themselves still ranting about. In her speech, Serame announced plans to shift towards the use of Electronic Fund Transfers (EFTs) and Point of Sale (POS) transactions. On account of the latter, the use of cheques in Botswana will be discontinued on January 1, 2024.

“In order to ensure that this change is implemented seamlessly, the Bank of Botswana, in collaboration with the Bankers Association of Botswana, will implement a programme for consultations with stakeholders and the issuance of public notifications,” she said.

The fact of the matter though is that in some cases, cheque payment is much quicker and less cumbersome than EFT.

A University of Botswana study has shown that the achievement of e-government’s objectives are being frustrated by the following factors: low level of the internet penetration, telecommunications infrastructure constraints, lack of institutional framework supporting e-government, lack of allocated budget for e-government deployment, privacy and security concerns, digital divide, limited IT skills and training, cultural inertia over moving from paper based to e-based service and lack of citizen awareness and participation. With regard to cultural inertia, there are still civil servants who prefer and in some cases insist on communicating via fax machines than email.

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