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Emerging technologies and the delivery of public services

The buzz these days is centred around the Fourth Industrial Revolution – or 4IR as it is colloquially referred to in the commercial, technology, automation and digitised space.

The use of artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, drones, 3D printing and self-driving cars, among others, and the endless possibilities and solutions these bring, are mentioned at every conference, workshop and in many newspaper articles.

Exciting happenings abound, from Tesla – formed by technopreneur Elon Musk – venturing into cars that not only drive themselves but have capabilities beyond mere transportation; to 3D printers designing revolutionary architecture and industrial manufacturing processes. Even more futuristic are robots and robotics capable of not only humanlike movement but increased intellectual capacity.

IBM’s Watson Computer has turned heads with its ability to diagnose complex medical conditions and bring technology to the forefront of healthcare and the provision of medical advice.

But what do these advances mean for governments and the provision of public services to large masses of the population in an effective, efficient and qualitative manner?

These considerations are particularly relevant in South Africa where the queues of citizens lining up to access public healthcare, Home Affairs’ services, business regulatory services, education or utilities seem to get longer with the passage of time.

Restructuring service delivery

Lessening the unproductive hours spent waiting for services that depend on archaic methods of delivery requires a new of purpose and vision. Ultimately, we need to restructure the delivery of services by the various departments and entities.

The endless possibilities presented by 4IR beg us to question how we can deliver services to our people more effectively to ensure we serve the populace in a constructive and dutiful manner, thus promoting ubuntu and creating a responsive, caring and socially acceptable public service.

How do we shorten queues, provide quality services, eliminate duplications in application information, reduce red tape and bureaucracy, reduce costs and, most importantly, speed up much-needed delivery?

How do we ensure this transformation impacts all departments, public entities, municipalities, state-owned entities, regulatory and judicial services and, indeed, government as a whole?

How do we enlist the knowledge embedded in the private sector to form collaborative partnerships with the public sector in a holistic, civic approach that ensures communities benefit from government’s New Dawn and Khawuleza urgent implementation strategies?

Electronification of services

Technology is a key that can unlock multiple public services using the latest emerging automation and digitisation infrastructure capability, as well as big data portals.

As government, we must strive for the electronification of services through E-government strategies and initiatives. We must seek to triangulate departmental and public entity data, which is currently contained in multiple databases, as a verification tool to produce necessary and required citizen documents, from the comfort of one’s home or office.

There are numerous trusted and verifiable data sources that can be modelled and cross referenced to develop efficient data streams.

The data sources are endless, from Home Affairs’ National Identification System database and biometrics, to the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission’s data on businesses, municipal electricity and utilities data, Deeds Office data, Master of the High Court data, cellphone/RICA data on addresses and identity verification, KYC data and certain tax registration and compliance data.

This is where new technologies play their part.

Artificial intelligence, blockchain and big data technologies can be used to verify, mine, analyse and store large amounts of citizenry data.

This can be accessed when the need arises, for example when applying for documents through Home Affairs; when verifying the holder of copyrighted work; when searching through company, trademark or patent data; and when applying for municipal services.

It could be used to make an appointment at a public healthcare facility and to ensure that your medical details are on hand. This will prevent people – especially senior citizens – from having to queue from the early morning hours to be seen by a doctor or at a clinic.

In today’s connected world, it should be easy to access all government services. Indeed, this must be the vision of an integrated government service.

E-government must strive to have a verifiable, trustworthy and single view of each citizen, enabling the auditable provision of multiple layers of government services at the click of a button. This could, for instance, be done using a cellphone/mobile application coupled with fingerprint or eye-scanning software.

Why should a citizen queue to apply for, pay for or access a birth certificate for a child or to renew a driver’s licence when the necessary data can already be found in existing data sources? If additional data is needed, why can it not be supplied from one’s home or office?

Blockchain registries of citizens should store data from multiple sources to be accessed or amended when required or upon application and documents should be delivered to citizens’ doorsteps through private services such as Takealot or Amazon.

Doctors in outlying or rural areas requiring blood services should be able to use their cellphones, coupled with GPS capability, to call on drones, dispatched by the South African National Blood Service, to deliver much-needed blood.

Estonia is leading the way through its E-Estonia technology, which has transformed public services. Citizens can vote online and 99 percent of all government-activated services are delivered through digital means. Doctors in Estonia can access their patient’s electronic medical records via blockchain technology. Having easier access to a patient’s medical history reduces the diagnostic time and allows for more informed decisions to be made.

Cloud-based computing

The South African Government, with its limited and stretched resources, should urgently plan to use cloud-based computing to offer more flexibility, which would deliver enhanced database and storage capacity, coupled with big data analytics. This would alleviate the challenges of upgrading traditional IT infrastructure that is facing public entities.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vision of Smart City technology will take visionary purpose, strategic public-private sector alignment and leadership will, coupled with bold advancements and decisions.

It would ensure that South Africa rises to meet the challenge of providing sustainable, progressive, infrastructurally sound, socially cohesive and advanced human capital capability to achieve a totally overhauled, economically viable country.

To make this happen, a consolidated approach is needed, with pillars of implementation being driven by bold leadership and with citizen advancement at the heart of all decisions and plans.

As a country, with increasing service delivery protests, rising inequality and an economy on the backfoot, we do not have the luxury of time. Our citizens demand action… NOW!

*Advocate Rory Voller is a Commissioner with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission.

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