Opinionista Ronnie Phala 10 July 2018

From Home Affairs to Smart Affairs – Ramaphosa’s design headache

To succeed with the massive undertaking of transforming into “a real cornerstone of e-government”, the Department of Home Affairs should not be saddled with the border management function. They provide the necessary technology, yes, but definitely not the personnel at the gate.

Where inside the cutlery cabinet at Tuynhuis does the President keep the bottle opener? That important tool of the kitchen trade which does not quite belong in any of the compartments. One we randomly place among the forks or spoons.

While the President is grappling with Cabinet matters of a different variety, and Home Affairs in the polity instead of the kitchen, the task of designing governance models presents similar, albeit far more bewildering, challenges. Like the bottle opener, some government functions just do not seem to belong anywhere.

For a long time one of the most awkwardly placed state entities in South Africa was the State Information Technology Agency (Sita), a technology implementation institution oddly placed under what is, essentially, the government’s HR department, the Department of Public Service and Administration.

As President Ramaphosa and his team begin to “review the configuration, number, and size of national government departments”, they will be pondering where best to locate entities such as Sita, Sentech, and StatsSA.

It is a delicate undertaking, no doubt, and demands of the practitioner a nuanced appreciation of politics, governance, delivery models, technology, and organisational architecture.

Companies faced a similar conundrum during the nascent years of Information Technology. The IT function was typically located under the finance department – simply because the first business systems were designed for recording and managing financial transactions.

IT consulting was the sole purview of the accounting firms, and the vestiges are still evident to this day in the older firms. This is a far cry from today’s companies, where the free-standing IT function is ubiquitous across the organisation.

Fortunately, the government ICT function is also coming of age.

The tiny country of Estonia and to a lesser extent Singapore are leading the way to the once-mythical Smart Nation – a nation “where people are empowered by technology to lead meaningful and fulfilled lives, through harnessing the power of networks, data, and info-comm technologies …” according to smartnation.sg.

A smart nation framework supports the provision of a range of government digital services, and smart contracts enabled by distributed ledger platforms such as the block chain.

Recent pronouncements by Minister for Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, suggest that the department is thinking in the right direction. In May the DHA launched the Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS), with the aim of transforming the department into “a real cornerstone of e-government”.

This is a solid foundation for a smart nation.

Though commendable, the department’s effort seems more like force-fitting the new into the old – taking a decisive leap forward, while doubling down on the border management function.

To succeed with the massive undertaking of transforming the department into “a real cornerstone of e-government, the DHA should not be saddled with the border management function. That would be akin to the IT department of a large conglomerate being responsible for checking in visitors at the gate. They provide the technology, yes, but definitely not the personnel at the gate.

What the DHA needs to do is to bundle the port control function with the mooted Border Management Authority, and ship it wholesale to the security cluster. Police already have a crucial role at border posts, and they’re quite adept at processing all manner of documents.

The restructured and renamed department should be the logical home for Sita, which currently resides under the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services. Ditto Sentech, Usaasa, Zadna and other ICT-related competencies within the DTPS portfolio.

The department can then focus on deploying a comprehensive suite of services to the burgeoning smart nation, without being weighed down by the ill-fitting border management function.

And what about big data and analytics? Isn’t it time StatsSA got a broader mandate and a new home? Is that too much, too soon?

No doubt the administration is seized with all these trade-offs and decisions, as they craft a new governance model for the Fourth Industrial Age.

I wouldn’t rush to pull the SKA radio telescope project into the Smart Affairs Ministry just yet. But who knows which intergalactic visas we’ll be issuing 50 years from now. DM

Ronnie Phala works with a startup in the FinTech space. He is writing an MPhil dissertation on innovative governance models driven by digital, analytics, and block chain, at UCT’s Graduate School of Business

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