A few days ago, President Dr. George M. Weah presented his government’s five-year plan entitled: “Pro Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development” or PAPD. In presenting the “Plan” to Liberia and the World, President Weah wrote: “We cannot develop Liberia without good quality infrastructure and a skillful labor force. Therefore, over the next five years, my government will invest in high quality infrastructures including roads, affordable energy, air and sea ports, Telecommunication/ICT, housing, water, and sanitation.” From there on, you will notice that ICT through e-Government, has been included as one of the major drivers of the PAPD. Now, while this is not a novel development (the previous government made significant efforts and progress in this area), you can imagine how elated and excited a guy like me-who carries an unwavering passion for a Digital Liberia- must be!
Eight years ago, when I wrote my first book, “A Digital Liberia”, I discussed the topic of ELECTRONIC GOVERNMENT or e-Government in one of the chapters. At the time, a discourse on e-government was irrelevant because no one thought it would ever be possible in Liberia. Obviously at that time, I was a young man with great ICT aspirations for a country that didn’t really see ICT or e-Government as a priority. This attitude simply existed because we had just emerged from a prolonged Civil War, and the government had its hands full. Yet, my education and experience living in the Western world, forced me to believe that e-Government was the future approach to governance globally, and the ultimate paradigm shift that every Liberian government would adopt for accountable, transparent and better service delivery to its citizens.
Six years later in 2016, I would write my doctoral dissertation on e-Government in developing countries, with focus on the use of Open Source Software in Liberia’s e-government program. At the time, I served as the project manager of a World Bank funded e-government project (eLiberia) at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. This project was able to set the stage for a robust e-government program and begin the development of platform (e-Portal) that would provide a “one-stop shop” for the delivery of all government services via the internet. This platform would ensure that government services were delivered seamlessly online, in a secure, transparent and accountable way. Citizens on the other hand would take advantage of these services (payment of taxes, obtaining passports, birth/death/marriage certificates, etc.) at their convenience on a 24/7/365 basis.
So, why am I bringing all this up? FAST FORWARD! After doing a SPRINT read of the PAPD, I can safely surmise that the PAPD puts significant “gravitas” on the use of ICTs, especially on e-Government (govt’s service delivery to citizens through ICTs) and e-Governance (citizens use of ICTs to participate in governance). I posted on my Facebook page a few days ago, that I am extremely excited that the Government had included ICTs in its Plan, because it is high time that we jump on the proverbial “technology bandwagon”. After all, we can’t always be left behind!
Before going into my analysis, I noticed that the PLAN mentions NOVAFONE, an ISP/GSM company that does not exist anymore in Liberia, but conspicuously left out ICT Firms, who are the actual solutions providers. Perhaps that was just an oversight. Now, let me tell you what I gather from my “read” and what I suggest.
I believe that ICTs can be leveraged to achieve ALL four PILLARS of the PAPD. Let me expound: PILLAR ONE (1) talks about “POWER TO THE PEOPLE”. Here, e-Governance, e-Participation, etc., apply. PILLAR TWO (2) talks about ECONOMY AND JOBS. Here, ICTs can create jobs and improve the economy, if the environment is created, infrastructure is available and human capacity is built. PILLAR (3) talks about “SUSTAINING THE PEACE”. This brings about issue of cybersecurity, and the way we handle cyberspace. Our activities on the internet, especially the social media (Facebook, etc.), could bring about security issues. PILLAR FOUR (4) talks about GOVERNANCE AND TRANSPARENCY. Here, e-Government is suggested to reduce corruption and waste in Government. I speak of things like e-Procurement, e-Transportation, e-Tax payment, e-Asset, etc.
The PAPD acknowledges many of the challenges that we are faced with. But my attention was drawn particularly to the challenges we face involving the lack of ICT skills in the country. With all of the ICT and Technology schools that have been advertised for the past 10 or more years (and are still being advertised), I am confounded by the human resource deficit that endures in our ICT sector. What are we NOT doing aright?
The idea of e-Government and e-Governance will do wonders for Liberia if done properly or if done at all. But we will need to do certain things first, otherwise, the suggestion that e-Government can drive the PAPD will be just another idea put on paper that never gets put into action. Below, I have taken the initiative to proffer a few approaches to ensuring that e-Government and e-Governance are used to successfully drive the PAPD. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of recommendations, of course; but instead, it is a list that I believe can lead to the realization of a robust e-government platform.
- START from or build off what the previous administration left off;
- REVISE and take the existing “draft” e-Government strategy (that was developed in the past Government), to Cabinet for review and approval by the President. Everyone needs to be on board or it doesn’t work;
- The CHIEF INFORMATION OFFICE(R) is the “custodian” of the GoL’s e-Government program. This office MUST be empowered (given a seat at Cabinet), in order to “CHAMPION” the use of ICTs in Government;
- The CIVIL SERVICE AGENCY MUST incorporate the position of CIO at all GoL Ministries, Agencies and Commissions (MACs). These CIOs with the CIO-RL form the CIO Regime;
- The current “SILOED” systems that Government runs need to go away. It needs to be properly organized so that GoL can benefit from things like “ECONOMIES Of SCALE”. Currently, everyone is doing whatever he/she wants;
- STRENGTHEN LIPA to run an ICT-e-Government program to build the capacity of those managing the GoL e-Government programs;
- GoL has 55% shares in the ACE submarine cable. Ten percent (10%) is for e-Government, e-Education and e-Health. FIND WAYS TO USE IT;
- INITIATE a mechanism that incorporates ALL local governments in the e-Government program. Someone needs to “CHAMPION” ICT-e-Government in the rural areas too. This can help UNIVERSAL ACCESS—-Citizen’s participation;
- BUILD: A secure government network or what we once called GOVNET, SecureGovNet, or GovSecureNet, needs to be built. In addition, a NATIONAL DATA CENTER needs to be erected or something that resembles one needs to be put in place to house GoL’s data and applications/e-services;
- INITIATE an ICT for development (ICT4D) “Think Tank” or a “Technology Hub” the will house the best minds (local and Diaspora Liberians), students, et al. The task of this group is to come up with innovative ways in which we can use ICTs to develop our nation. This “group” will investigate and provide strategies and solutions for job creation through e-Commerce, e-Government, e-Health, etc.
The PAPD talks about connecting SIX GoL institutions, initially to represent the GoL’s e-Government platform. A GOOD START!!! But, without doing the things I mentioned above, I foresee major challenges in achieving real and sustainable e-Government/e-Governance platform. Please understand that I am not trying to be pessimistic, I am rather being realistic.
Finally, in his opening letter, President George M. Weah assures us that his government will invest in ICT and Telecom. The University of Liberia digital migration initiative was the first sign that the President means business about this. Let’s hope, the PADP’s “suggestion” to leverage ICTs transcends the document and puts us back on the track toward achieving a “DIGITAL LIBERIA”. Until next week, CARPE DIEM!!
By: Dr. Darren Wilkins ([email protected] | 0777129092/0886703789)