Charles Omole, CEO, Prodel Global Services

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The essential role of e-government in post-Covid-19 Africa 14 Jul 2020

In my last column in the June 2020 edition of this publication, I explored the imminent structural shifts that will take place in the business landscape across nations post-Covid-19. I explained the changes that the pandemic has necessitated and how businesses in Nigeria and other African countries can exploit the opportunities provided to grow their economies. In this piece, I will look at how the same structural shifts would impact governments across the continent generally, and particularly in Nigeria.

From time to time, certain events occur and they change the shape and trajectory of global activities in epochal ways. For instance, after the Second World War, the British government realised it could not be business as usual in the way it governed. That period entrenched the welfare state system and the National Health Service was founded. These institutional structures have transformed the United Kingdom and they are still pillars of the nation’s self-assurance till today.

Covid-19 calls for similar fundamental change across the nations of the world, especially in Africa where Nigeria is a leading nation. The ways by which governments in this region have been working would need to change if economic growth and development are to take hold in Africa.

In the late 1990s, I led a team of consultants that went from one European capital to another, advising and overseeing the implementation of the e-government (electronic government) initiative that was being rolled out all over Europe at that time. The aim of the initiative was to move all government services online. The strategic objectives of the e-government programme then was to transform the delivery of government services through a number of steps, including developing new websites to become self-service tools, replacement of high-maintenance legacy systems, and movement of personnel from back-office functions to front office.

These changes were made with the aim of improving the quality of government services, increasing efficiency in public sector and achieving “cashable savings” for governments. This wave of reforms that swept across Europe more than 20 years ago is about to hit Africa and Nigeria especially, going by my projection.

The quality of service delivery in Africa’s public sectors needs to improve post-Covid-19. The need to reduce waste, improve efficiency and the imperative of some civil servants to work remotely (due to ongoing social distancing policies) will conspire to force a change in the performance of the Nigerian government in the coming years. Although some public sector agencies have already embraced the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to carry out their activities and processes, e-government will become more established in Nigeria as a matter of necessity.

The idea that citizens have to travel and physically visit government offices to procure government services is old-fashioned. To contain the spread of Covid-19 in the absence of a vaccine, social distancing policies would be best served if government services were provided to people remotely as much as it is possible to do so. This should necessitate the actualisation of e-government.

One of the backbones of any e-government programme is an electronic document and records management system (EDRMS). Implementing this type of content management system requires the digitisation of historical records as a prelude to moving services online. The tasks needed to create the digital archives will create thousands of new jobs across the nation. It will also create a new digital job explosion in Africa as a technologically literate workforce will emerge.

Although governments would get smaller through loss of analogue jobs, a new digital economy will be created. The government would need to implement policies to support the retraining and reskilling of citizens to enable them take advantage of opportunities in the digital economy.

Nigerian and African governments will also need to rethink their infrastructure drives. By this I mean the emphasis on some physical infrastructure programmes will have to change. In Nigeria, government’s thinking as regards infrastructure is mostly about roads, electricity, airports and occasionally rails. While these are important; I believe the priority should, henceforth, shift to a focus on promoting the digital economy that will support e-government initiatives.

This will make internet access a major priority of the government. Internet connection needs to be much faster, cheaper and more widespread for the digital economy to thrive. While good roads are important; affordable and faster internet connection will allow more Nigerians to transact businesses online and thus reduce the need to be on the roads.

However, electricity is a critical infrastructure needed to support a digital economy and realising the benefits of e-government. The need for the government to rethink its infrastructure investment priorities is for the purpose of having an infrastructure mix to promote the digital economy of the post-Covid-19 dispensation. For this reason, electricity is a key part of that mix.

The widespread adoption of electronic government will not only impact citizen-to-government relationships positively; it will also positively impact how government prosecutes many of its functions. Take security, for instance. Nigeria still fights insurgency and terrorism using outdated strategies. While Nigeria still uses a large number of foot soldiers for its anti-terrorism campaign, this is different from the global best practice, which is based on intense electronic warfare and smaller but agile boots on the ground who are supported remotely with the use of digital tools.

Modern counter-terrorism requires the use of drones, electronic eavesdropping and disruption equipment, among other tools. In an era of e-government, Nigeria’s national security and strategic plans will have to adopt the use of modern technological interventions.

Another advancement in technology that is driving a lot of changes to the tapestry and architecture of nation-states is the internet of things (IoT). This refers to the ever-growing network of physical objects that are internet-enabled and the communication that occurs between these objects.

The IoT is a concept that not only has the potential to impact how we live but also how we work. As broadband internet becomes more widely available, the cost of internet connectivity will decrease. This will enable more devices with Wi-Fi capabilities to become more integrated into people’s lives, workplaces and government establishments. We are on the cusp of a new world order in which Nigeria cannot afford to be left behind. The use of IoT by government institutions will enhance the collection and exchange of information and many other functions of government, including budgeting.  

Underpinning IoT is big data. Lack of big data analytics has made the management of Covid-19 a nightmare for many governments in Africa, including Nigeria, in terms of their ability to test for the disease, contract-trace people who are potentially infected and distribute relief materials to the most vulnerable citizens. In Nigeria, for instance, the government could not determine the number of poor Nigerians, thereby, leading to a disastrous relief response during this pandemic.

Post-Covid-19, African countries would need to prioritise investment in big data as data will become the new asset for governments. To achieve this, countries would need to end the system of working in silos. This system has been an epidemic in Nigeria – where many government agencies duplicate each other’s functions. It has also affected the production of usable citizens data in the country.

Allow me to illustrate this problem vividly. To register to vote, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) collects biometric data of citizens and keeps the data within its organisation. The same data is collected by the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), the Nigeria Immigration Service, banks, telecommunication companies and the National Identity Management Commission.

We are told that the next national census may also involve the National Population Commission collecting biometric data of Nigerians. Can you see what is wrong with this picture? Why are the data of Nigerians replicated across several government agencies and private companies? Part of the role of big data is to improve efficiency and decision-making. This cannot be achieved without having a coordinated data collection and storage system.

Under an e-government system, driven by big data, governments will need to harmonise disparate databases for optimal decision-making. Working blind always leads to bad policies and aids corruption. Hence, it should go without saying that one of the key benefits of e-government is that it will help the Nigerian government in its anticorruption campaign.  

So far, we have examined how Covid-19 is precipitating shifts in business and governance. In my final piece of this trilogy, I will be looking at the Covid-19-induced structural shifts among individuals. What changes would individuals need to make in the aftermath of this pandemic? I will be looking at the changes that I believe citizens would have to make to adapt to the realities of the new world. I will also explore how the pandemic has affected individuals’ sense of responsibility and survival.