the The South African state is by far the largest employer in the country. It employs more than 1.3 million people, including teachers, nurses, doctors, municipal workers, police officers and members of the defense forces. Too often, the public sector has also been used to cushion the country’s shockingly high unemployment rate.
These employment figures also come at a significant cost. In the financial year 2021-22, the public sector wage bill reached R665.1 billion and is expected to reach R702 billion in 2024-25. In other words, while the government employs 13% of all workers in the country, it pays 33% of all salaries.
Of course, ordinary taxpayers would agree to foot that bill if it meant better service delivery. But that’s just not the case. Even when public sector employees do their best, they are constrained by outdated work models, inefficient IT systems and the slow rollout of digitalization. While there are a number of factors at play when it comes to these constraints, one of the most alarming is the pervasive fear that digitalization could lead to job losses. But with the right skills in place, that doesn’t need to be the case.
Unprocessed and scared
There is no doubt that many parts of the public sector have fallen behind when it comes to digital transformation. While there are some bright lights (the revamped SARS e-filing system comes to mind), the picture is largely bleak.
The report of the National Planning Commission (NPC) Digital Futures – South Africa’s Digital Readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution highlights just how bad things are. This suggests that there has been an overall institutional failure on the part of the state when it comes to digital transformation. There is also a very clear shortage of skills. In 2021, for example, it was revealed that 62% of city councilors lacked the basic IT skills needed to vote on city budgets.
Far more worrying, however, are the people who actively try to prevent digitalization for fear that the increased efficiency it brings will lead to job losses. At worst, this fear can cause people to destroy the technology. Earlier this year, for example, the city of Johannesburg experienced two attacks in two weeks in which computers and hard drives were damaged and destroyed.
At the time, Belinda Echeozonjoku, a member of the mayor’s committee, said the incidents were a clear sign of pushback against a digitization project designed to speed up the processing of building plans. This is just one example, but if there’s a similar pushback across the country (not necessarily just in the form of vandalism, but also in the refusal to adopt new technologies and processes), then it’s easy to see how digitization is being held back across the country. .
The need for long-term thinking
In order to overcome these fears and some of the barriers, it is important to ensure that public sector workers understand that it is in their own interest to provide secure and streamlined experiences tailored to the needs of citizens.
The better and more streamlined the service delivery, the more attractive South Africa will be to domestic and international investors. With a growing economy and lower unemployment, the tax base will be broader, which means more money can be directed to public sector programs. This, in turn, means more jobs, not fewer.
Individual departments can further allay fears that digital transformation is costing jobs by ensuring everyone has the skills to benefit from new technologies. After all, once you understand how something works, it becomes a lot less scary.
The right technologies
Finally, digitization can be much smoother if departments choose the right technologies. These include, but are not limited to:
- Self-service portals: Through specialized portals that authenticate profiles, users can securely access relevant and useful information and collaborate with others. Personalized portals, whether for citizens or government employees, can make it easier for users to find what they need, building trust and improving mission outcomes.
- Modern intranets: Secure and personalized intranets allow employees to find the information they need when they need it. Secure and modern intranets help employees better manage their benefits and career planning, leading to greater employee satisfaction and retention.
- Websites: The best websites attract citizens, improve user experience and drive engagement. Ideally, a site should offer engaging and effective web experiences that solve the user’s problem in one place.
An immediate imperative
The imperative to push for this kind of change has never been greater. Improving service delivery is crucial for South Africa to redress the situation and ease the frustrations of its citizens. Digital transformation is one of the most effective ways to achieve this. Fears of job losses, which are not based on reality, cannot prevent it.