Recently, driving school operators voiced their objection to an online booking system that they claimed was dysfunctional. It is also claimed that they objected to the system to avoid being replaced by it. This week the Gauteng Department of Public Transport and Roads Infrastructure gave in to pressure and they reverted back to using the manual system. Was this the best decision by the Ministry of Transport? The answer to that question depends on South Africa’s vision for the future.
There are three scenarios for the future. One includes a future where South Africa renders government services online. This would mean less queues, always available services wherever you are. It would mean all you need to access the government is a connected mobile device and you can apply for any government service, you can communicate with any government at the push of a button. In turn, the government can also communicate with citizens about anything without any of their messaging being diluted. The citizens would have access to information that they need without having to bribe anyone. This scenario is already in place in Estonia.
Digitalisation has improved the efficiency and accessibility of the government, and has had a positive impact on the socio-economic development of Estonia. This was well exemplified during the Covid-19 pandemic, when digital services allowed the continuation of day-to-day business and the government did not have to disrupt public services
Another scenario is the current situation where citizens wait in queues for every government service. As seen in South Africa somehow this scenario is not ideal as some citizens in rural areas have limited access to some government services. For them, accessing a government service means long travels at a cost. This scenario is not ideal for South Africa. The third scenario may include a form of a hybrid which combines online and offline.
This scenario uses online tools for services that are hard to provide at scale and offline for those that require a personal touch. This option also works if some systems are not perfect such as connectivity.
The situation in South Africa right now is such that some places are not connected and some functions in government are poorly resourced in terms of people that prepare the service. In such situations even a digital solution would frustrate the process even further as seen in the driver licence booking system process.
The answer to resolving this situation is not to scrap digital attempts all together.
In tech, it’s normal for things not to work in early days and the answer to such situations is to keep the service limited in terms of its deployment until it’s proven to work. In the case of the drivers booking system this would mean testing the system in a small region with a select few users. Lessons learnt would then inform improvements in the system. Ultimately this would lead to a better functioning system that can be deployed across the country.
Part of this process also involves getting legacy users to adopt the new system which seems to have failed in the driver licence system case.
Having said that, it’s important to note that the driving school community cannot stop progress. In the very near future it will be possible to learn to drive from home without even driving a car, just ask the pilots. Such a system would replace the driving schools altogether.
The driving school communities need to innovate or else they will perish.
The driver license online booking system process offers many lessons about taking South Africa online. Nothing should stop the digitisation of a country to enable online services. How this is done however has to take into account legacy systems and ensure that systems are ready to be deployed at scale and that they are functioning.
To succeed in doing this South Africa needs to appoint a digital leader to oversee all government digitisation projects. State Information Technology Agency is doing a poor job in this regard and the challenge here may be related to leadership.
All countries that have succeeded with digital services they appointed tech leaders to lead. It’s about time that South Africa goes online under the leadership of a real tech leader.