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Minister in the Ministry of Finance Allyson West

It has been eight month since Senator Allyson West was appointed Minister of Public Administration and Digital Transformation on August 19, 2020.

However in the eight months since being handed the portfolio, seven months since officially being granted a budget the minister admits that the progress in the latter half of her ministry’s portfolio have not progressed as much as she would have hoped.

“It is not as advanced as I would like it to be? Because it started out not having the kind of resources that we would have needed, and it’s is taking some time to bring those are resources on board,” Minister West told the Business Guardian in a phone interview.

The major challenge, for which she has requested these resources, has been bringing the various Ministries in line with each other. A challenge made more cumbersome given they had operated as separate entities without much interaction for many years,

“What we needed, is what I call liaison officers. Officers assigned to each ministry, to an agency to work closely with them to ensure that they were developing in the way that we needed them to develop,” West said, “Because what has been happening is that ministries have traditionally been working in silos and doing different things. All disconnected from each other and if we are to achieve interoperability, we have to change our approach. “

West explained these officers would gauge where each ministry was at individually and communicate what would be required to bring them in line with the overall goal of digitalisation across each Ministry. But West has not yet gotten her full complement to bring this approach to fruition.

“So far we’ve only got a few on board and we’re working to bring on the other. So we are not as far as rounded as I would like but as we move forward, we are becoming better in doing things quicker. So I’m hoping to make up the time as we approach the end of this fiscal,” the minister said.

But the challenges have not solely been that of resources, but a more common motif which has afflicted most over the past year, COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse for West’s new responsibility as it emphasised the need for digitalisation.

Yet at the same time the minister in charge of bringing the public service fully in line with the digital age has also been stymied by delays brought upon by the restrictions.

Her ministry had hoped to expand digital access, particularly in rural communities where internet connectivity is limited. The pandemic has restricted the ability to construct accessibility centres.

“We are building out more ICT access centres. These are centres mainly in rural areas way or vulnerable areas, where members of the public will not have Wi-Fi or do not have devices. Can go to these centres, be taught how to access the web and apply to government services and do research and people can go and do school work. For example, we are building out more of those in different areas, but of course, every time we get locked down that slows down the process,” said West.

However with the public’s eyes opened more to the need for such connectivity, West believed the period has been beneficial to her cause, as it has forced them to hasten in other areas.

“(The) pandemic really has forced us to expedite, and put more emphasis on this program. So that more, it’s leaning more towards positively impacting, the digital transformation program, other than negatively,” she said.

Since the ministry has been implemented, a multifaceted plan has been designed to set the course for digitisation.

“It ranges from review and revision of legislation to support the program. Getting the infrastructure in place in terms of strengthening the portal, beefing up our data storage capacity,” West said.

Digital literacy programmes are also a part of the plan, and it is required not only for the wider public, but for the public service as well.“We just got cabinet approval to launch one for members of the public and we are working. We are looking into these to see what gaps there are and the public service. So that we can also engage in the digital literacy training and upgrading for public servants,” she said.

But understanding the gaps within the public, and closing them are currently the focus of the Ministry at the moment.

“What we’re doing informally at the moment is working with various key Ministries right now. We hope in the not too distant future, as we ramp up resources, to work simultaneously with all the Ministries to guide them in how to develop their ICT programmes. So that it is consistent with the interoperability objective that we are trying to achieve as well as consistent with be citizen-centric approach that we are using to put this digital transformation,” Minister West said.

She explained that her own Ministry has served as the starting point, as they test the strategy.

“We for example have set up a pilot project in the ministry of public admin, digital transformation, to digitalise one, key area in the ministry, which is the real estate division. Which deals with the sale and the lease and the provision of property to State agencies and so on,” she said.

“So we are digitalising that, using that as a pilot project as the model and once we are successful, which we are hoping to be in the not-too-distant future, roll that out to the other agencies that have been digitalising records for quite some time but not doing it in an optimum fashion.”

From there the digitalisation process will target change in the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Education, all of which have been identified as key due to the effect of the pandemic.

“Ministry of Finance because e-payment is key, we are trying to roll that out quickly Ministry of Health, because of the obvious reasons, Ministry of Social Development because of the additional support that has been required over the period and the gaps in how we provide that support and the Ministry of Education because of the impact of schools, covid-19 on schools and how we roll forward into your digital approach or blended approach as a minister calls it to education. So those are the key ministries that we are focusing on at the moment,” she said. But there is still much work to be done, as even the current online platform for government services; TTConnect, needs to be brought in line with the Ministry’s plans.

“TTConnect needs to be converted at the moment because the benefits or TTConnect or TTConnect being a gateway to a limited number of services, we really have to transform that into it being a gateway to all government services and it is at that time that my focus on the numbers, well, will heighten. At the moment, we’re looking at the conversion but I am looking at the conversion. Okay. I think we are very early in our conversion,” she said.

Legislation also is required to facilitate the process.

“We are doing a full analysis of the legislation, we’re looking at things, like ensuring that E-transactions can be done, fully done online. And e-signatures, e-payments, e-applications without having to download and submit a hard copy. And so we’re looking at building that out. So the e-transaction legislation we looking at data protection because with interoperability what we’re hoping to do is allow government agencies to share relevant information.

“You don’t have to keep providing the same bit of information to every ministry that you go to for a service. So data protection, we are looking at, we are looking at e-payments as I indicated and cybersecurity those are the key areas that we need to ramp up and ensure that they’re strong enough,” she said.

The Prime Minister has given Minister West two years to achieve these goals, and she admitted still faces a long road ahead. However she is optimistic it can be achieved.“We are working towards a deadline, get the challenging deadline, but we are working hard to see to try to meet the challenge,” she said.