Government should prioritize putting building blocks in place for the public service to fully benefit from the digital technologies and solutions such as Artificial Intelligence.

This is the views expressed by Public Service and Administration Deputy Minister, Dr Chana Pilane-Majake on Tuesday, 14 May 2024, during the Breakfast engagement aimed at propelling the government into the era of digital transformation.

“To fully benefit from digital technologies and solutions like AI, several fundamental building blocks should be in place, especially for the public sector.

“They include digitization and access to data, affordable or free connectivity, appropriate skills, and an enabling regulatory environment that fosters trust, protects citizens, and empowers local entrepreneurs and innovators.,” she said.

Dr Pilane-Majake said one of the real dangers South Africa faces is the perpetuation of bias in these technologies, such as gender or racial bias, which can have unintended consequences.

According to the Deputy Minister, the African continent must take the lead in ensuring that the application of these technologies is in the best interest of the continent, both ethically and developmentally.

The role of the Youth

In this digital transformation journey, Dr Pilane-Majake said the youth have a critical role to play in that as potential or future public servants who are digitally skilled, they can bridge the gap between community needs and public service delivery.

“They can also act as catalysts in communities, especially rural areas, by facilitating access to digitized government services. As the government moves towards offering more online services, the youth play a crucial role in ensuring access to these services.

“The creativity of the youth can help the public service find new and innovative ways to leverage technology for the public benefit while addressing the issue of youth unemployment,” she said.

The Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI)

The CPSI is investing in youth development programs through organising 4IR Expo for schools in the Eastern Cape as part of Youth Day celebrations, supported youth SMMEs, and mentored several hackathons.

The CPSI has also built capacity by offering Design Thinking and Strategic Foresight training and they also supports a network of ‘trailblazers,’ public servants within the government who develop solutions in-house.

“This network facilitates the sharing of code and solutions, reducing costs and preventing departments from reinventing the wheel.

“By engaging with these developers and related individuals, both within and outside of government, we could better understand their needs and incorporate their insights into the strategic planning of the DPSA and CPSI for the next administration,” she said.

According to the Deputy Minister, the procurement of solutions from local innovators is of utmost importance.

She emphasised the need to provide safe spaces for testing and piloting pre-commercial solutions that emerge from hackathons and other initiatives of the National System of Innovation.

Dr Pilane-Majake said there is also a need to address the risk aversion of Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) and Head of Departments (HODs) as well as the cumbersome PFMA-related requirements that often lead to a preference for issuing tenders to large established multinational companies.

“The CPSI has conducted research in this area, but the response from policymakers has been limited. We must overcome these challenges to foster an environment that is conducive to innovation and supports local entrepreneurs.

“We need to consider the employment of developers within government. Many departments still have outdated structures that do not account for agile development practices and teams of developers working on solutions. However, departments that have invested in this area, such as Gauteng eGov, Kwazulu-Natal Health, Western Cape office of the Premier, and CPSI are already seeing the benefits and cost savings associated with agile development practices,” she said.

According to Deputy Minister Pilane-Majake, the breakfast engagement session provided the DPSA with a valuable opportunity to understand the needs of developers and related professions, both within and outside of government, and to incorporate their insights into the departmental strategic planning.

“By doing so, we can ensure that our digital transformation efforts align with the needs of our country and foster an environment of innovation, inclusivity, and sustainable development,” said Dr Pilane-Majake.