Thursday, August 11 2022
By Sunil Geness, Director: Global Government Affairs and CSR at SAP Africa

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 15, 2022 -/African Media Agency (AMA)/- The continued adverse impact of the pandemic, combined with a growing number of climate-related emergencies, highlights the government’s ability to deliver public services essential to vulnerable communities.

I recently visited my home province of KwaZulu-Natal following the devastating floods. The desperation of the people and the scale of the disaster saw tens of thousands of displaced citizens turn to the government to provide a wide range of relief measures, while damage to critical infrastructure, including food supplies water, prompted the president to declare a state of national disaster.

Around 40,000 people have been displaced by the floodswhile damage to roads and schools affected over 270,000 learners, in addition to 66 public health facilities.

Coordination of the ongoing response will require close cooperation between several government and private sector entities as well as the active participation of NGOs who play a vital role in supporting affected communities.

However, while the immediate task is to support those most vulnerable in the aftermath of the floods, there is a broader imperative to ensure the accessibility of public services and provide sufficient support to vulnerable communities across the country.

The South African population has a large share of vulnerable communities

Vulnerable groups include people living in poverty, people with disabilities or fearing illness, the elderly, young people and women, indigenous communities, rural and urban informal communities, displaced people and migrants.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected vulnerable groups as they struggle with a variety of conditions and several barriers that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Ensuring that essential public services are accessible and efficient for vulnerable groups is an essential part of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in relation to SDG 16, which aspires to just societies, peaceful and inclusive supported by strong institutions.

A recent report by the Bureau for Economic Research revealed that South Africa is not making enough progress towards achieving its development goals. For a country where the official unemployment rate is over 35% and where millions of people depend on social grants and other measures to survive, this lack of progress puts citizens – and especially vulnerable communities – at risk.

Higher stakes for the digital transformation of the public sector

Public sector entities are arguably under greater pressure to ensure digital transformation efforts are designed with vulnerable communities in mind. Those who depend on social subsidies or public health facilities need these services to be easily accessible, especially in underdeveloped areas such as informal settlements and rural towns and villages.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently called for a “new social contract” in post-pandemic recovery, based on inclusiveness and sustainability, and stressed the need for governments to give prioritizing investments in digital culture and digital infrastructure to strengthen social cohesion.

Many governments have responded to the call and made services available in ‘digital by default’ format. However, this approach often excludes those most in need of the services, for example older people and people from low-income groups who are not able to access information and services online as easily as people belonging to higher income groups in general.

Increasingly, governments are deploying advanced technologies to deliver public services. The most effective approaches often rely on big data analytics and use the latest technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and blockchain to ensure effective outreach and service delivery. Consequently, the trend of adopting advanced technologies in the government sector has intensified, heralding an irreversible shift towards digital transformation. But these services can fail to improve the lives of citizens if there is a lack of trust between society and government.

Fostering trust between citizens and government

The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer underlines the growing distrust of the government and the media. This feeds a cycle of distrust and demonstrates that the government is not seen as capable of solving societal problems.

The COVID pandemic and disasters such as the KZN floods have highlighted the need for agile government. However, a recent survey found that nearly one in ten South Africans see corruption as the biggest problem the government needs to tackle.

Reports of mismanaged relief funds early in the COVID-19 pandemic sowed distrust among the electorate, which extended to relief efforts for flood-affected communities in KwaZulu-Natal, where local NGOs are instead responsible for providing essential relief measures.

This distrust seriously undermines the government’s agility in the face of crises. An agile government is able to respond to crises as they emerge and can help anticipate an appropriate response. Predictive analytics and advancing the analysis of complex systems with advanced technology can help governments develop agility and anticipation and improve their response to future scenarios.

Technology can also improve the management of precious public sector finances, which is fundamental to the state’s efforts to support citizens in times of crisis and essential to the continued delivery of vital services.

Expense management tools such as Concur can provide automated system-based compliance and the ability to embed financial policies into the software to align with regulations such as the Public Financial Management Act. This can help restore a culture of accountability that ensures scarce financial resources are spent responsibly and reach the communities that need them most.

As we rush into the 21st century, this will become increasingly important for the emergence of more proactive digital transformation functions in government than we have today, enabling us to build better societies, more inclusive and more resilient.

Distributed by African Media Agency (AMA) on behalf of SAP Africa.

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