Information Society & Development of Inter-Governmental Relations Forum: briefing by Communications Department

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Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs

04 June 2007
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Meeting report

PROVINCIAL AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
05 June 2007
INFORMATION SOCIETY & DEVELOPMENT OF INTER-GOVERNMENTAL RELATIONS FORUM: BRIEFING BY COMMUNICATIONS DEPARTMENT

Chairperson:
Mr T Tenoli (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Department of Communications Presentation
Draft Committee report on Budget Vote 5
Committee Annual Report 2006
Committee Minutes (29 May 2007)
[All available at
Committee Reports once adopted]

Audio Recording of the Meeting

SUMMARY
The Department of Communications briefed the Committee on the development of the Information Society and the Inter-Governmental Relations Forum, its plan of action and the goal to ensure that ICT was
used to improve and increase service delivery; to formulate a plan of action, to ensure that Departments aligned their activities with the plan, to contribute content for discussion in the Cluster and adopt programmes of action. The Forum would act as consultant in ICT matters across all three spheres of government and industry, facilitate the building of an inclusive Information Society and contribute to the development and coordination of ICT policies and programmes to increase the impact of ICTs and support better service delivery. The ten pillars on which the plan was based were outlined and fully explained. These ranged from the necessary policy and regulatory basis, to ensuring access to all at reasonable prices, promotion of open source software, development of skills, funding and monitoring. Cooperation and integration were vital. The Information Society would enhance all areas of government and service delivery, and impact positively on the lives of people, particularly in the rural areas. The post office would be a prime centre for e-government initiatives. The Department was looking to develop policy, programmes and manufacturing systems to ensure broad services. Questions raised by Members related to the integrated approach, the high costs of ICT and telephone communication, the extent to which municipalities could utilise technology to improve their services, the need for inclusive frameworks were critical, literacy initiatives, the need for effective reporting, infrastructure development and ICT in schools, dropped-call charges, and the current state of convergence. Further matters discussed were the GP-online project failures, comparisons with India, the linking of different local government systems, the problems with GCIS and obtaining accurate statistics, use of cellular phones and TV networks to distribute information, capacity building and the possibilities of integrated approaches in the fields of Arts and Culture and the media.

The Committee stood over adoption of the budget vote and Annual reports to the next meeting, but did adopt the Minutes of the last meeting.

MINUTES
Information Society and Inter Governmental Relations Forum (IGRF): Briefing by Department of Communications (DOC)
Ms Lyndall Shope-Mafole, Director General, Department of Communications, gave a background to the Information Society and Development (ISAD) summit, which then led to the appointment of a Presidential National Commission (PNC), which was responsible for co coordination, integration and development of the information society. It noted that, in order to build an inclusive Information Society there was a need for an explicit and shared vision, a comprehensive and integrated framework and a method of coordinating and monitoring progress. In February 2007 Cabinet approved the National ISAD Plan as a framework for building an inclusive information society in South Africa, set up a Ministerial Committee, a corresponding Forum for South African Directors General (FOSAD) in the Cluster, and Intergovernmental Relations Forum (ISAD IGRF). The Information Society plans would be led by the PNC and there would be participation from various Departments, including Departments of Provincial and Local Government (DPLG), Public Service and Administration (DPSA), Communications (DOC), Education (DOE) and the South African Local Government Association (SALGA). The organogram was tabled, and the draft programme of action was described.

The purpose and function of the Cluster would be to ensure that ICTs were
used to improve and increase service delivery; to formulate a plan of action and promote this plan, ensure that Departments aligned their activities with the plan, contribute content for discussion in the Cluster and adopt programmes of action. The Forum would act as consultant in ICT matters across all three spheres of government and industry, facilitate the building of an inclusive Information Society and contribute to the development and coordination of ICT policies and programmes to increase the impact of ICTs and support better service delivery.

The Plan was based on ten pillars. The first related to establishment of a policy and regulatory environment. Pillar two required universal access to ICT infrastructure and services at affordable prices. Pillar three required development of a national content strategy for the country, and reflection of a national identity based on democratic principles, recognising diverse multilingualism and promoting the use of Open Source Software as a platform for supporting locally developed solutions. Pillar four would increase awareness of the benefits of ICT’s to all, especially persons with disability, women, youth, children, and the elderly and ensure access to service. Pillar five would ensure that the appropriate skills were produced to address the needs of the knowledge economy and develop the skills necessary for a vibrant and sustainable technology and ICT sector. Pillar six related to the need for capacity development and research and development, aiming to increase employment in vibrant growing-knowledge industries. Pillar seven stressed the need for coordination and integration. Pillar eight would ensure funding of basic infrastructure. Pillar nine would adopt greater coordination across government to ensure that ISAD policies and programmes reached the shared vision. The last pillar would develop an indicator system that supported monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment, in order for future budgeting and decision making.

Ms Shope-Mafole outlined how the Information Society would enhance education, skills development, training, health, agriculture, the small, medium and micro enterprise sector, government service delivery, local content development, arts and culture. It would address
everything that deals with electromagnetic airwaves in order to facilitate communication and information sharing. The ICT University had not materialised through the inability to reach a shared vision.

In the institutional mechanisms, the ISAD IGRF would report to the Presidential Committee or to ISAD Ministerial Committee, as supported by the Cluster, or to a Cabinet Lekgotla. The FOSAD Cluster must ensure that service delivery was fully supported by ICT at every step of the proceedings. For instance, parents should be able to get a birth certificate for their child directly from the hospital where it was born, and should be able to use the post office network for ID documents. All departments must therefore have a common database and interactive systems to obviate the necessity for people to fill in forms. Furthermore it should not only be the wealthier provinces that had access to ICT. The information society must be fully integrated and the Forum would monitor this. The Department would, for instance, want to develop a policy paper with the Department of Health on the application of ICT to the entire health system, so that information could be accessed anywhere by any nurses, to try to cut down on queues and improve service delivery. Furthermore the Department was looking at manufacturing, such as the moved from an analogue to digital broadcast system and telephone services, which it would brief the Committee on at a future meeting. The post office would be transformed into “Thusong post offices” in order for people to be able to access e-Government information and broader services.

Discussion
The Chairperson commented that the Department had addressed the issues of coordination that this Committee had concerns about.

Mr S Mshudulu (ANC) mentioned that South Africa’s structure still isolated the majority of the people, and this was a challenge that had not been fully addressed. Language was a further challenge that prevented many from getting information about what government was doing. He supported the transformation of the post office, as it was not properly accessible at the moment. He commented favourably on FOSAD and was grateful to see the integrated approach, commenting that more interaction between the Department and the Committee would be beneficial.

Mr P Smith (IFP) expressed his concerns on the process-related issues raised, but was interested in the concrete achievements in integration of this information society.

Ms Shope-Mafole replied that she had reported on the process quite deliberately. The importance of ICT had long been identified, but the difficulty was that there were a number of ICT projects that were not coordinated, some were duplicated, non-integrated or not centralised. Therefore the Department had decided to go back to the implementation stages of the programme and make sure there would be no duplication. This process had been time-consuming and the Department spent two years on the plan due to the fact that different parts were at different levels, and there was not a unified view of the necessity for the ICT systems. The initial processes had been very important and the Department hoped that very soon it would see the fruits of ICT in a co coordinated and planned manner.

Mr Smith noted that the ICT costs in South Africa were amongst the highest in the world and wondered how this would impact on the attempts to achieve integrated and shared ICT.

Ms Shope-Mafole agreed that the issue of ICT costs was something the Presidency challenged the Department on, and it was usually unfavourably compared with developed countries whose products were cheaper. However, she would like to put this in perspective. In India for example, the cost of communication was lower but their quality of communication was also much lower than South Africa, as a person might have to call five or six times before getting connected. South Africa aimed to have reliable ICTs and best communication practices. India was also able to benefit from good international communications, and at the time of India’s technology boost many international companies built submarine cables, as they had anticipated traffic, and this could be the other reason why India’s communication had been cheaper. Density was the measurement of 100 individuals telephony services. South Africa was also able to offer a “please call me” service. The cost of communications was quite a complex issue, but she promised that it would come down significantly in time after processes had been examined and put in place. The Department was also involved in the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) project on the submarine and terrestrial cable network, which was aimed at reduction of costs and integration of the continent from an economic perspective.

Mr Smith wanted to know the extent to which municipalities could utilise technology to improve their services, as they did overseas, and enquired what was being done in South Africa to achieve this.

Ms Shope-Mafole explained that in regard to municipalities, possibilities did exist but it was also important to note that other countries were very small compared to South Africa and it was much cheaper for them to set up networks. The Department had been encouraging municipalities to use modern technologies that did not require a cable and had met with municipalities that would be working on this.

Ms L Mashiane (ANC) was interested to hear that ICT would be extended in the post office especially those in the rural areas, as this was where many people were struggling to obtain information. They would also struggle to make a phone call for emergency services, and it was expensive to phone. She was unclear if there was a tender extended to regions, to ease the high cost of telephones and wondered whether such a procedure could help people.

Ms Shope-Mafole indicated that the Minister, in her budget speech last year, had indicated that the post office would be the core public ICT accessing point. All the post offices would be able to connect to ICT and the pubic would be able to access self-service facilities there in order to connect, and this was planned precisely for the rural areas. She replied that she was not sure about the tender referred to but would try to find out with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). The budget speech had also referred to essential services, and she noted that even if someone had been disconnected from the telephone service or was unable to pay in a public call box they should be able to make essential or emergency calls. This was one way to try to address the issues raised.

Mr I Mogase (ANC) requested an explanation on the MECs, who were predominantly male, and how they addressed the issue of gender.

Ms Shope-Mafole agreed that the MECs were mostly men, but it was the premiers who had sent them, and they had been working quite well and in time should be improving further.

The Chairperson agreed with the Director General’s observation that inclusive frameworks were critical, and asked where literacy and technology could find a meeting point.

Ms Shope-Mafole said that there was a project run through the Women’s Development Banking, chaired by Mrs Zanele Mbeki, which was working with people in India to eradicate illiteracy. The programme enabled people to read within six weeks, and it was designed specifically for adults using cognitive techniques. It had been piloted for the past two years mainly in Mpumalanga and the Department fully supported the project.

The Chairperson said that one of the observations in attempting to coordinate structures was the weakness of reporting and he wanted to know if the Department could monitor the reporting and in what way they would do so. He cited the example of the Department of Arts and Culture, where there was a major inter-Departmental structure dealing with indigenous knowledge systems, yet very few people were aware of that.

Ms Shope-Mafole noted that this project was in context in the cluster and it was hoped to deal further with it.

Ms P Bengu (ANC) asked how the Department would deal with infrastructure development, particularly in rural areas.

Ms Shope-Mafole said that the Department was prioritising systems that were robust. The development of ICT should take into account the fact that South Africa was a developing country, so must cater for the needs of all people including those with impairments. This meant that the computers should not only be text based but also catered to visual and hearing impairments. The Department was trying to adopt a concept around universal design of technologies to use assisted computer systems.

The Chairperson asked on the current statistical coverage in schools so far.

Ms Bengu asked how the Department could assist schools in need of computers to access the information and technology.

Ms Shope-Mafole noted that until about two years ago, Gauteng and Western Province were the only provinces that had about 50% of the schools connected. Limpopo and Eastern Cape had less than 5% of the schools connected and had realised the rural areas were the ones who needed more ICT. There were still many challenges to connectivity. Gauteng-Online was developed in isolation, and all the systems were not properly integrated. When there were different companies providing the same services the competition gave rise to use of different systems.

A member asked about the dropped-call charges, which were due to connection problems.

Ms Shope-Mafole indicated that the CEO of companies had raised concerns when she asked them to reduce costs. If the cost of communication was reduced by 50%, this would lead to increase in usage, which would in turn affect the capacity of the system to cope. There was currently a balance between users and capabilities. Most of the dropped calls were either on highways or in town. On the highways, this would result from the connectivity systems having “cheated” on the mass building, so that the coverage was not always properly linked. In the city, some of the calls were dropped due to the inability of the system to cope with the number of people. ICASA had been looking at the problem and had held public hearings to come up with some solutions.

A member raised issues around convergence and asked what was the current state of play. He commented that the Department seemed to be slow in the implementation of new technology.

Ms Shope-Mafole noted that convergence was a new issue. Some of the matters now included were not traditionally part of ICT sector, such as the post office, and had developed separate industries. These industries had now integrated, so convergence referred to unification of systems through technology. The post office was to be the central point.

The member was happy that the communications would be centralised through the Post Offices as communication point.

Mr B Solo (ANC) criticised the G-P-online project, saying that a great deal of money was invested in this yet there did not seem to be proper planning, and some of the matters seemed to be rushed through and were unlikely to succeed.

Ms Shope-Mafole noted that sometimes it was necessary to make mistakes in order to learn, and she acknowledged that GP-online had been one of those expensive mistakes. She noted, however, that now the Department had NEPAD e-schools (such as Maribe High in Mpumalanga) using resources of the continent and within the context of NEPAD the Department was trying to use ICTs to develop education in the continent.

Mr Solo congratulated the Department on their comparative study and the example of India. He suggested that the Department must sharpen its research skills and before embarking on projects should compare international practices and put them into a South African context. He asked the Department to look at development planning and how research was structured.

Mr M Lekgoro (ANC) asked how these initiatives would address disaster management issues, and asked if this was one of the key priorities.

Mr Lekgoro noted that Local Government, as one of the key users of technology, was using different systems and could not even learn from each other. He asked if the Department would be able to define what kind of systems needed to be used or if it would provide a general framework for the use of equipment already held, and, if so, asked how useful would that be.

The DG ensured the Committee that the ICTs would form part of the programme in Local Government. The Department was involved with municipalities, although the discussions and plans were still at the early stages. The Cabinet decision had envisaged fully integrated systems and this would be followed.

Mr Mshudulu noted that even when approaching Government Communication and Information Systems it was a struggle to obtain information, as some Departments had not updated their statistics. He felt that this would be a challenge in the cluster system. He wondered if when referring to stakeholders, there had been inclusion of Statistics South Africa, noting that they too had data problems and that might be one reason for the problems faced.

Ms Shope-Mafole agreed that obtaining information was a problem, but the Department was looking at improving this. The. GCIS ran a programme to show South Africans the different programmes implemented by the different structures and publicised opportunities to make the public aware of what was being done. Furthermore statistics were very complex and could be politically charged, depending on where they were obtained. The Department had been instructed to finalise one set of statistics and this would hopefully be able to be used to avoid some of the distortions.

Mr Mshudulu noted that South Africa was known to have the most number of cellular phones to comparative countries and wanted to know what programmes the network operators and the Department could come up with to access Government information through cellular phones.

Ms Shope-Mafole noted that in addition to increase cellphone coverage, it was anticipated that South Africa would have six to eight new national channels, but there had been no decision yet what those would be. There were also plans in terms of broadcasting regional and local news coverage. The major challenge raised by companies in regard to reducing costs was that their profits should be guarded, especially since managers’ performance was often assessed on profit. The Department was still looking at this and would try to come to a compromise solution.

The Chairperson requested a further explanation on the ten pillars, particularly capacity building and the human capital that would be used. He also asked for some further elaboration on the issues raised, such as a comment on the quality of reporting, and on open software, and pointed out that the Committee would want to see results in terms of technology development, no matter where located.

Ms Shope-Mafole noted that in the capacity building pillar and Research and Development (R&D) there was an examination of what skills, in terms of human capital, the country had to take forward to developing an information society. Two weeks ago the Minister had announced the establishment of a skills council in which Government, academic institutions and the private sector would discuss what was needed, as the private sector was currently complaining that the skills being produced by universities did not match their requirements. Capacity building and R&D were under the leadership of the Department of Science and Technology, which was also focusing on the competitive basis and looking to capacitate South Africa to reach locally developed solutions, such as the “please call me” technology. The Department was looking at research from different countries that were leading in terms of competitiveness and higher gross domestic product percentage achievements. It was also looking at different technologies, and noted that the advantages of open software were not only that it was free but also gave opportunities to develop and create applications relevant for the country. Strategies around this aspect were being finalised.

The Chairperson enquired what had been anticipated and how healthy were their levels of investment. He noted that there had been some debate on using money held by trade unions and pensions for investment into infrastructure or development areas. He commented that there needed to be further emphasis on levels of literacy but noted that if adequate resources were not directed to the problem, through a coordinated campaign, there was unlikely to be success.

The Chairperson was pleased to note the integrated efforts to improve governance and fast track service delivery. He was interested to see whether there could be a collaborative integration between Media Development and Diversity Agency, SABC, Pan South African Language Board and the Department of Arts and Culture in improving language. He suggested the possibilities for collaboration between print, radio and broadcast

Other Committee Business
The Chairperson requested that the budget vote report and Annual report which had been circulated should not be adopted at this meeting, but stand over to the next meeting.

The Committee adopted the minutes of the previous meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.


 

 

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