Given that I spend a lot of my time covering the going-ons within the UK public sector, during my time in South Africa this week I thought it would be interesting to sit down with some local government departments to take a look at some of the IT challenges facing the region.
Whilst I found that plenty of the challenges echo what goes on in the depths of Whitehall in London, it is also evident that South Africa's physical infrastructure creates a unique set of challenges for the public sector here.
Cloud products, for example, are not a realistic option for use across the board because of the poor broadband infrastructure, even though it is helping the departments deal with continuity problems created from government enforced electricity blackouts.
In the UK and US, we take the digital infrastructure around us for granted. But without consistent electricity and a reliable pipe to the internet, South African departments have to find unique workarounds to deliver their services.
I got to sit down with both Elvin Rambaran, head of IT at the Department of Sport and Recreation in the region of Kwa-Zulu Natal, and Thansen Singh, IT director at the Department of Human Settlements in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
Interestingly, the pair explained how they have started using Mimecast, a cloud-based solution, for email archiving, back-up and security in an attempt to deliver better business continuity when faced with enforced electicity blackouts – or as they call it over here, load shedding. The idea being that if they can get access to their emails via their 3G connection on their phones, then this limits some of the business disruption.
Rambaran explained the impact of load shedding on government departments. He said:
Load shedding is an extremely big problem. We have got a certain amount of generator capacity in the country. We have got these old turbines that need maintenance, but unfortunately we have got a bit of a maintenance backlog. So at any particular time any of the turbines can go down and we may find that we are thousands of kilowatts or megawatts short.
So then selectively in different parts of the country you've actually got to shut down the grid. The municipality has a timetable and based on the amount of load it needs to drop, we know that certain areas are going to go down at a certain time. Industrial areas as a rule won't be affected during the daytime. Residential areas will be affected more during the daytime. But unfortunately, I'm slap bang in the middle of a residential area.”
Rambaran and Singh said that the electricity typically goes off for two hours at a time, every day. And whilst email archiving has been made a legislative requirement in South Africa, Rambaran said that Mimecast and the cloud also provided a way of dealing with the blackouts. He said:
We were looking at it more from a continuity option as well. We wanted a system whereby we areactually paying for a service and we didn't have to actually worry about buying a server, worrying about whether the load shedding is going to bring down the server incorrectly, whether our back-up is sufficient enough. Let that be somebody else's problem.
We don't trust cloud
Whilst both Rambaran and Singh are very happy with the Mimecast product and they readily admit that the cloud brings a whole host of benefits with it in terms of how you carry out your work, they also are quick to point out that cloud isn't generally a realistic option for South African government.
And that's because of a number of reasons, but mostly it comes down to the country's physical broadband infrastructure and the legislative requirements to keep data within the country. Singh said:
You will find generally that we are very hesitant to go with any cloud technology. I think you'll find that Mimecast is the first one that we are doing. But only because of good references and we got the letter from our National Archives saying that they are happy with us using the system.
Rambaran agreed and said:
And whilst Mimecast as a product is effective when used over a 3G connection on a phone, given that most people use their smartphone for checking and replying to emails, other cloud applications would likely require a decent fixed broadband connection. And that's something that isn't particularly easy to get hold of in South Africa, unless you're willing to pay a significant sum for it.
Generally we don't trust cloud. We have got something called the Electronic Communications Act of 2002, which says that all government information needs to be hosted within the borders of South Africa. If you think about Microsoft Office 365, the problem with that is that the data isn't hosted in South Africa. That straight away is a no for us. The government can't be seen to be breaking it's own laws. Microsoft is pushing for Office 365, but it doesn't comply with the act.
You have to be aware as well that broadband is very expensive in this country, compared to what you guys pay. For us it's a whole lot of money. The bandwidth isn't good enough and we are struck in the dark ages compared to what the UK would expect. We can only dream about that.
You are connecting out to get that data, the bandwidth just isn't sufficient enough at this point in time. We also have a lot of cable theft, so sometimes you might have connectivity and other days you might find that your lease line is down. You can't access your data and if you can't do that you can't work.
Cloud leads to a lot of benefits, but practically it's too expensive for us at this point in time.
Singh agreed and said:
Having used Mimecast it does provide us with more motivation to go to the cloud, but as we've said, the infrastructure just doesn't allow it. If we had the infrastructure we would absolutely look to more cloud products.
SITA and skills
One of the other really interesting points of discussion with Rambaran and Singh was around a central organisation in South Africa dubbed SITA – which refers to the State Information Technology Act (SITA) of 1998 and is a central body that controls all of the data lines and procurement in and out of the local organisations.
Both Rambaran and Singh recognise that SITA has some benefits for them. For example, it has introduced controls that limit the opportunity for bribery when purchasing technology, as although decisions about what is needed lies with local bodies, everything has to be justified to SITA.
However, they also both highlight that SITA reduces the speed to market and can create a long-winded process. It's interesting to hear discussions around centralization versus decentralization in South Africa, given that this is a bit of a hot topic in the UK at the moment when discussing the Government Digital Service (GDS).
Some think GDS is too big and powerful at the centre, leaving departments without the digital capability theyneed. Whilst others think that GDS provides a strong core to guide government departments doing their digital work. There's probably a lesson to be learned here in South Africa from SITA. For example, it has had an impact on skills.
[The SITA route] is a tedious process. It used to be worse a few years ago, you would go out to tender for something and it would take six to nine months to get it finalised. Now most of the delegation is in each province, so it's a bit faster.
But what they did was they took away all the skills, so there was nobody left in the departments to manage everything. You still need people within the departments to manage everything, so they started building up skills again.
Rambaran agreed. He said:
It's not so easy for government, because we have to go through SITA and there is a contract that governs it. So to get an on-site skill isn't as straight forward as asking to send someone out. There still needs to be a business case, it still needs to go to legal. It's a long process.
Singh added that South Africa's skills market generally also provides something of a challenge for government departments looking to recruit. He said that whilst there are plenty of technical skills available, the business skills needed are a lot harder to find.
Today the problem is trying to recruit those management skills. We can get the technical skills. You put out an advert for a job with a salary of R630,000 (around £30,000), which is a substantial salary - you get under 20 applicants. And of those 20, maybe 15 of them don't qualify for the post. Of the five left, if you can get one of those that does the job well, you're lucky. Getting the right skills is difficult. Those management skills are hard to find.
My discussion with Singh and Rambaran was broad-ranging and fascinating. We covered a lot more topics than the ones highlighted above – including the need for government to act as one customer to increase buying power and the imminent introduction of a data protection act – all of which remind me of discussions we've been having in the UK over the past few years.
But equally, South Africa has problems that are unique to its environment, which creates interesting propositions for buyers when making their decisions. A very interesting discussion that highlights the importance of investment in physical infrastructure.