Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Written by Geisha Kowlessar-Alonzo.
Since T&T launched an exclusive Ministry for Digital Transformation, arming it with $280 million (US$41 million) in October 2021, what has it achieved? The Business Guardian reached out to Minister Hassel Bacchus who said his ministry has been engaged in different types of activities including continuing to advance on Government's commitment to provide universal access to broadband as a "public good".
For example, the Minister cited that many libraries, hospitals, and other public spaces such as major transportation hubs already offer free Internet to citizens under the TTWiFi initiative.
Further, according to Bacchus, by the year end many others will benefit from this facility.
He added that the Ministry of Works and Transport, a major partner in this thrust, is collaborating with his ministry to provide Wi-Fi on PTSC buses.
Also, Bacchus said his ministry has made significant headway in the expansion of the Community ICT Programme which provides connectivity, services and training to underserved communities.
For example, he cited existing centres are in the process of being upgraded, noting that additional services, from the ALTA online training programmes have been added to the list of services available through these facilities.
The minister also noted discussions are ongoing with YTEPP to introduce its programmes, while work is ongoing on ten additional centres, as well as the identification of other areas for virtual access.
These, Bacchus said, are expected to be established before the end of 2022.
Additionally, Bacchus said over the past few months there have been progress on several e-services developed by the National ICT Company Limited (iGovTT), including the expansion of the EmployTT app, the further development of the GovPay solution, the expansion of the iGovTT e-Tendering solution, expanding the number of Government agencies utilising Government's e-appointments solution.
The ease of doing business however, still remains challenging. So what is the ministry doing in this regard? According to Bacchus the greatest benefits to the ease of doing business will occur "when true digital transformation is achieved".
He said: "The experiences of other countries suggests that digital transformation not only saves time and effort, but it also saves money. The technology aspect of the transformation, though complicated, pales in comparison the effort needed in the areas of people and process change and legislative adjustments, Bacchus said.
During his budget presentation Bacchus also identified several initiatives to be implemented such as the creation of a national E-Identity and interoperability framework, the institution of a health information system for e-medical records; strengthening the infrastructure on which the education sector is required to operate in this blended approach to learning; the creation of a social services management information system which will equip the Ministry of Social Development with new and efficient automated tools that will support significant improvements in the social services processes and the stabilisation of government platform to create an information superhighway across government services.
Have any of these borne fruit? According to Bacchus: "We have been hard at work on the creation of a National e-Identity, one of the building blocks of T&T's Digital Transformation Agenda."
Regarding the health information system for e-medical records Bacchus said this project is currently in the final stages of Phase 1, with the RFP currently being reviewed, adding that Phase 2 will commence by the last Quarter of 2022.
On enhancing the education system, the minister said the existing broadband capability and capacity has been upgraded at many schools to ensure alignment with the current requirements of a blended learning environment.
"We also recognised that building ICT capacity at the national level was integral to the National Digital Transformation Agenda," Bacchus added.
On the creation of social services management information system, Bacchus said his Ministry is assisting the Ministry of Social Development in the planning and implementation of this initiative, noting that his ministry has completed its initial assessment, and submitted its findings and recommendations.
But according to economist Dr Vanus James so far, the nation has not seen any comprehensive monitoring and evaluation reports of the progress made on the minister's agenda.
He cited that in providing perspectives, the minister indicated that digital transformation "is about fundamentally changing what we do, how we do it, and why we do it, to enable us to be more effective in delivering goods and services to citizens."
James said the minister had also emphasised the importance of "ubiquitous broadband internet access to the national community." But James noted that a small sliver of light showed up in the perspectives on Tobago when the minister had said: "We also believe that Tobago's particular circumstances also make...an ideal environment for the development and testing of ICT solutions that can then be rolled out in Trinidad, and beyond.
"The Ministry of Digital Transformation will therefore...explore partnerships that would enable Tobago to be as much a provider of digital services, as it is a customer of digital technology."
This was an important belief and promise - Tobago using digital technology to grow its exports.
But according to James what was the substance of the proposal? "In which industries could digitisation be expected to stimulate outputs and innovations that can be exported, including potentially on the broadband And, what has happened since the budget statement?" James further asked.
The Business Guardian also reached out to John Outridge, CEO of the T&T International Financial Centre which was mandated by the Finance Ministry to promote the development and adoption of cashless and future-ready financial services technologies, applications, and systems in the public and private sectors, facilitate and advance financial inclusion in key segments of society and execute a targeted, integrated national public education campaign that would increase awareness, understanding and adoption of future-ready financial services.
In terms of the progress of these initiatives, Outridge said the TTIFC is executing a national financial inclusion study to collate data on financial inclusion, assess country-specific barriers for overall bank account ownership as well as other leading indicators to provide insight into the obstacles preventing the "unbanked" from using formal financial services.
According to Outridge the study is expected to be concluded by the end of the fiscal year.
Additionally, he said, the TTIFC has been working with the Treasury Division to develop an Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) method and instructions for the public sector to facilitate the digitalisation of Government payments by ministries, departments, and agencies.
Further, Outridge said the TTIFC is coordinating a position paper to outline the requisite and enabling conditions for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) category, focused on the needs of the FinTech industry.
This, he added, is being done in consultation with local and international stakeholders within the FinTech sector, coordinated by the local FinTech association (FinTechTT). Outridge said this paper is expected to be completed by July 22.
In early 2022, PwC surveyed citizens in 15 countries in the Caribbean, including T&T on digital transformation.
According to Zia Paton, Caribbean Digital Services Leader at PwC while the report would be released in the coming weeks, citizens in T&T shared a similar sentiment as other Caribbean countries across five dimensions - awareness, accessibility, satisfaction, advocacy and trust.
She said that initial results showed that locals are ready to embrace digital transformation, but are particularly keen for attention on increasing awareness and building trust.
"This is likely not surprising as the acceleration of digital adoption during the pandemic sets a perfect stage for accelerating implementation of digital transformation plans," Paton said, adding that driving the national digital agenda presents a role for everyone.
At PwC, Paton said, focus is on a human-led, technology-driven strategy, noting that every single staff member is provided foundational training in digital topics and tools.
Additionally, she said they are exposed to the firm's digital strategy and encouraged to play an active role in its implementation.
"Digital transformation is not for spectators. More advanced training and career opportunities are made available to any staff member who wants to follow this path, coupled with hiring of specialist skills. Similar strategies should and can be adopted by all organisations," Paton added. She said the current Job Evaluation and Compensation Survey of the Civil Service being conducted by PwC with the Personnel Department means that over 1,600 job positions (impacting over 30,000 civil servants) would be updated to reflect current day job realities. Paton explained that this foundational exercise allows for execution of a similar digital upskilling strategy with clearly defined training and development that reflects the digital agenda for the public service.
Focusing on digital upskilling for every citizen and expansion of digital job opportunities would be essential to advancing digital transformation, Paton emphasised.