What’s happening with electronic transactions in T&T?

The Government of Trinidad and Tobago continues to undertake activities which, ostensibly, are to assist or guide the development of an ICT sector.  The stated rationale is that development of this sector is to aid the diversification of the economy from the oil and gas sector.

The Ministry of Public Administration and Communications has again sent the usual biannual press release, stating that they are proceeding with the legislative changes needed to pass and enable the Electronic Transactions Act, which will enable “e-Payments” and lead to significant contributions to GDP. 

One problem with such announcements though is that the Electronic Transaction Act is already mostly in force today. The main aspects – treating with the equivalence of paper and electronic documents and records are already law.

So, if this Act was so pivotal in of itself to the development of the ICT sector, we should already see some indication of this impacting the contribution of GDP. However, it is unclear whether the business community is even aware of the Act’s partial proclamation and the benefits that accrue to them from same.

Even more puzzling is the continued rhetoric of the Government machinery that this Act somehow will enable “e-payments.” It will be instructive to know what the Ministry is proposing when it has long been established that laws based in the UNICTRAL Model, which our Act was, do not provide the necessary authorisations to enable e-payments in of themselves.

This challenge is fundamental – even before considering what “e-payments” the Ministry refers to – when last I checked, my credit and debit cards worked fine. So is there a different type of e-payments considered?  What end user experience is envisaged?  What would be the impact on and risk to the consumer?  To the merchant?  To the banking and financial system?

Further confusing the matter, is that oversight of the national payment system in general is actually under the remit of the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance. So there is no clear locus on why the Ministry of Public Administration (HR and IT) and Communications (PR) would be the lead on the implementation of whatever is meant by “e-payments” – clearly something which is a subset of the national payment system.  Curiouser and curiouser.

Not long thereafter, the Ministry of Planning, along with the IDB, launched its Global Services Promotion Programme geared, as stated, to provide training so that we can engender entrepreneurship in the Information Technology enabled Services (ITeS) through the provision of training, structured activities and facilities which will position Trinidad and Tobago “in a proper place to achieve the broader ICT goals set…as part of Vision 2030.”

While this sounds great, I am hard pressed to identify what the “broader ICT goals” are.  Where was the public engagement in the articulation and definition of these goals? What are the intermediary milestones?  What are the disparate roles of the private sector, civil society and Government? These questions remain unanswered. 

Has the national agenda – Vision2030 – been adjusted to reflect the demands of the changing local economic environment and the disruptive technologies which seem to foreshadow the restructuring of work in the 21st Century? 

The recent challenge with the Uber transport service only repeats the prior uproar with the Viber controversy: the State, and our marketplace, remain unclear on the overall policy on how they would seek to achieve a balance between the needs of a small island developing state, and the demands of a globalised economy populated by significant multinationals.

Multinationals who demand to provide services and extract revenues across borders – but seemingly unwilling to readily contribute to national patrimony of those sovereign states.  Without clear policy definition on these matters, the disruptions caused by the emerging global environment will continue to impact us, with ripples expanding outside of the ICT space – as an example, the innovations in the upstream and downstream energy sector, such as FSRU’s, stand to further assault our already battered energy sector. Are we positioning ourselves properly? The same questions raised above apply.

The reticence to define the foundation policy principles does not provide opportunity for consideration by wider stakeholders into whether our courses of action are tied to the appropriate problem definition.  As misguided problem definition would necessarily lead to ill-fitting solution definition, we stand the risk of going around in circles, spinning like a roulette or Ferris wheel, rethreading our steps, ever expecting different results.

But we have been here before. Some of these points have been discussed in the ICT Policy sphere alone without material adjustment in approach for the last eight years, with the same “technocrats” and “experts” guiding the Government along.

Maybe, a deeper change in personnel is required? Maybe it’s time for the incumbent Ministers to better interrogate their technocrats to bring some clarity on these matters?  One can only guess that the ICT sector alone, after eight years of rhetoric which was short on context, and even shorter on implementation.  Patience must be growing very thin.

Watching the wheels go ‘round, although I like to watch them go, I sometimes can’t not feel helpless – unable to do anything more than shudder.