Disappointing start to Recovery plan

Above: The cover of the First Report of the Road to Recovery Team.

BitDepth#1254 for June 18, 2020

On June 11, Senator Allyson West, Minister of Public Administration and co-chair of the Road to Recovery Committee appointed by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, answered questions on Canto’s Conversations webinar series.

It was a profoundly underwhelming performance. West had no presentation to offer, no statement to make, and instead answered softball questions from Julian Wilkins, former Canto chairman.

ACH remains our primary method of digital money transfer, and it is hardly instant. Transfers routinely take days to arrive at destination banks.

That disappointment only continues if you have the stamina to read the committee’s first report on its assignment, which is, by turns, a shameless political manifesto, a copy-paste job from previous ICT development project announcements and pie-in-the-sky ambition so impressive that it should be an airborne bakery.

Despite the clear shortfalls in ICT implementation that the Covid-19 restrictions have demonstrated, there is little that’s actually new to be found in the document.

With no trace of irony, the report shamelessly declares a commitment to a “Digital First Government,” hinging much of that promise on an effort to finally implement a Unique ID programme to replace the national ID card with a more capable digital equivalent.

This is not a new idea. I’ve sat in multiple discussions over the last five years led by various imported thinkers from Estonia, our digital North compass bearing apparently, on the success of their ID system.

Despite successive Ministers of Public Administration and various iGovTT declarations of commitment to this ideal, not one thing has been done to implement the idea.

Much of what the recovery team’s report suggests is more stick than carrot. Adoption of the new Unique ID will be driven by making it mandatory to access government services.

Luxury taxes are rearing their always charming heads again as a way to drive local consumption over imports, despite overwhelming evidence in the local market that such efforts do little to influence taste and a whole lot to build resentment.

Minister of Public Administration, Senator Allyson West

In her chat with Wilkins, West declared, not untruthfully, that “Having regard to how much financial resources TT has put behind the ICT space, we are nowhere near as advanced as we should be.”

Her subsequent promise that the country would be “leaping forward” has no precedent in reality, particularly on the eve of an election campaign, which won’t waste time to trumpet largely invisible digital developments while the success in managing the control of Covid-19 spread can be mined by the party in power.

West also acknowledged the importance of FinTech to Wilkins, noting that there is now Cabinet approval to allow a wider cross-section of people to get involved in Fintech activities, “not only banks, but other service providers with the necessary controls in place.”

This statement rather deftly skips over the obstructionist initiatives of the government to early FinTech efforts and the obstinacy of the banking system in clinging to the systems it has worked with for decades.

ACH remains our primary method of digital money transfer, and it is hardly instant. Transfers routinely take days to arrive at destination banks.

FinTech is not happening because of either the government or the banking sector, it is happening because young people with considerable savvy are pressing ahead with making it happen, dragging legacy systems along in their wake.

It was alarming to hear the Public Administration Minister reference the spotty efforts at free WiFi, the very basic ICT access centres that have been in place for more than a decade and of all things, TTConnect as examples of anything other than the most shameless of sops offered up to a nation hungry for actual ICT development.

The Road to Recovery committee had three months worth of examples of how technology can enable and through poor implementation, cripple this country.

None of those learnings are apparent in the first report of the committee. That’s not just embarrassing, it’s terrifying.

Selected excerpts from the First Report of the Road to Recovery committee with my comments and queries.

Accelerate the process of building a Digital Government – Establish digitisation procedures and initiate the digitisation process that adopts a centrally-led and collaboratively-delivered model to enhance the delivery of e-services including social support and most importantly to develop a data-driven, decision-making environment.

This is a lot of words to describe a government notion that is still to become even an initiative.  The problem with this has always been that digital governance has, at its core, transparency. That’s never been popular in our autocratic governance style, which operates on presumption that the government knows best.  Even when it demonstrably doesn’t.

Create an e-identity for each citizen and permanent resident that: is mandatory to access Government services and is managed by the Government in a government-controlled private data centre [and] integrates all existing identifiers. This will require a robust re-registration process and effective personal data protection.

That last sentence is a monumental understatement. Pushing a new ID system into every corner of Trinidad and Tobago will be a staggering undertaking, and making it mandatory to access Government services is more likely to create panic than compliance.

Further, the system is expected to do the following as well…

supports the electronic processing of all Government services and digital commerce activities.

addresses the digital divide between old and young, urban and rural user, and the rich and poor.

More manifesto words. Electronic processing is only just starting to take hold in government agencies as it finally becomes clear that asking citizens to walk around with wads of cash or undergo the penance to get a bank draft to do business with the government is just a bad idea.

There is also no direct correlation between issuing a national identifier and addressing the digital divide. How would that information differentiate between the rich and the poor without exercising unacceptable intrusive capacity?

Develop an open-source data platform to support economic stimulating activities and builds transparency in accounting for Government expenditure.

Transparency is a nifty word to toss around in manifesto directed documents. It finds little purchase in either practical day-to-day governance and has only been paid lip-service by successive administrations.

Transparency through open data is no more of an imperative in government today than it was ten years ago when it began popping up in Minister’s speeches.

Develop a successful FinTech ecosystem (cashless society) that encompasses: Adoption of the eMoney policy and Regulatory Sandbox

Creation of a FinTech innovation hub

Execution of a strategic public education campaign.

Which would be a lot easier if the government had articulated any coherent or forward-looking plan to embrace FinTech.  Instead, it has mostly sneered at such projects and downplayed their importance to national development.

As for creating a FinTech Hub, that’s pretty much what the International Finance Centre (TTIFC) has been agitating to do for most of the past couple of years. While being generally ignored.

Develop a 10-year Workforce Development Plan based on a needs analysis and the objectives of: recruiting, training, compensating and retaining institutional knowledge and cultivating performance-driven governmental institutions.

This has been a subject of conversation in governance circles for almost a decade now. If action had been put behind these words ten years ago, this country would be in a different place now.

The pervasiveness of technology has brought a rising tide thats generally lifted the boats of tech savvy youth, despite the absence of government initiatives.

Yet those who have excelled have also been ignored and our best and brightest have tended to leave TT to pursue digital initiatives where they can get a receptive hearing.

It’s deeply ironic that in writing about the need to develop a more capable workforce, the committee has ignored the appalling reality that it has not made an effort to include the thinking a single representative of the new generation of digital natives in this primary planning, which will prepare the country for their stewardship.

Tossing around currently vogue terms like AI and blockchain does not make this pointed omission of talent any less reprehensible.