We have heard the success stories of Estonia that was able to digitalize its whole public system infrastructure from the beginning of the 2000s or Singapore who just recently became the first country to use facial verification in national ID. Especially with the onset of Covid-19, many governments are finding ways to move their traditional paper-based systems to online access for users. However, what does that mean for Caribbean countries? What would a digitalize public service look like for countries in the region?
Digitalization Efforts in Trinidad and Tobago
At the installation of Dr. Keith Christopher Rowley’s new cabinet in August 2020, he appointed a Ministry of Public Service and Digital Transformation. As the name implies, there is the understanding that many more services will soon become digitalized within the public service. Some services that already offer online facilities include an application for the digitalized polymer birth certificate, renewal of passport applications, single-window electronic system for a collection of trade and business services and filing of annual income taxes to name a few. The recently read national budget for 2021 also indicated some efforts at further developing the online infrastructure in the country along with the legislation and proper regulatory framework to accompany these changes. Now we will have to look forward to the implementation of some of these wish list items at least in early 2021.
What’s new in Barbados?
In Barbados, Prime Minister Mia Mottley announced in June 2020 that there will be a move towards digital identification cards for the citizens within the next six (6) months.
“The delivery economy is right now with us and we only need to nurture it…. For decades, the supermarkets were trying to do it, they never got anywhere; banks were trying to do it, they didn’t get any buy-in and all of a sudden, everybody now realizes contactless commerce is here and needs to be exploited,” she explained.
She continued, “that we can literally have welfare benefits and child maintenance benefits and all of these things ultimately loaded on to a phone or card, depending…We are now moving, in our own case in Barbados, to the national digital ID.” Barbados has some of the most efficient digitalize public services and goods within the region and the new identification card system will continue to propel this island.
Is Jamaica a Digital Society?
Jamaica also boasts of some of the best digital products within the region and it is poised to become of the best digital societies in the region. In February 2020, the Government of Jamaica took strategic steps to strengthen the foundation for the creation of a digital society, with the signing of a package of loan operations from the Inter-American Development Bank Group (IDB). The loans are part of a broader strategy to leapfrog the country’s development through digital transformation to improve the lives of the Jamaican people. Among the package of loan operations are:
1. The Security Strengthening Project worth approximately US$20 million which aims to enhance the capacity of the police and the security agencies to tackle crime using data and technology.
2. The Implementation of the National Identification System (NIDS) for Economic Growth operation at an average US$68 million operation for the establishment of e-Government in Jamaica.
3. Support to the Public-Sector Transformation Programme at a total of US$160 million that aims to improve the efficiency and quality of public sector services, supporting the Government in the advancement of several critical digital transformation projects.
CARICOM Thrust at Digitization
The Caribbean Community has also made part of its mandate towards increased further digitalization of its operations and it encourages the member states to follow suit. In February 2017, the Heads of Government approved the Vision and Roadmap for the CARICOM Single ICT space to guide its implementation. The most important outcome was the hope that a CARICOM Single ICT Space will be created that has ubiquity and consistency of ICT services across the region at affordable prices to citizens. There has been very little realization of this process as it is still evident the disparity across digital services throughout the region. The consumers continue to face the brunt of the cost. However, with covid-19 being a new catalyst to reengage the efforts at digitalization across the Caribbean, we can now hopefully see some of the following outcomes will take more prevalence in the near future:
1. Equitable, affordable access to broadband information and communication technologies, which are secure, ubiquitous and reliable; and facilitate the rapid acquisition, processing, and dissemination of information.
2. The use of ICTs to gather information and knowledge, analyze and disseminate it effectively for citizens’ social and economic progress.
3. Enhancement of regional trade, innovation, competitiveness, and citizen welfare; through online technology
4. Practical support for the realization of the CARICOM digital economy.
Benefits to the Digitalization of Public Service
The benefits of providing an online public service are endless. Citizens and businesses increasingly prefer to use digital channels to interact with governments and access public services because it is fast and convenient. In the short term, it is not necessarily cheap but with consolidated services over a longer period of time, it becomes cost-effective. Online channels can facilitate access to a wider range of users and access to a variety of services which makes it easier for all. Lastly, we need to consider as we move forward in the information and technological evolution, efficient running data analysis and systems is what will drive the society. So for many governments digitalization of main services should be seen as an opportunity.
Mitigate The Risks
One of the first risks that come to mind is privacy and security. Also as a very communal and interpersonal society, there is a risk of losing that human interface as the digital transformation continues to expand into all areas of life. Additionally, there is a level of apprehension and loss of trust in technology due to compromising of AI ethics and accountability and total automation over human capacity. However, it is believed that once building the systems with these risks in mind proper exploring mitigation strategies can ensure that the technology is deployed properly.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Building digital infrastructure and frameworks is one achievement but also there must be a consciousness of the people to learn and access these new products and services. It will be remiss of us to have a society that becomes fatigued and stressed with technology. Rather a smooth diffusion approach is what should be achieved. This can be done by establishing good systems from the start and ensuring all end users buy into the process as Caribbean countries move their economies forward with digital transformation with the hope of a successful and sustainable future.