By Steven Furst
“We’re all fine here. Thank you, Mr Prime Minister”, said David Tovovour, the Assistant Secretary General of Tafea, one of the six provinces that make up the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. Tovovour was speaking by videoconference from Isangel on the island of Tanna, 225km south of Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila on Efate island, where the Prime Minister was standing. The occasion was Vanuatu’s celebration of the 2012 World Telecommunications and Information Society Day.
That simple demonstration to the Prime Minister and to the public showed just how far the Government of Vanuatu has come in a few short years with respect to investment in, and deployment of information and communications technology (ICT). In 2008, the Government signed a loan agreement with the Export-Import Bank of China to finance the “E-Government Project”. The focus of the project was the development and commissioning of an SDH microwave and VSAT transmission network connecting Port Vila with the provincial capitals on five other islands, along with a fibre-optic network linking all Government agencies to each other and to a centralised data centre. The planned data centre would be equipped with a full complement of servers, data communications equipment, and software to support a full-featured MPLS network.
At the time of the loan agreement, the project drew considerable criticism from the business community and the general public. No detailed financial or feasibility analysis was conducted, nor was the network design based on any comprehensive analysis of the Government’s true requirements. In short, it did not seem to present a sound basis for a major investment. However, it could be argued that had the project been dependent on such pre-requisites, it might never have happened! Instead the network was completed and commissioned in early 2011. Vanuatu now boasts arguably the best government communications infrastructure in the Pacific Islands. All the Government agencies in Port Vila and Luganville on Espiritu Santo, the second largest urban centre, and all the Provincial headquarters in the outer islands enjoy high speed broadband connectivity. All of the Government’s voice and data traffic is fully converged on digital IP technology. Although the name implies something more, the “E-Government Project” was focused solely on communications infrastructure. Very little consideration was given to what would be done with the network once it was built. Yes, it would mean improved communications capability and substantial savings on telecommunications and travel costs, but not nearly enough financial return for such a large investment. How was this asset going to pay for itself?
The answer is “public value”. Many now accept the idea that return on e-government investment is measured in terms of public value, which goes far beyond just financial return to include social and political value as well. Better health care and better education are sometimes difficult to reflect in financial terms, but no one can argue that they are not valuable for society. Healthier, better educated people are usually happier people. In a democracy, when people are happy with the government, they tend to keep the politicians in office, hence the political value. So it is certainly in government’s interest to perform well.
However, simply having network infrastructure in place doesn’t result in better performance, which requires effective systems and applications running on the network to support service delivery and agency functions. As Vanuatu’s network was nearing completion, the Government and its development partners shifted their focus to the required applications. Consulting assistance was brought in to conduct a requirements analysis across the entire government and to design appropriate application architecture. But right from the beginning, it was clear that there were other key components missing as well. There was no strategic plan or overarching framework to guide the development and management of ICT across the government. Even more importantly, there was no institution in place to lead the effort. So while analysing and defining the requirements, an overall strategy and institutional structure had to be developed as well. Thus the Vanuatu Integrated Government Initiative, or iGov, was born. This is the first time the Vanuatu Government has undertaken a comprehensive investment programme and set of activities aimed at improvements across the board. There have been numerous projects and programmes targeting specific sectors or agencies, but all have been vertically-oriented. The iGov Initiative has a horizontal focus on the deployment of technology and management of information that will improve services and operations in every agency and increase the productivity of every Government employee. In November 2011 the Council of Ministers approved the Strategic Plan for the iGov Initiative. Central to the plan was the establishment of the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, or OGCIO, within the Prime Minister’s Office. In May 2012, the Public Service Commission formally approved the OGCIO structure and appointed Fred Samuel as the Government CIO reporting directly to the Prime Minister, yet another critical milestone that elevates Vanuatu to a best practice example of government ICT leadership. The iGov Initiative is now being rolled out with the key management elements in place: an overarching framework, a strategic plan, and a dedicated lead agency. The near-term activities are focused on three objectives: the maintenance and stability of the network and data centre infrastructure, the development of the application platforms, and the development of the capacity within the OGCIO and across the government for ICT operations and management. Indeed there was much to celebrate in Vanuatu on the 2012 World Telecommunications and Information Society Day. That short, crystal clear videoconference between the Prime Minister and the Tafea Assistant Secretary General, who were literally oceans apart, signals just the beginning of an ICT-driven government transformation that promises to deliver value to, and improve the lives of everyone in Vanuatu.
Steven Furst is a management consultant specializing in the application of ICT for improved public sector performance. He can be reached at email@example.com
Fred Samuel, the Vanuatu Government CIO, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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