Wesley Diphoko
CAPE TOWN - For the first time in the history of grant payments in South Africa, many could not access their funds due to a technology project gone bad.

Towards the end of 2017, The Infonomist column in Business Report warned that the SA Post Office (Sapo) was not equipped to manage the grant payments system.

The tragic developments that unfolded during the first payment week confirmed our worst fears. Many South Africans were disappointed to find out that their payment cards were not working. The explanation by the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) has not provided clarity so far about the real cause of the technical challenges experienced during this period.

Our observation so far confirms the suspicion that the South African government lacks the necessary technology skills to execute projects of this magnitude.

The Sapo is not ready to handle this process partly because of the current state of the Post Office.

Many will recall that not so long ago the post office was plagued by industrial unrest. Mark Barnes, Sapo’s chief executive, managed to get the Post Office back on track. However, it is still not out of ICU.

In the same week that Sapo was expected to make the payments, the organisation was also experiencing industrial action.

These are some of the reasons why the Post Office is not ready for this project, due to a lack of skills and instability.

South Africa is not the only country that has experienced national technology challenges.

Not so long ago the US government under President Barack Obama experienced a major technology challenge in implementing their healthcare system (known as Obamacare). The manner in which the US government resolved this challenge offers important lessons for how South Africa can approach its technology challenges such as the grant payment process.

The US government launched Healthcare.gov, a $400 million online marketplace designed to help Americans research and purchase health insurance. In its early days only a small fraction of users could create an account or log in. The challenges experienced were attributed to high demand.

Obama referred to the site at the time as the “worst website in the US”.

What went wrong? How did a system that cost so much money fail so badly?

Tech experts came to the conclusion that the problems with the project were not picked up in the planning stages. It seemed that there was a failure to create a workable plan and a failure to stick to an agreed-upon plan.

Lack of experience was also another challenge that was highlighted by tech experts with an understanding of this project.

The human agency that was involved in working with technology companies lacked the necessary software engineering and project management experience required to handle such a project.

Another major problem with the project was related to time.

The Healthcare.gov project was given only 22 months from contract award to launch (less than two years). A project similar to this one in the US took 10 years with a larger budget.

The manner in which this problem was solved by Obama should be of more interest to South Africans than the problem itself.

Start-up team

To solve this problem, Obama went beyond the government and its institutions. He assembled the best technology team in the US and paired them with effective government managers.

The technology team was sourced from some of the leading tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and others.

Obama created a technology start-up within the government to innovate and use tech to solve problems.

Lessons to learn

What lessons can South Africa learn from Obama’s start-up to solve a disaster such as the Sassa grant payment system? There are two major lessons to learn from Obama as to how he handled the HealthCare.Gov crisis.

The first one is leadership from the top through the creation of a technology ministry.

Such a ministry would be responsible for technology planning, implementation and management.

The second major lesson relates to the need for a group of the best technology people to form part of a government start-up that will focus on modernising tech within government.

President Cyril Ramaphosa should consider setting up a government lab or start-up staffed by some of the best people from local start-ups to innovate with the government.

The Sassa crisis should inspire innovative thinking.

The payment of grants is just a single area that requires attention.

There are many other areas in the government that require tech intervention. Just visit any local government website to understand the need for tech intervention in the country.

Currently most government websites do not deliver the required services except for eFiling by the SA Revenue Service.

More and more government entities need tech to deliver on their mandate. It’s time for the government to step up to these challenges.

Wesley Diphoko is the founder of Kaya Labs and the CEO of The Infonomist. Read more of his insights at: www.theinfonomist.com