Research by ForgeAhead, into the status and use of ICTs in local government, has identified the seven major issues thatmetros, municipalities and districts face.
These issues pertain to ICT strategy development; ICT skills shortages; Open Source Software utilisation; wireless technology usage; corporate governance; outsourcing and shared services; and convergence.
ICT strategies – a must
One of the biggest challenges facing Local Governments is the need to utilise ICT processes to enhance service delivery to the citizen.
ForgeAhead's latest ICT in Local Government Research shows no significant improvement in the implementation of ICT strategies amongst Local Governments from 2005 to 2006.
Sizwe Khumalo, research manager: provincial and local government at ForgeAhead, says: "ICTs alone, without the Policies and ICT strategies to guide local governments will not achieve the desired goals. Most local governments are in need of support and assistance when it comes to ICT strategies and policies. This presents an opportunity for service providers to partner with local governments in developing these strategies and policies."
The lack of a national ICT strategy is a significant hurdle in addressing this issue from a holistic perspective.
Lack of skills and a trend towards outsourcing /shared services
Fewer than 20% of local governments have ICT skills development pin place. This is one of the core issues as highlighted in ForgeAhead's latest ICT in local government research undertaken between May and August last year.
To overcome the effects of the skills shortage, as well as budget constraints, many local governments are looking at opportunities to outsource and are also considering shared services where the ICT infrastructure resides in the district, with the smaller municipalities sharing this infrastructure on a needs basis.
To optimise this approach, however, an excellent network infrastructure is a pre-requisite, allowing for secure, available access to information.
Outsourcing, although it is considered a way in which to deal with the skills shortage, presents its own problems in that skills transfer hardly ever takes place. The reason is that the private sector outsourcer provides all the skills and management on an outsourced basis and the skills that are resident in local government, never grows and the resources never learn.
Open source for the future
The South African Government is a big supporter of Open Source Software (OSS), and there are some really good working examples of open source applications at a local government level.
Khumalo says: "Our research shows a low incidence of ICT strategies at present, but it is interesting to not that a third of the local governments indicates plans to acquire OSS into the future."
The shortage of skills at local government level could slow the adoption of OSS, therefore it is up to government to do whatever it can to skill and build capacity in the regions.
There are a host of open source skills available in South Africa, but unfortunately mostly in the private sector. Although the open source community is based on the premise of openly sharing information and knowledge, government seems not to have benefited much from this.
Reasons are unclear, but could include issues such as a lack of basic ICT skills at local government level or the lack of proper infrastructure and internet connectivity. This problem however needs to be rectified as a matter of urgency in order for OSS utilisation in government to prosper.
Wireless to enhance service delivery
ForgeAhead's local government research has reveled that local governments are realizing the opportunities and benefits of wireless technologies. Some metros are installing their own telecommunications network infrastructure, citing the main drivers as cost savings and their need to empower disadvantage communities.
According to Khumalo the research shows that while the Electronic Communication Act allows local governments to provide their own networks, challenges in implementation will come from vagueness of policy and relevant experience within municipalities.
A suggestion is that those metros, towns and municipalities, for instance Knysna municipality which implemented WiFi connectivity across the entire town, share their knowledge with other municipalities and explain how they did it.
Although South Africa is addressing convergence from a legislative point of view, it presents more challenges and considerations for the ICT decision makers in local governments as the boundaries between IT and telecoms blur.
In the converging world of local government ICTs, ForgeAhead's research shows that there are definite plans and considerations around Internet Protocol technologies, telephony and internet access, let alone the potential that broadband could deliver, as essential components in the delivery of services within local governments.
Some issues in this regard are the lack of policies that are in place, dictating what hardware and technology to implement, and then establish clear objectives in terms of how converged technologies can assist in bringing government and citizens closer together.
A move towards corporate governance
The research outcomes also show a move by some local governments towards corporate governance.
"This is evident by the fact that municipalities are looking to implement appropriate financial and billing systems. Revenue generation and better business management by the municipalities are cited as the main benefits that can be derived from appropriate effective ICTs," says Khumalo.