While many government officials have been trying to utilise digital platforms to make interaction with the public easier and seamless, T&T is merely scratching the surface in terms of where the country must go when it comes to digital migration.
This is the contention of the Minister of Public Utilities, Robert Le Hunte. In an interview with the Business Guardian (BG), Le Hunte said: “Digitisation and the utilisation of computer technology, it is something that is upon us, that we cannot escape.”
Le Hunte added that this movement towards a more digital society is something that, during COVID-19, many recognised that “we have to make some huge steps in the public service itself to move towards those types of platforms.”
Recently, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley at a meeting with the Roadmap to Recovery team, supported this idea of digital transformation and e-governance. The PM was speaking of unique e-identity cards for every citizen as a means of eliminating wastage and corruption in the post-COVID-19 world.
He said: “When we look at what is available to us, we have been under-performing and we should take this opportunity and try to perform better.”
The PM noted: “Nothing will make us perform better than a transformation where public governance and administration is based on key identity.”
The Ministry of the Attorney General has made strides on this part, with the implementation of “Courtpay”, and the Ministry of Public Utilities (MPU) has also created applications to facilitate online payments.
According to Le Hunte, the MPU has also deepened the function of the application for WASA, whereby people can take a picture of leaks and report it online so that it can be fixed.
Minister Le Hunte argued that the time is upon us to look at this more holistically and to take some serious decisions.
When asked if the move to a more technological future would result in job losses, Le Hunte said that he believes digital adoption will create different types of jobs.
He emphasised that this is time to use the technology to enhance the execution capabilities of the public service and this initiative cannot be curtailed, as people are fearful of losing jobs. Le Hunte remarked that the population is asking for a more digital interface with government and “you can’t hold back an idea whose time has arrived.” He said that to stay with old positions would leave the country behind.
An example of digital and technological innovation lies within Jamaica, where the country recently launched its COVID-19 Allocation of Resources for Employees (CARE) Programme. The programme allows Jamaica-based individuals and businesses to apply for benefits online. BG understands that the temporary cash transfer programme was developed in two weeks from the ground up.
According to Maurice Barnes, CEO of eGov Jamaica Ltd, payments to over 250,000 people have already been processed. In a recent release, Jamaican Minister of Finance and Public Service, Nigel Clarke said: “The systems to deliver targeted intervention of this scale do not exist and had to be built from scratch.”
The Minister noted that a multi-disciplinary team from the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service, the Accountant General’s Department, Tax Administration Jamaica and eGov Jamaica Limited has worked around the clock to quickly build the required infrastructure.
Jamaica ranked 6th in the world for the ease of starting a business by the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report. One of the factors influencing this high ranking was because the country’s online registration of a business procedures takes less than a day to complete.
Also speaking to the BG was the CEO of the data analytics firm, Incus, Leslie Lee Fook. Having already worked with the government of Antigua and Barbuda on e-government implementation, Lee Fook said that e-government can have a huge financial impact on T&T’s economic reality.
Describing e-government transactions, Lee Fook said: “It can be a seamless interaction and the implications for the economy are massive.”
According to Lee Fook, online government interaction contributes to the economy because people are not “wasting time, taking time off of work, going to line up some where.”
Even when it comes to pensioners, Lee Fook said that more and more elderly people are adopting technology.
“Digital transformation in government really affects the relationship they have with every single citizen, it can also make that citizen’s interaction with government, really seamless,” said Lee Fook.
Additionally, Lee Fook said that digital adoption in government could transform the way companies do business as well. He said that as the ease of doing benchmarks become a lot better in the country, attracting foreign direct investment becomes easier.
T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce CEO Gabriel Faria told the BG that private sector has been talking to government for a long time about improving the ease of doing business and using digital solutions.
He said, “A simple thing like making tax payments you still have to go down and drop a cheque. In many parts of the world, banks actually have separate portals just for tax payments.”
Faria added that the coming out of the pandemic is going to be a catalyst to drive the initiative towards greater online interaction with businesses.
He said there are many businesses that have to move aggressively to set up digital interfaces to allow customers to order and pay because migration to online processing is going to be a “new world order, not just locally but globally.”
When the BG communicated with some of the T&T banks, they all reported an increase in online transactions during the current crisis. Scotiabank explained that as at May 1st, 2020, it has seen a reduction in branch transactions by 54 per cent and digital transactions are up 193 per cent.
First Citizens said, “the current circumstances have exposed more and more customers to the benefits and convenience of conducting their transactions that can be done digitally.”
Meanwhile, managing director for RBC in T&T, Gretchen Camacho-Mohammed said: “Digital is the norm in many other parts of the world and we are seeing this service gaining popularity in the Caribbean.”
She added, “We fully expect that trend to continue long after this pandemic passes as clients become more familiar and more accustomed to the features of digital banking.”