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$1billion for ICT Wishlist

Tuesday, August 22, 2017
There’s a bit of magical realism to the Government’s new ICT plan. Photo by:Franka Philip

So, what’s the plan then?

Here’s the thing. Politicians in T&T have been confused for decades about what, exactly constitutes a plan.

A plan is defined by a rationale, a reason for its existence, a strategy, the high-level backbone that outlines its execution, and tactics, which are the specific steps taken that realise strategy and ultimately the rationale.

If you separate rationale from the plan and pump it full of hot air, you have what’s described on the election campaign trail as a manifesto.

Even what’s popularly referred to as “the budget,” a lengthy document read in Parliament is a manifesto.

But the budget, a high-level document narrating the brilliant changes and radical deployments that await the nation after months of pondering by the fiscal brilliance of the Government, is quite usefully backed by hundreds of pages of appendices, which constitute the actual plan for the spending of taxpayer money.

There are, at this point, no such documents supporting the draft National ICT Plan, though there is a plan to execute another plan. This will be a communications plan, which is expected to bind stakeholders together in common purpose, or at least that’s what I gathered from the many paragraphs dedicated to explaining its importance.

Given that it’s taken almost half of the current Cabinet’s time in office to produce this draft plan, it’s almost certain that the preparation and execution of the communications plan will take us right down to the next election, where the bold future this plan offers will fit right in with all the other campaign rhetoric.

So, what’s in the plan then?

The document, titled fastforward II, embraces the poisoned legacy of the original fastforward ICT project while name checking and then skipping deftly over the five years of its immediate predecessor, SmarTT, which had the misfortune of being prepared during the last administration (all SmarTT documents have been deleted from public view on government websites).

Which brings us to the real challenges of this new ICT manifesto. Given the demonstrable shakiness of political parties in office, how does an ICT strategy survive potential changes in administration to stand any chance of making a real difference to the national economy? The demolition of SmarTT is just one example of what happens when government’s change.

An ICT plan should be guided by governmental policy, but once that’s set, it should become the business of the Public Service to execute it. That, however, would demand in turn a robust Public Service that’s both ready and capable of taking that task to the level of practical execution.

I am not persuaded that the T&T Public Service possesses such capacity, nor do I believe that any recent government has had the will and long-term foresight to properly empower them to do what’s needed in the public interest, outside of the reach of political machinations.

So we get documents like the draft National ICT Plan.

The proposed governance structure proposes a National ICT Steering Committee, which directs the actions of the National ICT Executive Committee. The Steering Committee and, one hopes, the Executive Committee will be able to rely on the wisdom of the National ICT Advisory Panel.

Overseeing all of this is the Office of the National Chief Information Officer, which will “align, manage, coordinate, and monitor the progress of all programmes.”

The document rather boldly proposes, “that the office be staffed with programme managers from both MPAC and iGovTT since they are currently tasked with guiding the ICT agenda.”

Not content with creating a new maze of bureaucracy under government control, the only specific strategy outlined in the entire document doesn’t simply propose the creation of tiers of jobs for the boys, it even specifies which boys should get which jobs.

I could be wrong about this, but under “ICT for Enhancing Public Utilities,” it’s noted that “the implementation of an OSS/BSS Ericsson full stack system at the domestic customer service level will bring a next generation capability to customers both in Trinidad and in Tobago.”

That’s a terribly specific bit of technology in a document hallmarked by its generalities. Is this a proposal sitting on someone’s desk awaiting approval?

The plan is also pretty specific about where the money to execute these unspecified tactics will come from.

Under Financing, the plan notes that, “Funding allocations by Government would be guided by the benchmark set by ICT progressive developing countries. These countries allocate 0.5 per cent to 1.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to ICT investment annually…With a GDP of US$28 billion, Trinidad and Tobago’s average anticipated budgetary allocation for ICT would be US$ 140 million/$TT1Bn annually or roughly 0.5 per cent of GDP.”

So what will we get for that $1 billion per year?

For one thing; there’s going to be a lot of “e.” Apparently, according to the plan, you can stick the letter e in front of a lot of commonplace governance words and they will suddenly become digital. There is an actual mention of eDemocracy.

It was when I got to the section ICT for Crime Fighting (eBatman, anyone?) and the need for “eForensics that better supports, gathers and preserves evidence during CSI” that I realised it’s time to stick a pin in this lunacy before it runs completely out of control.

Some simple eFacts are worth considering at this point.

There will be no viable execution of any serious ICT national plan before the next election, which means this is all preamble for an actual execution schedule in the PNM’s second term in office.

This is actually a very good blue skies manifesto. I disagree with very little of its broad outlines, despite my obvious annoyance with its occasional stuffy silliness and deluded assumptions.

But if the Minister of Public Administration and Communications will need to mount a podium on the campaign trail in the next three years with something that’s actually been done that he can brag about. Here are two things the Government should do that are visibly ICT related.

While the officers of the Police Service are quarreling about wearing body cameras, transform the police log book into a digital records system. First capture information on a daily basis and then hire smart young students (the OJTs of old) to convert the convoluted narratives captured in paper over the last ten years into data.

Do this project using a specific data capture structure that’s relevant to policing and the court system and then make the information available to officers in the field over secured networks and to the public as raw information scrubbed of identifying fields for analysis.

Suddenly police work paralysed by verbose handwriting will be transformed into data that can be cross-referenced, charted and analysed for the public good. Officers probably aren’t going to like this any better than body cameras, but the impact will be leagues beyond any blurry footage of police malfeasance that those devices might capture.

Stop taking credit for private sector, market-driven advances in ICT and create a foundation for true mobile broadband in T&T.

Remove the roadblocks to 4GLTE introduction that have stalled Digicel’s deployment for years now and forced TSTT to jerry rig a ratchafee system for delivering faster mobile broadband.

The restraints are stupid and unnecessary and exist in direct defiance of stated goals for improving national broadband access.

In tandem with the demoliton of those artificial speed bumps, offer incentives for the private telecommunications sector to move forward quickly to 5G protocols.

If the Government is going to boast about mobile penetration of 157 per cent—which it had no part in—it should move to capitalise on that by driving megabit parity in price between mobile and broadband access.

It should use every carrot and stick at its disposal to push for faster implementation of 100 per cent mobile broadband coverage at nothing less than 10Mbps at affordable prices at every point of the landmass of T&T.


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