Fear Of Job Loss Is Impeding South Africa’s Digital Transformation

Digital transformation
Digital transformation. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The South African state is, by some distance, the country’s largest single employer. It employs more than 1.3-million people, including teachers, nurses, doctors, municipal workers, police officers and defence force members. All too often, the public sector has also been used to cushion the country’s shockingly high unemployment rate.

Those employment numbers come with a significant cost too. In the 2021-2022 financial year, the public sector wage bill hit R665.1-billion and is set to rise to R702-billion in 2024-25. Put differently, while the government employs 13% of all workers in the country, it pays 33% of all wages.

Of course, ordinary taxpayers wouldn’t mind footing that bill if it meant improved service delivery. But it simply doesn’t. Even where public sector employees are doing their utmost, they are constrained by outdated working models, inefficient IT systems, and the slow rollout of digitalisation. While there are any number of factors at play when it comes to these constraints, one of the most alarming is a pervasive fear that digitalisation could lead to job losses. But with the right skills in place, that needn’t be the case.

Untransformed and afraid 

There can be no doubt that many elements of the public sector have lagged when it comes to digital transformation. While there are a few shining lights (SARS’ revamped eFiling system comes to mind), the picture is largely bleak.

The National Planning Commission’s (NPC) report Digital Futures – South Africa’s Digital Readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution highlights how bad things are. It suggests that there has been a wholesale institutional failure on the part of the state when it comes to digital transformation. There’s also a very clear shortage of skills. In 2021, for example, it was revealed that 62% of municipal councillors lacked the basic computer skills needed to pass municipal budgets.

Far more concerning, though, are the people who are actively trying to prevent digitalisation out of a fear that the increased efficiency it brings will result in job losses. At its worst, this fear can result in people destroying technology. Earlier this year, for example, the City of Johannesburg experienced two attacks in two weeks in which computers and hard drives were damaged and destroyed.

At the time, Mayoral Committee Member Belinda Echeozonjoku said that incidents were a clear sign of pushback against a digitisation project that was designed to speed up the processing of building plans. That’s just one example, but if there is similar pushback around the country (not necessarily just in the form of vandalism but also in a refusal to adopt new technologies and processes), then it’s easy to see how digitalisation is being held back across the country.

The need for long-term thinking 

In order to overcome these fears and some of the obstacles, it’s important to ensure that public sector workers understand that delivering secure, streamlined experiences that are tailored to the citizen’s needs is in their own best interests.

The better and more streamlined service delivery is, the more attractive South Africa will be to domestic and international investors. With a growing economy and lower unemployment rate, there will be a larger tax base, meaning that more money can be directed into public sector programmes. That, in turn, means more jobs, not fewer.

Individual departments can further ease fears that digital transformation will cost jobs by ensuring that everyone has the necessary skills to benefit from new technologies. After all, once you understand how something works, it becomes a lot less scary.

The right technologies 

Finally, digitalisation can be made a lot smoother by departments choosing the right technologies. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Self Service Portals: With specialised portals that authenticate profiles, users can securely access appropriate, useful information and collaborate with others. Personalised portals, whether for citizens or government employees, can make it easier for users to find what they need, increasing trust and improving mission outcomes.
  • Modern Intranets: Protected, customised intranets enable employees to find the information they need when they need it. Secure, modern intranets help employees better manage their benefits and career planning, allowing for higher satisfaction and better employee retention.
  • Websites: The best websites appeal to citizens, improve user experience, and boost engagement. Ideally, a site should provide appealing and efficient web experiences that solve the user’s problem in a single location.

An immediate imperative  

The imperative to push for this kind of change has never been greater. Improved service delivery is crucial to South Africa turning its fortunes around and quelling frustrations among its citizens. Digital transformation is one of the most effective ways of achieving this. Fears of job losses, which aren’t grounded in reality, cannot be allowed to impede it.

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