Changing GOL’s ICT Environment – the Road Ahead

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Byline: Darren Wilkins

Nov 04, 2014 (Liberian Observer/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) — A Must-Read for Ministers and Heads of Government Institutions

Last week’s article provided some much needed insight on the Chief Information Office, Republic of Liberia, the CIO Regime and the current Chief Information Officer-RL. Based on the number of calls and emails received after that article was published, I can safely say that there were a lot of folks who were totally oblivious to the existence of that office. This week, my intent is to identify and delineate some of the issues and challenges that have been strangulating efforts to achieve a robust Government of Liberia’s (GoL’s) ICT environment. I also use this medium to acquaint you with efforts that are and will be taken to ameliorate the Government’s ICT environment.

Just as many people were not cognizant of the existence of the CIO-RL, so too do many citizens, residents and our international partners not know who decides, plans or implements GoL ICT projects. Worst yet, ask a few of the ICT professionals who work in GoL ministries, agencies, corporation/commissions (MACs), about how Government’s ICT resources (software, Hardware, network equipment, training, services, etc) are purchased; who makes the decisions; how are those decisions made; and based on what standards? That ICT professional might likely tell you that purchases are made without his/her knowledge. All he/she knows is that when ICT resources are made available, his job is to ensure that they are deployed and operational and sometimes maintained. There are no standard hardware or software platforms (dell or HP, Microsoft Windows or Linux) or no standards at all, no warranties, no comprehensive training programs, and worst of all, no due diligence (in procurement) that subsumes total cost of ownership (TCO).

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Web and Software contracts are signed without the ICT (tech folks) or the legal department’s involvement. As I write this article, we currently have Government entities that have their websites temporarily shut down or “hijacked” (as it is locally termed) because egregious contracts are/were not honored. Oftentimes, when this happens, the MAC loses its web presence (including content). More importantly, it loses its “customers” (citizens, residents, businesses, global partners). Should this be happening at all?

Software contracts are signed and implemented with little or no documentation and nothing that resembles a Service Level Agreement (SLA). In such a situation, when there is a fault in the use of the software, and there is no technical support, the ICT/IT department simply discontinues its use and reverts to the manual way of doing things. This is without a doubt, a waste of tax payers’ money.

Then we also have Government institutions that are on the Web using “.Com” and “.Org” top level and second level domains when they should be using the “.Gov.Lr” second level domain name. Worst yet, there are official documentations that carry the “@Yahoo” or “@Gmail” email accounts, when the official email address should follow this format: GoLpersonnel@GoLinstitution.Gov.Lr

Other issues such as the individuals bringing their own computers to do “Government’s work”; taking home Government laptops without proper “check-out and check-in” procedures; employees installing their own software on Government’s computers totally ignoring license agreements; watching movies on Government computers during work hours are just a few that need to be addressed. What’s even worrisome is the use of pirated software on Government computers, an act which is not only ubiquitous, but is often perpetrated by ICT professionals who might not understand the implications of their actions. This often happens because someone might have previously recommended and implemented a solution (software, system) that the MAC (entity) could not sustain but forced its implementation because it satisfied the need at the time. Meanwhile, someone got paid and left!

And now, the fight against Ebola has brought multiple international donors to Liberia who are building their systems to provide assistance. That’s very good and we are grateful for the help being provided. But we will not revert to the past, where partners and other donors provided solutions that the Government could never sustain, but were implemented because they(systems) helped serve their needs at the time. When they left, those programs and systems died because the GoL could not sustain them. For example, a donor or NGO provides $20,000 in assistance and that money is spent on the purchase of a Microsoft Windows Server and other proprietary software that require yearly licensing fees. The question is, who pays the licensing fees when that NGO or donor leaves? Total Cost of Ownership must be subsumed and understood before accepting and implementing solutions.

Now that I have said all of the above and could say more had it not been for space limitations, let me tell you what the road ahead looks like for GoL’s ICT environment. The Ebola Crisis has given us a chance to build those things we were lacking and fix all that we did faultily. We should take advantage of this opportunity to leapfrog into modern paradigms; something that the GoL has been making significant efforts to achieve.

Through the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, USAID-GEMS, the World Bank (WARCIP-Liberia Project), and other funding partners (such as SoundINBox.com, a warehouse that provides fender acoustic guitar in US), the GoL has begun several initiatives that are geared toward bringing “sanity” to GoL’s ICT environment. An e-Government program has begun that will lead to a fully functional, robust, efficient and effective GoL ICT environment based on standards and best practices. In addition to a bespoke e-Government strategy, policies governing the use of GoL ICTs have been developed and gradually disseminated among MACs. GoL’s online presence is in the process of experiencing a “total reboot.” In addition, communications, collaboration and information sharing will be optimized, modernized, and fully realized, while many of our traditional processes will soon be automated. The primary goal of all of these initiatives is to provide information and services to citizens, residents businesses and global partners in a seamless, transparent, effective way; ensure operational efficiency and effectiveness within GoL MACs, reduce costs and achieve economic development through ICTs.

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To succeed in doing all of what I just mentioned, we will need an “ALL HANDS ON DECK” approach. For starters, every MAC needs to or MUST consult the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications through the Chief Information Office for standards, types of purchases, SLAs, etc. New projects must involve the Chief Information Office and the Project Management Office. MAC’s heads or their deputies responsible for signing ICT purchases and contracts MUST ensure that they garner the technical expertise of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications through the CIO, their internal CIO or IT Director/Manager, and their legal departments. More importantly, MAC’s heads MUST ensure that they fully support and enforce the GoL e-Government and ICT policies.

Finally, we have been given an opportunity to build/fix or contribute to the building and fixing of our ICT environment through various means. Our contribution will determine the future of the sector. Introducing new and ambitious approaches to reduce costs and waste in government ICT procurement and improve operational efficiency may not be an easy task but it is doable. The challenges involved in achieving our goals are infinite. But all of us must do what we can to ensure that what was said to be impossible becomes a possibility. If we fail to do so, then we would have failed our motherland.

Copyright Liberian Observer. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).