THE GOVERNMENT’S Action Plan for a Cyprus Digital Strategy (2015-17) that was approved by the Council of Ministers this week was welcome news. It was about time Cyprus took the big leap into the digital age that had passed the state sector by for a number of reasons, many of which still exist. However it is positive step that the need for e-government has finally been recognised by the authorities and a decision has been taken, at least in principle, to implement it over the next three years.
Past experience has taught that whenever a government announces some ‘strategy’ the chances of it being implemented are rather slim. We have been hearing about the five-year strategy for tourism for decades now, but the five years invariably pass with nothing being done. So much so, that one commerce and tourism minister, memorably declared, more than 10 years ago, that his tourism strategy would be with an “emphasis on implementation”. This emphasis has still to be detected.
This is why it is difficult not to be sceptical about the government’s Action Plan, even if 75 per cent of the funding will come from EU sources. After all, the reasons that prevented previous governments from even toying with the idea of digitalisation still exist. First, public employees are opposed to it because they are adverse to change and, more importantly, their union is aware that digitalisation would, in theory, make many workers redundant. The government was correct in pointing out that its action plan would lead to the creation of new jobs but if properly implemented it should also ensure a significant reduction in public sector jobs, which is the main reason full digitalisation was never given serious thought.
The other reason that has prevented digitalisation is the incompetence the state services display in undertaking big and complex projects. Worse still is their inability to hold tenders procedures that are not beset by legal problems. There have been cases of tenders’ procedures, for the supply of software and computers to the state sector, dragging on for so many years, by the time the contract was awarded the computers that had been ordered were obsolete. It is standard practice for failed bidders to appeal against the tenders’ procedure in the courts, which might not issue a decision for a year or two. In some cases a new procedure has to take place followed by a new appeal to the courts by the losers, after a decision is taken.
To a large extent, these cases are won on technicalities, usually because there might be mistakes, inconsistencies or omissions in the tender specifications prepared by public employees. There have been times when the specs had been written, in a way to favour a specific supplier, justifying the ensuing litigation. If the government does not address this problem, digitalisation will not be completed in 10 years, let alone in the three it had set as the time-frame.
It is essential that the management of the project is taken out of the hands of the state sector if digitalisation is to be implemented over the next three years. A firm, with expertise in digitalisation of government services must be brought it in to handle the entire project. It should prepare the implementation plan, draft tenders procedures, evaluate them, carry out the consultations with the suppliers that are short-listed and finally decide to whom the contracts should be awarded. Public employees cannot be trusted to manage such a complex project in a competent and fair way and neither can the Tenders Board, which is controlled by the political parties.
This is a multi-million project and suppliers would use every means, including dishonest ones to take a piece of the action. Perhaps the EU, which would be funding 75 per cent of the Action Plan, would send some of it technocrats and experts to supervise, if not manage the project. Relying on foreign assistance might not seem like the way forward, but our own officials have messed up so many big projects it would be foolish to give them full responsibility for the digitalisation action plan if we want it implemented over the next three years. Nobody likes foreigners coming and telling us what to do, but if the strategy is to have an emphasis on implementation, there is no alternative.