At a recent conference in Johannesburg, a young college student posed a question to the Presidency of South Africa: “If we are introducing into basic education new subjects to be competitive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, like coding, why do we have ministers of education that are over 60?”
It was an interesting glimpse into the mind of a demographic most impacted by the digital era. If you look at any digitally transforming organisation, what sets the leaders apart is not just a clear digital strategy, but a culture and leadership poised to execute it. Employees today expect business leaders to be nimble, embracing digital tools to remain competitive and make strategic decisions with the future in mind.
This student’s question demonstrates that the expectation on governments is no different. As African countries work to become global leaders in the digital revolution, young people are looking for a tech-savvy and digitally mature government to boldly set the standards, and lead the way.
The benefits of a digitally skilled government
The benefits of a digitally-savvy government are many. Armed with technologies and the capabilities to use them, governments are empowered to be more agile, efficient, data-driven, transparent and connected to citizens. With machine learning and skills in data analytics, policy makers can be more forward-thinking, regularly re-examining policies, discovering new opportunities and mitigating risks for more productive and inclusive growth.
A Deloitte digital survey also found that public sector leaders who understand digital trends and technologies are three times more likely to provide appropriate support for transformation, compared to those who do not. High levels of involvement with technology typically result in greater investment, broader adoption and a greater number of successful implementations.
In a recent IFC report, Africa was noted as having a slow and insufficient policy response to digital transformation. Respondents called for accelerated efforts in developing clear-cut digital agendas. This includes modernizing school curriculum, training teachers, expanding broadband access, promoting a vibrant business climate by encouraging competition, and enforcing cybersecurity. Today, resources such as the AI Business School geared specifically towards government can be the first stop for governments looking to upskill their employees.
With more digital champions in government, imagine how much more rapidly Africa could implement this transformation and advance its position as a leader in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In 2018, for example, the United Arab Emirates announced its intention to become the world’s most prepared country for artificial intelligence, leading in AI research, development and innovation. To do so, they began efforts at government level, appointing the first dedicated Minister of AI. The effort was applauded for ensuring “a necessary focus for implementation as opposed to just talking” and ensuring solutions are based on the latest understanding of technology.
Taking the lead in digital transformation
For Africa to truly succeed – and lead – in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, innovative startups, technology companies and smart businesses need to collaborate on building an ecosystem where everyone benefits from technology. Leading this charge needs to be progressive governments with clear roadmaps that both define and enable the digital horizon.
Countries like Morocco are well on their way, through initiatives including the Maroc 2020 Digital strategy. But, as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points out, the success of this strategy depends on government capacity to prioritize, plan, manage and monitor ICT investments. Governments need to focus on attracting, retaining and upskilling qualified ICT professionals in the public sector workforce that can cope with the complexities of the new policy environment.
Undoubtedly today, the most critical area of investment by governments needs to be skills development in order to sustainably grow their emerging digital economies. The time for skilling was yesterday. The next best time is today.
Abdella is Regional Director of Microsoft 4Afrika