Ghana has taken significant steps to digitise public services and support the shift to online platforms for business and commerce. The rollout of these initiatives, coupled with increased mobile and data penetration, put the economy in a stronger position to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic as many activities migrated online.
The government has played a leading role in driving digitalisation, as part of its plan to establish Ghana as a top African digital ecosystem. The Ghana Beyond Aid agenda, which underpins the 10-point Industrial Transformation Agenda and the Ghana Covid-19 Alleviation and Revitalisation of Enterprises Support programme, is unambiguous in its plans to identify and implement ICT and digital solutions to support growth.
Goals include the revival of manufacturing with support from ICT applications and the digital economy, leveraging abundant human talent to establish Ghana as a digital leader by 2028, formalising the economy and improving tax collection by establishing digital identity and address systems, and reducing red tape and bottlenecks to starting and operating a business.
To realise these objectives, the government began implementing digitalisation policies in 2017. Key initiatives included the issuance of the digital national identification card and the rollout of the Ghana Post GPS digital address system. The public sector has also implemented an e-justice system, a smart driving licence, an e-property addressing system, a mobile money interoperability system, the Paperless Port System (PPS), as well as an e-immigration system, an e-Cabinet, an e-Parliament and an e-procurement portal.
The $212m e-Transform Ghana Project, supported by the Word Bank, has provided funding and access to digital technologies and strengthened instructional capacity. Among its contributions, which include supporting digital entrepreneurship and skills development, it has improved service delivery through ICT and supported the digitisation of services across 20 ministries, departments and agencies.
“The government is implementing digitalisation across two main streams,” Emil Noamesi, an innovation and product manager who has consulted on digitising the public sector, told OBG. “The first stream targets institutions with a significant economic impact, such as Customs, to reduce inefficiencies and corruption, and increase revenue collection. The second stream is a broader effort to digitalise public sector agencies.”
This second stream of public sector digitalisation was accelerated in 2020 by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, as a strict lockdown was enforced for three weeks in the Greater Accra and Greater Ashanti regions – the most populous in the country – where all people were required to work from home.
“During the height of the pandemic, the government rolled out virtual public offices that allowed employees to work and collaborate remotely. Smart workplace solutions were launched across departments, and non-department-specific functions, such as payroll, were digitised for over 300 agencies,” Noamesi said.
In terms of judicial services, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to showcase the benefits of using digital technologies to transform the court system. The e-Justice Project, initiated by the Ministry of Communications and Digitalisation and the Judicial Services of Ghana as part of the wider e-Transform Ghana Project, had begun applying online solutions to improve case management and administrative and financial systems in the High Courts in Accra prior to the lockdowns. The e-Justice platform introduced electronic case filing and an e-Docket containing all filed court processes, which can be accessed remotely. Lawyers and clerks are able to check scheduled dates for cases, while judges and their clerks have benefitted from the new digital and paperless working environment.
The system, which is to be implemented across Ghana’s 16 regions, currently requires internet connectivity and cannot be accessed offline, which could prove a challenge for outlying regions. Nonetheless, it proved integral to supporting the justice system in Accra when courts closed and hearings moved online.
The pandemic also had a disruptive effect on schools, colleges and universities amid government-imposed measures to curb the spread of the virus. The measures affected an estimated 9.2m primary and secondary students and 500,000 tertiary education students, as well as educators.
Several initiatives were launched to address the impacts, including Ghana Learning TV and radio, which delivered lessons to basic school pupils; the Learning Management System deployed by many tertiary institutions; and iCampus, which enabled some 1.1m high school students to access learning modules online. The latter provided offline access to video lessons, educational notes and virtual laboratories through iBoxes installed in beneficiary schools of the World Bankfunded Secondary Education Improvement Project.
Existing digital systems were also improved in 2020, such as the PPS originally introduced at Ghana’s two ports, Tema and Takoradi, in 2017. The digital system integrated all the manual processes that apply to clearing goods, from the presentation of documents to final dispatch, helping to reduce clearance times from three days to 24 hours, and cutting the number of regulatory agencies responsible for inspections from 13 to three. The PPS was critical for clearing goods during the early stages of the lockdowns as it enabled goods clearance without the need for physical presence.
In April 2020 a new system, the Integrated Customs Management System (ICUMS), or UNIPASS, was introduced by the Ghana Revenue Authority to replace the PPS. The ICUMS further removes the need for human interaction and red tape. A manifest matching feature, for instance, allows clearing agents to pay duties before the arrival of a consignment, speeding up the payment of Customs duties and clearance. The introduction of e-payments enabled charges to be settled by card or mobile money, facilitating remote payment processing by freight forwarders and importers. Despite a few challenges reported during the adoption of the system at Takoradi Port, the ICUMS ensured the continued operation of the port under lockdown conditions.
The primary purpose of the system is to improve ease of use and reliability through enhanced digitalisation, which will have benefits long after the pandemic. The ICUMS features a cargo management system that connects delivery companies, warehouses and logistics firms through a cargo-tracking number assigned to each consignment in the bill of lading. As a single-window system, it curtails the need to move from one portal to another while providing end-to-end Customs administration that conforms to internally accepted practices. Processes are fully automated from seaside to landside, and online communication is enabled between stakeholders. Export clearance times have been reduced from one day to less than two minutes, while import clearance can be processed in two hours.
Public perception of digital governance initiatives has so far been positive. A study surveying 1964 Ghanaians for six months during the pandemic, from June to December 2020, found that digital governance initiatives were viewed as greatly reducing corruption, increasing productivity and boosting citizens’ e-participation in governance. Around 68% of those surveyed believed digital government services were useful and easy to use, although high data costs and data security were noted as key concerns, suggesting that as the world recovers from the economic impacts of the pandemic, the benefits of digitalisation are here to stay.
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