NECESSITY really is the mother of all invention.
If we are to glean at least one silver lining from the pandemic, it could very well be how it has dragged some government agencies into the 21st-century.
Yesterday, the Licensing Office reopened under a brand-new online system of appointments. And, in a similar vein it seems, the passport office has used the opportunity of the lockdown to re-locate to new premises at the Government Campus Plaza. Could long lines and even longer wait times be things of the past? We hope so. The State must ensure.
In the case of the Licensing Office, the signs are good. For the moment, persons can easily book an appointment one week ahead of time. And instead of wasting time roving from between branches (there are seven) trying to find the correct one for a particular task, that’s all settled by the system. It even lets you book regulation exams, down to the hour.
Of course, none of this re-invents the wheel. These types of online systems have long been standard in other countries, and even in the private sector here. And new technology alone is not going to solve all our problems. It’s how technology is used and the systems behind it that matter.
Part of the reason why these innovations may have been so slow in coming is the labour context. For good reason, it tends to weigh heavily in the State's decision-making process. Efforts at automation have often been viewed with suspicion, if not outright disdain, given the risk of job losses. But there’s another way of looking.
By making life easier for all of us, by freeing up time and reducing logjams, we all stand to benefit from increased productivity. That productivity is what helps drive growth and employment levels. There's a reason why "ease of doing business" is a catchphrase.
Within the public sector there are huge disparities in terms of efficiency, the use of technology, and the effective use of social media. The extent to which the passport office might go the way of Licensing remains to be seen, but we hope it follows suit and that its relocation is not merely that: relocation. By making real improvements, the experience of thousands can be improved.
Reform of the Public Service has been outstanding for decades, largely due to the aforementioned reluctance to take action amid an often difficult industrial relations climate. But it is worth noting workers stand to benefit from these changes which are as much about their safety as it is the general public’s.
What’s required now is proper staffing, the thoughtful staggering of working hours, and measures to address backlogs without compromising safety. For light to truly be at the end of the tunnel, all must be on board.