Q1. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people worldwide have switched to teleworking. As president of the Institute for Innovation and Knowledge (INIC) of São Tomé and Príncipe, how do you see this sudden change that has forced government services to be more digital than ever?
In fact, the current situation of COVID-19 is putting public services to the test. With the need for mandatory confinement to prevent the spread of the virus, the importance of having services available in digital format is more than evident. In São Tomé and Príncipe, many citizens are frustrated by the fact that they have to go to the counters of public institutions during this challenging moment. As services are operating with several restrictions, there are more significant delays. If a given service is considered non-essential, the public counters related to that service are actually closed.
On the other hand, this situation constitutes, in my opinion, an opportunity to move forward once and for all with the process of modernising public administration based on the digitisation of services to citizens through new electronic channels. The adoption of teleworking as a way of minimising the effects of the current pandemic may not have the desired impact in sectors whose processes and procedures are still done manually and on paper, often requiring the presence of employees to sign and validate documents. However, it is an opportunity to rethink the functioning of the administration and adopt new practices to reduce costs, increase the efficiency and effectiveness of services and, at the same time, avoiding the crowds of people in public places. In this sense, I think that telework would be an option to consider.
Q2. As the President of INIC, could you tell us what were the main milestones or goals achieved so far since the institute’s creation in 2008?
INIC has been facing quite some complicated challenges since is creation. Right from the start, there was political instability with successive changes of government in a short period of time, which did not allow the institution to assert itself and adequately fulfil its mission. However, despite these constraints, INIC has gradually been carrying out a number of activities of great relevance for the country. Soon after its creation in 2009, INIC held the first ICT congress in São Tomé and Príncipe – Kitembú Digit@l 2009 – to raise awareness in the society towards the importance and potential of using ICT. It was an event of great significance: for the first time in the country, an open discussion on this theme was held involving different national sectors and with the presence of international guests.
In 2010, INIC developed the programme STP em Rede (“Networked São Tomé and Príncipe”) based on the contributions collected during the 2009 congress. It was a programme aimed at consolidating the information society in São Tomé and Príncipe. In 2019, the project State Fiber Optic Backbone was concluded with funding from the African Development Bank. It is an optical fibre infrastructure that connects more than 80 state institutions in a private network. Currently, INIC has been working on the elaboration of the National Strategy for Digital Governance, which is in its final phase. The goal is to provide the country with a guide that allows for a more adequate planning of EGOV initiatives. The approach looks at public administration as a whole and not in a sectorial way.
Q3. São Tomé and Príncipe is one of the 57 Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and is also one of the most peaceful countries in Africa. Could you tell us a little more about the current socioeconomic context of the country?
São Tomé and Príncipe is an archipelago formed by two main islands and several islets just over a thousand square kilometres in size and a population of around 201 000 inhabitants. A large part of this population is poor, although the country has seen significant improvements in social areas such as education and health, in addition to having a Human Development Index higher than the average for our sub-region.
Since 1990, the country has adopted a multiparty democratic system, and despite some political instability, this system has been consolidating, which guarantees a climate of peace and tranquillity. The country’s economy is very vulnerable and dependent on cocoa exports, despite the growth recorded in the tourism sector in recent years. Petroleum remains a possibility, but it is in the growth of tourism where the country expects the most significant contribution to its economy in the coming years. São Tomé and Príncipe imports almost everything for its livelihood and depends, to a large extent, on foreign aid to finance its budget.
Q4. What is your view on the importance of EGOV in general for society nowadays?
More than improving access to more and better public services, I believe that EGOV gives more voice to citizens as it facilitates their participation in public decision-making and indirect supervision of governance actions. It makes it possible to increase the transparency of governance as it makes governmental actions more scrutable. On the other hand, EGOV is an ally of sustainable development as it improves the efficiency and effectiveness of public sectors, delivering better services to citizens and companies, thus improving the living conditions of citizens and creating more and better opportunities for them.
Q5. What significant trends do you see in the EGOV area for the upcoming years?
The Sustainable Development Goals are a major concern of world leaders, and the fact that EGOV is associated with a large part of the SDGs is a significant challenge for countries, but especially for those where the development of the digital government is at a less advanced stage. The adoption of emerging technologies to reduce inequality may have the opposite effect in these countries. Without adequate basic infrastructures, such as connectivity and sufficient and specialised human capital in the most diverse areas of development of the digital government, there is a risk of not achieving these objectives. Most importantly, SDG 10 might not be achieved: “reduce inequality within and among countries“.
Currently, there is a high level of development of e-Government as a result of the digital revolution that has been taking place, and this has an impact on the public sector and, consequently, on the citizens. There is a great potential for transforming institutions, increasing their efficiency and effectiveness, facilitating greater citizen participation, increasing the transparency of national governments and promoting social inclusion. However, the collaboration and assistance of the most developed countries to the most disadvantaged is essential for “nobody to be left behind“.
*The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the UNU.