The MIT GOV/LAB partnership has indeed provided a significant amount of learning and opportunity. It remains clear to all of us involved that the outcomes of this partnership have the potential to benefit the citizens of Sierra Leone on both a macro and micro level. These benefits are particularly exciting, as they can add value for citizens in both the short and long term.
For the individual citizen, having access to these tools could and should help citizens save money. Within a context where those without access to information can be taken advantage of, this type of solution provides an important first step in correcting a latent injustice. Whether it be the opportunity for lawyers to access and verify information on land instruments or allow self-employed workers to calculate their tax obligations, there are clear benefits. With that said, more can be done to increase access to these tools in general. More specifically, thinking about how citizens with low literacy levels engage with these tech solutions remain a consideration.
Sierra Leonean citizens who have worked as equal partners on this project have gained significant learnings from this experience. By becoming active members of this process, all stakeholders involved have been afforded a safe space to experiment and learn by doing. For the educators among us, creating an environment where one can learn by ‘play’ tugs at the centre of our Piagetian heartstrings. Alongside this by deliberately providing manageable next steps and building on existing knowledge, the DSTI and MIT teams have been able to ‘scaffold’ learning. By providing support in a deliberate manner (including challenge and questioning), we were able to enlarge the zone of proximal development and increase learning for all. Although not perfect in delivery, by consciously employing classics in teaching pedagogy, the team was able to support the development of human capital for the individuals involved.
On a macro level, the tools developed possess a huge amount of untapped potential if embedded and adopted. Increasing access to information on taxes due also empowers businesses to make informed decisions. As an example, by increasing transparency and indirectly contributing to the confidence one has in paying taxes, it also strengthens the social contract between the government and citizens. Additionally, by strengthening the organisational knowledge of DSTI and other MDAs, a partnership such as this can help supercharge efficiency and effectiveness. Capturing and sharing learnings across MDAs also allowed leaders within this context to not only imagine what can be done but see the process for themselves.
Complementary to the above, contributions to the wider ecosystem cannot and should not be underestimated. In addition to supporting MDAs to adopt tech solutions, this project has indirectly exposed some stakeholders to elements of the fourth industrial revolution. By introducing language and concepts around technology that were not part of their toolkit before, the DSTI-MIT GOV/LAB partnership takes a crucial step in shaping the culture.
Moving from the abstract to the tangible, the development of a tech tool, built by Sierra Leoneans for Sierra Leoneans also makes a small contribution to the tech economy.
Although small in monetary value, the deliberate selection of a local company to develop a solution for an MDA can contribute to creating a positive narrative. This change in narrative is important as it also begins to unsettle the status quo and demand the attention of policymakers and those in governance. The development of tools that have the potential to become disruptive technologies within this context is also exciting. Through this project, other MDAs and partners will be able to see that Sierra Leonean firms can deliver to an international standard and should not settle for less. Complementary to increasing potential client confidence within the country, a partnership like this also allows Sierra Leone to tell its own story in a positive light to an international audience. If change is to continue in Sierra Leone, it should continue to be driven by local actors with support from international partners such as the MIT GOV/LAB. The MVP outputs, learnings to date and positive feelings left with Sierra Leoneans provide compelling evidence for this.
What happens now?
The “what happens now” question leaves me with two competing emotions, excitement and trepidation respectively. Speaking personally, I have a fear that the learnings experienced, and products made will not become embedded and used. Alongside being a waste of much-needed resources, the concern that an opportunity for Sierra Leone citizens could be lost, deeply moves me. To help mitigate this risk and increase the likelihood of success by our DSTI metrics, several deliberate actions must be taken by us all.
Firstly, conversations around implementation, launch and scale-up must continue on several levels. Within this, helping MDAs identify the changes needed to refine the MVPs for wider consumption must happen. Through this, the development of internal and external policies where appropriate will also help ensure that these tools which are then fit for purpose, are embedded. To ensure this happens, engagement with end users, administrators and technocrats must be well thought out and completed with dogged determination.
Secondly, resources to deliver on key areas identified must be found. Whilst identifying the much-needed fixes for the MDAs, it will also be essential to find funding and resources for the technical work. Alongside this, it will also be essential to run a sensitisation and marketing campaign that raises the potential of these tools with end users. Although not part of the original scope, it has become increasingly clear that without investing in these two areas, adoption will fail.
Thirdly, learnings must continue to be captured, interrogated and analysed. Our belief is that learning should not be limited to a quantum of time but be part of an attitude to life itself. By continuing the present momentum and partnering with organisations such as MIT to extend studies and capture the impact of adoption, we have an opportunity to learn how to accelerate the deployment of innovative technology within this context. The hope through this will be to generate a toolkit that employs theories of behavioural change that are contextualised and localised.
Only through all of the above happening will we have a chance at making a lasting impact. This opportunity must continue to be owned by Sierra Leoneans so change is not ‘done’ to us, but owned by us. This future must be the property of Sierra Leoneans. However, we can only get there through meaningful collaboration. The realisation of these two principles will guide our path through this fourth industrial revolution.
By Kahil Ali