Who is the DSTI?  

Entering the office of the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) in, Freetown, Sierra Leone you might think you are elsewhere. Maybe a start-up in Shoreditch, or Kigali. The atmosphere is electric. Under the leadership of Sierra Leone’s first Chief Innovation Officer, Dr. David Sengeh and Director, Michala Mackay, the young team works with a single focus – using technology to improve the lives of citizens across their country.  

 DSTI is different from other government departments, possessing a unique mandate. It was commissioned, essentially as a start-up, in 2018 by the President; His Excellency Rtd. Brigadier Julius Maada Bio. DSTI’s work cuts across the entire government by using innovation and technology to enable the delivery of the government’s Medium-Term National Development Plan (MTNDP). Through collaborative approaches within government and international partners such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, DSTI is a growing force for change within both Sierra Leone and the wider region.  

The story so far   

Over a year ago, DSTI and the MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB), hosted a two-week workshop for civil servants to co-create solutions to practical challenges. Projects from the National Revenue Authority (NRA), Office of the Administrator and Registrar General (OARG) and the National Public Procurement Authority (NPPA) were selected to be taken forward after being asked to ‘pitch’ their ideas. Following this, DSTI has provided technical advice, support, and project oversight – with two out of the three projects being taken to the point of completing a minimum viable product (MVP).  

 Both products aim to increase access to information for end users, delivering greater accountability and transparency. For the NRA, the project focused on simplifying an integrated tax portal that accesses tax system information, automating a component of the existing manual processes. For the OARG project, the scope was much broader and required developers to digitise a general records management tool that can be integrated with existing technology. These ideas may seem simple, but the impact potential is transformational. Despite the positives, these projects have faced multiple challenges, creating obstacles to delivery and delays.  

The Challenges 

Within Sierra Leone, financial considerations and financial constraints heavily influence decision-making. In this instance, the decision for DSTI to manage the project funds required significant work and negotiation for partners to work within the framework provided. Learnings from this experience is shaping how DSTI approaches future projects and aligns organisational expectations with the motivations of other stakeholders – for example, by building a daily support allowance (DSA) into project budgets for government personnel.  

 There have also been challenges bridging the level of technological understanding across the different stakeholder groups. Currently, many processes employed by Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) are reliant on paper-based systems and assumed ‘knowledge.’ As an example, during ‘storyboarding’ in the workshop it was suggested a scanner be used to help ‘digitise’ the process. Although useful, this solution stopped short of revolutionising stakeholder experience. As such, it was essential to help partners focus on the process as opposed to the individual tasks and ‘solving’ problems by only inputting new hardware. Building capacity around the technical understanding of partners remains an important part of this process and an essential component for the success of future initiatives.  

 Finally, several challenges centred around navigating administrative routines. The design of this initiative focused on enabling partners themselves to lead the process of developing a minimum viable product (MVP), which although noble in aim was unrealistic. Transitioning from a coaching approach to one closer to mentoring may be more appropriate in the future to ensure delivery in a timely manner. Finally, adapting communication methods to those more in line with official communication formats, such as headed letters and memos, in addition to digital communication methods also could further enable DSTI and others to leverage existing efficiencies within the system.  

What happens next?  

Although complex, the journey has been exciting and rewarding. Learnings derived from this partnership with MIT GOV/LAB have strengthened organisational knowledge and resilience within a complex ecosystem. We believe that capturing this and sharing the experiences may also help somebody somewhere to make a difference, quicker, in the future. The learnings are also an important step in helping support similar organisations drive change for themselves. Learnings aside, the priority remains to accelerate the delivery of solutions that have the potential to improve lives. Partnerships like this bring hope and encouragement to the difference-makers in our often under-resourced setting. We hope you will be encouraged by our story and learn from it as much as we have over this short series of thoughts.  

By Kahil Ali

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