Written by OBG Admin Analysis

The proliferation of the digital medium in Ghana has seen some surprising leaps and bounds in recent years. Although the traditional evolution from fixed-line phone services to fixed-line internet and broadband service has not occurred, a growing number of Ghanaians access the internet through mobile links. As a result, the private sector has begun to take increasingly aggressive steps to leverage the opportunities of this newly accessible client base, through services such as mobile money transfers and e-commerce. Despite the pivot in the private sector, the public sector has lagged behind, although the implementation of e-government services has begun.

While not without its hurdles, the digitisation of government information and services is beginning to pick up speed. The nation’s e-government initiatives date back to the very introduction of the “.gh” domain name in 1995, but the establishment in 2008 of the National Information Technology Agency (NITA), the ICT policy arm of the Ministry of Communications (MoC), truly enabled development of e-governance in Ghana and set the pace for growth.

E-SERVICES: NITA’s extensive project list for e-citizen services includes the development of e-immigration services, such as passport applications, online vehicle registration and biometric national identification for the National Identification Authority, and the continued establishment and expansion of government web portals to facilitate the dissemination of information and improve transparency. William Tevie, the director-general of NITA, said the scope of NITA’s new projects in 2012 alone extended across 11 government agencies, including the Food and Drugs Board, the National Communication Authority, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, the National Health Insurance Scheme, and the Passport Office.

The agency has also begun work rolling out four new holistic e-government applications for the justice ministry, parliament, public procurement office and immigration. The Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA), in cooperation with the Registrar General’s Department, is also implementing a series of new e-services as part of a public-private partnership (PPP) to help improve collection and processing of taxes and fees, which until a few years ago was among the lowest levels of any African countries – less than 13% of GDP. Over the past 18 months, since implementation, collections have begun to climb significantly. The new electronic system aims to link the GRA to the country’s database of registered business, to aid in identification, tracking and collection. The two agencies are also working to facilitate improvements to end-user interfaces, with a now-live e-application module for the Registrar General’s Department. GRA also plans to introduce e-registration for existing and new taxpayers.

Prior to NITA, the MoC’s Ghana ICT Policy Plan and Development Committee was the primary governmental organisation committed to developing e-governance; however, like NITA, it maintains a much broader purview to develop ICT-driven socio-economic development, and the ICT for Accelerated Development (ICT4AD) programme broadly outlines this strategy. Since NITA’s inception, it has been charged with the implementation of e-government projects. Along the way it has received international aid, chiefly from the World Bank and China.

BUILDING CAPACITY: The World Bank’s eGhana project was launched in 2006 with a $40m grant to expand ICT development in the public and private sectors. The initiative supports the government’s efforts to build ICT capacity through the ICT4AD programme. It consists of three pillars that help create an enabling environment for the growth of the sector, support local ICT businesses and IT-enabled services, and promote e-government applications and government communications to improve transparency and efficiency. The project was slated to finish in 2012, but a grant of $44.7m from the World Bank in 2010 extended the deadline to 2014 and added a fourth component, a new electronic platform called the Ghana Integrated Financial Management Information System (GIFMIS), for the Ghana Revenue Authority. New GIFMIS-based public financial management will be used to improve macro-fiscal decision-making and efficiency. Some of the funding will also aid in the development of Ghana’s budding business process outsourcing industry, as well as aid in the spread of ICT to remote areas.

In November 2008 the Ghanaian parliament approved a $30m concessionary loan facility from China for the development of e-government infrastructure across the country, including a national data centre, a secondary emergency data centre and the establishment of a single, shared governmental computing network from the district level up.

PICKING UP PACE: The pace of deployment of e-governance is speeding up, but specific challenges remain. “The automation of tax and Customs systems needs greater focus to close revenue loopholes and bring Ghana up to global standards,” said Nortey K Omaboe, the executive chairman of GCN et, which runs a network for processing trade documents. Establishing online citizen services and government portals is just the first phase, however, as ensuring the population possesses the hardware and knowledge to take advantage of online services, from both the public and private sector, will enable usage.

In that vein, perhaps the single greatest challenge that Ghana faces in terms of increasing uptake of e-services – both in the public and private sector – is the lack of a comprehensive national internet backbone. With fixed-line penetration extremely limited outside of the country’s urban centres, the ability to expand the customer base for such services is constrained. However, if the government is able to ensure mobile accessibility for their applications, there could be significant uptick in usage over the coming months in those regions where accessibility to government services is most sorely needed.

As a result, there has been an increasing amount of effort going into upgrading and installing the physical infrastructure necessary to allow for a greater number of access points throughout the country. Following the November 2008 tranche of $30m, China extended $150m more in 2009, bringing the total concessionary loan facility to $180m. The national data centre is expected to be finished by the end of the 2012 and much of the nationwide governmental network is already complete. The two will be operational in tandem.

China’s Huawei Technologies has been installing the network over the past four years. When complete, it will configure 1050 sites in all – 170 local government districts, with 550 connected via wireless. 15 cities will benefit from wireless access, which will be provided via WiMAX routers, including Accra, Tema, Kumasi Takoradi, Tamale and Tarkwa.

The sites themselves will be linked through a variety of connections, including fibre-optic networks in Accra and along the existing fibre backbone, as well as high capacity microwave and VSAT linkages. As part of the project, the ministries and government authorities will also see a complete overhaul of their own interconnections – with minimum network speeds of 1GB per second in Accra and a 10GB-per-second loop linking the Ministry of Energy, Parliament House and the National Data Centre – as well their local-area networks. These links comprise a strong base from which the government can expand e-services.