20 NOVEMBER 2002

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Malta and the information economy

Justice and Local Government Minister Austin Gatt addresses the recently held MITTS conference on the information economy. Following are extracts from his speech


In the last two decades we have assisted to huge global changes. We have all experienced the fall of communism and the collapse of totalitarian regimes. We have witnessed the mutual political maturity of diverse nations in striving to map the road of unity rather than the path of conflict. Societies and economies underwent radical structural changes.

But above all, in the last twenty years we have seen an unprecedented determination of Governments the world over to disseminate education in all sectors of their societies and a wide-spread effort to open the portals of knowledge to all their constituents irrespective of their race, colour, creed, religion or political beliefs. Nevertheless, this upheaval did not happen as a natural consequence of events or as a mere coincidence.

To the contrary, this upheaval was brought about by two major developments: the phenomenon of globalisation and the rapid rate of technological change in the information and communication kingdoms.

It is within this global setting that I have to admit that I have a dream. A dream which I first dreamt around 18 months ago when I was delegated the responsibility to lead, develop and implement electronic policy in this country. A dream which was inspired by my Government’s intense belief in the capabilities of our people and by my personal conviction that the relevance of this nation is not in its geographical size but in the knowledge of its constituents. I dream of transforming Malta into an information and communications jewel in the Euromed region and of enabling each and every household in the country to draw on the benefits of an information society.

The opportunities that stem out from a developed information society and economy are clear and present. Nevertheless the potential divides are also in the air, ready to plunge in the gaps that new technologies are prone to expose us to. And this is the underlying rationale on the basis of which, two years ago, we turned the dream into an aspiration, which inevitably turned into a strong vision for our country. This is why this Government has set a largely ambitious goal before it: to attain a first class information society by the end of 2003. An information society which includes all the members of society without any reservation bound to their educational level, wealth or physical ability. An information society, which is really inclusive and has at the peak of its agenda, the fight against information poverty.

ICT, the information society, the global opportunities and the digital divide are not political clichés for which anyone is granted a license to stretch, fix and match according to the prevailing political wind. Conversely, I firmly believe that all conscious and responsible Government, which have a vision for their society and economy, should devote their undivided attention within a radical framework of positive programmes and initiatives.

Undoubtedly, and without beating around the bush, I proudly affirm that this is the way in which the Government which I form part of is treating this sensitive aspect of both its public policy and Government practice. Without getting into the technical details of the tens of projects we are currently running (which for some murky reason all start with the letter ‘e’), in this short address, I would like to share with you the two fundamental aspects of our electronic policy:

Firstly, the soul of our programme – the objectives of our policy. Why we’re pursuing this area so actively and what’s in it for the individual members of our communities?

The second is the how we’re doing it? Essentially visiting the prime movers underpinning our wide-ranging, multi-faceted programme of works.

Some say seven is the perfect number. And each of these two has seven inter-related elements which together form the ecosystem of our information society – a complex but balanced synergy of efforts which is fast enough to match the rapid rate of global technological change, yet still carefully paced to ensure the widest scale of participation possible.

More often than not, dreams and visions are rather illusionary and tend to translate into a spate of wishful thinking rather than tangible results and effective outcomes. In this respect, probably due to my ingrained organisational culture of translating policy into practice and of walking the talk, together with my team I keenly strove to decipher my dream and the long-term vision into a set of clear strategic objectives:

Use ICTs to offer public services to all citizens where they want them, at whatever time they want them and over which device they want them, hence translating a traditionally inward-looking civil service into a network of organisations governed by the spirit of customer relationship management;

Use technology in Government to complement the power-decentralisation programme conducted by Government with a view of definitively eradicate any residues of the spectre of clientalism which unfortunately plagued the Government of this country for over 16 years;

Further extend the principle of citizen participation in decision-making by applying information and communication technologies to create new channels over which citizens can express their views on the decision that are being taken on their behalf by local and central Governments;

Ensure that each and every citizen enjoys accessibility to all forms of information and communication technologies, irrespective of his or her social, education or financial situation;

Strive to engender ICT-literacy in all sectors of society from our children in the primary schools, through to the housewives who are keen to join their children in the information age voyage up to our senior citizens who 40-50 years ago struggled to build our society and preserve our values but never dreamt of something called the Internet;

Harness and exploit the gleaming opportunities that ICTs and the Internet offer to our economy by expanding the geographical boundaries of a 380,000-strong market into a global community of over 560 million buyers and by creating an indigenous ICT-industry within an international business scenario; and

Apply ICTs to identify creative avenues in which we can complement this Government’s firm commitment of enhancing the quality of life of our citizens.

Dreams, visions, mission statements, strategies and objectives are something, which I am sure you and your business consultants are certainly used to. Unfortunately some political quarters in our country tend to deposit these terms into their rabbit-hats and every now and then they pick up one of them, re-cycle it and package it into a gimmick with the flavour of the day.

Dreams are attained and visions are implemented only on the basis of a strong implementation policy based on a strong set of fundamental pillars that enable the executive arm to deliver the respective programmes and initiatives:

The first pillar is certainly the ability to translate policies and plans into practical projects, programmes and initiatives and to source the right quantity and quality of resources to successfully complete these projects. Today within my Ministry there are over 60 on-going projects contributing to the attainment of the various facets of our objectives. It suffices to say that by March 2003 90% of the transactions conducted between Government, citizens and businesses will be entirely web-enabled;

Secondly, projects need resources and resources need investment. It is enough to say that in these last four years Government has invested over 100 million Euros in technology in Government. An investment which ironically has been increasing in every budget since 1987, except for the short 22-month stint wherein for the first time in a decade we witnessed a deliberate decrease in ICT-investment.

We did not pay lip service to the term accessibility. We believe that if people are not in a position to obtain technology themselves we should take technology to them. And this is why notwithstanding the fact that Malta has the highest rate of public Internet cafes per capita amongst the candidate countries, by March next year we will be also providing free public Internet access practically every 100 metres, through Local Councils, schools, libraries, Government offices and web phones by the kerb;

In ICT in education we were absolutely radical. We wanted to be sure that the upcoming generations will have ICT as their second nature. Today 90% of all our students in primary and secondary schools have access to the web, each with an email address and his or her own web space. There is one Internet-enabled PC for every seven students – the highest rate per capita in the European Union. As from this scholastic year we are offering secondary school leavers to attain a full ECDL certificate. We are partnering with major ICT-players such as Cisco and Microsoft to facilitate the establishment of specialised ICT-academies in Malta. And we are now also offering free high-end awareness training to the members of our community.

Another jewel in the crown is our strong outsourcing policy. This year the private sector has witnessed a record influx of ICT-related work especially within the e-Government programme; a policy which will be practiced and developed to an unprecedented degree, hopefully, in the coming weeks;

The sixth pillar is the ability to bring various players (usually with divergent missions and objectives) into one single multi-disciplinary team realising the much-desired synergies and ensuring that no effort is spared in avoiding duplication of efforts and resources. The power generated from our team-based and collaborative approach has certainly reaped its dividends;

However, without any doubt the major mainstay of all the programme which contributed to the attainment of the objectives I referred to earlier, is the practical political championing within which the politician lays his baton on the side, gets heavily involved into devising practical programmes and makes sure that those objectives do not degenerate into a mere paper-exercise to serve the chronicles of the public service.

I am sure that you can sense the progress in this field. Nevertheless, I feel obliged to point out that up to merely 15 years ago this was a technology-hostile nation in which it was illegal to import a personal computer! Progress should not be taken for granted. Today we are reaping the dividends of decisions made as early as 1988, when Cabinet then decided to discard the obsolete telecoms network to make way for digital connectivity in literally every single household in the country. The bottom line is that a first-class information society is not attained as a natural consequence of events. It is only the result of a strong political vision and a lot of very hard work.

The French statesman Charles de Gaulle used to say that "in politics one is judged by the results" and I sincerely think that the results of these 18 months of operation speak for themselves.

By way of conclusion, I would like to express my satisfaction for the opportunity that I have been given to serve my country in this exciting area. Because at the end of the day this is what politics is all about…serving your country and its people.

 



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Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
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