What Next? – How Will COVID-19 Change the Way We View and Use Tech on Montserrat?

When the Government of Montserrat made the decision to shift to remote work for the majority of the public servants it could do so on the strength of it’s Corporate Email System which is the backbone of its internal and external communications. Now as consideration is given to reopening the island’s economy and moving the workforce back into offices in a COVID-19 world, what other systems are needed to make this efficient and effective?

Discover Montserrat spoke with Director of the Department of Information Technology and eGovernment Service (DITES) about this question and what private sector must do as well to deliver business going forward.

What has DITES been doing to bolster the continuation of departmental services since the lockdown?

DITES has continued to maintain all systems and services throughout the lockdown period.

The Corporate Email System is the backbone of government’s internal and external communications and this service is available via web access and on users mobile phones and other devices.

Remote access to Applications and Electronic File storage was not a particular business requirement until the Covid-19 pandemic.  As this requirement has come front and center, DITES has been piloting remote VPN connections and Remote Desktop Services for key offices within the Ministry of Finance and the Treasury to facilitate payments.  Once this method of access is proven to be practical, we will need to procure and provision additional equipment and software licenses to roll out the offering to the approved departments and personnel across government.

Montserrat’s push to be more digitally connected is on as the fibre optic cable project is on the way. (l to r) Stephen Walsh, Digicel Montserrat, Dave Williams, Network Engineer, DITES; Simon Laugier, SCF survey representative; Denzil West, Director, DITES photographed on survey vessel Ridley Thomas.

You would appreciate that GoM does not have a Work From Home Policy, so we are trying to find solutions in a hurry, and without clear objectives and guidelines.  Many questions have to be answered in this regard.  Who is given access and why? Who provides and who owns the device used for remote working? Who provides the internet connectivity? Does the employee have a suitable workspace at home? What are the security protocols required to protect GoM networks and data? Etc. etc..  Working from home on an emergency ad hoc basis is one thing, but working from home as a government policy is a major shift in workplace dynamics and HR responsibilities.

What is next for GOM in terms of improving online service delivery and what are the barriers to this?

There has always been a move to digitize and place more and more government services online.  This is not necessarily occasioned by this particular crisis, but the new ‘social distancing’ paradigm certainly highlights the need of online services, now that we are supposed to stay apart as much as possible.  However, what, when and how we put various services online is not a direct IT issue.  Our IT systems can and are handling online systems; we have applications like ASYCUDA and the Land Information System that are provisioned from the GoM Data Center and are available online and worldwide.  We have other systems that are hosted in the Cloud, such as the Online Visa Application System and the Ferry Booking System.  So we can and have implemented online solutions.

The barriers are the business imperative and the cost of implementing various systems.  Then you have issues such as the choice of application and choice of developer or vendor.  It is these types of decisions, which many times departments struggle to make up their minds about.  Take an obvious system, like an Online Registry Services System where people can register and subsequently apply for the various certificates for Births, Deaths and Marriages.  That was in the works many years ago with the digitization of many of the old records; however it was never fully implemented, and since then the Registry Department has struggled to decide what option they should choose going forward.  This could be a result of financing issues.

Similarly, we have never quite settled on an Income Tax System or a Hospital Information System.  None of that is a function of the unavailability of technology; but rather the sheer will to pick a system and pay for it to be implemented and rolled out.

Legislative updates to facilitate work in the digital world are being undertaken by the legal department as we speak.  These fall under the framework of the National ICT Strategy and will be worked out sooner rather than later, since there are models to follow.

Read It’s Time for A Virtual Montserrat 3.0 here.

Were there lessons learned from early in the Volcanic crisis that assisted with your department’s readiness to support GOM now?

The Covid-19 crisis is entirely different in nature from the Volcanic Crisis.  During the Volcanic Crisis, there was never a move for people to conduct business from home; as a matter of fact, as with a hurricane crisis, the office environment is often more likely to be functional than the home environment.

What we do have is a stable corporate network environment on which data is backed up daily and is designed for business continuity in the face of issues like hurricanes.  COVID-19 and the social distancing paradigm may have put the focus on remote working, but we have to be careful to focus on the business continuity aspects of the situation and not just a temporary knee jerk reaction to temporary lack of access to the normal physical workplace. Hurricanes remain our biggest threat, and remote working may not even be possible after a major storm, so we have to be measured in our development of remote access solutions.

What are the things private sector should be doing as well to improve their ability to serve clients?

The private sector has to consider moving services online as far as possible.  However, a cost benefit analysis of the solution is even more pertinent for cash strapped organisations.  The reason why Bank of Montserrat resorted to charging monthly fees on savings accounts is to pay for the expensive online and automated services.  Not all business types are suitable to online operations, and not all can afford the associated costs.  A brick and mortar presence may actually be the difference between competing for the local market as opposed to your potential clients seeing Home Depot or Walmart as your competitor.  Know your business first.

How can we make the best use of fibre optic from our end…aside from faster download speeds?

It is a misconception to see the fibre only as a medium that provides high bandwidth capabilities.  The resiliency that the submarine fibre brings to Montserrat cannot be overstated.  With the current mode of Internet connectivity (Microwave to Antigua), a strong Tropical Storm or Hurricane could result in Montserrat being totally cut off from the outside world.  Did you know that all of Montserrat’s telephone switching to include both company’s mobile and landlines actually takes place off-island?  This means that a loss of the microwave systems in a storm would mean total telecommunications isolation for Montserrat.  Also no Cable TV for entertainment, since the channel acquisition is done in Antigua.

That being said; the submarine fibre, being faster and more reliable, opens up many opportunities that are not sustainable otherwise.

True Real-time Telemedicine being one such opportunity.

It will be up to the private sector to see and seize the opportunities for new and different type of business that will be facilitated by the cable.

Could this current crisis push us to innovate more?

Yes it should.  Necessity is said to be the mother of invention.

Why or why not?

There is no simple answer to this question.  But keep in mind that we are working in a marketplace of 2,400 households.  The immediate comeback would be that we should not limit ourselves to the local market.  But the reality then becomes, the fact that you are competing on a regional scale with others who may have access to more resources and indeed foundation customers than you do.  This is not to be seen as a deterrent, but as a reality check, so that one can appreciate how difficult the task is and be prepared for the hard and persistent work required to succeed.

Is the “security” of UK support a hindrance to adopting an innovation-mindset?

I don’t know that the ordinary man thinks about UK support on a functional basis and all governments have expressed a desire to reduce their dependence on the UK.  So I don’t think that is a major mental barrier.  In my view the reality of a small population is the bigger mental block.

At different stages over the past 10 years there was talk about setting up an Internet Exchange Point (IXP) here. Is that an option now with fibre optic and what would be the benefit if any for this?

Yes, it is definitely something we will do.
The benefit is to keep traffic local.
So for example when you connect from Digicel to ASYCUDA the connection does not have to go to Miami and back. In other words, online services can work on island without traffic having to make the round trip to the US.

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