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Why planning matters
Any country seeking to establish a place in today’s global economy must inevitably pay attention to its information and communications and technology (ICT) sector. This is one reason why having a clear, strategic approach to national technology planning is a priority for governments the world over.
Have a plan
Attracting investment is a key reason for developing a national plan. Investors think long-term and a documented plan helps investors to understand the public sector’s long-term goals. A plan is also an important tool for encouraging broader private sector involvement.
A properly developed national ICT plan can bring greater clarity to investment and resource management decisions. Plans help policymakers as well as private sector investors to make decisions surrounding the inevitable trade-offs which must be made within constrained resources. A national plan can also serve as a powerful tool for educating the public and other stakeholders. This is why more governments are developing and promoting ICT plans in support of their political agenda. Whether the political agenda is focused on connectivity, innovation, sustainability or other objectives, a national ICT plan can serve as an effective guide for public sector collaboration, driving departments to work in coordination rather than in silos. These benefits are not automatic. Visionary thinking and strong, consistent leadership are vital component in effective planning. In order to create a vision to guide national ICT development, it is necessary to think about what the country will look like into the future. Planners must gaze with bold imagination, ten, 20, even 50 years into the future. Such future casting is very important as it stretches policymakers to think deeply about what citizens will require in the future. Such considerations also require planners to see their responsibility beyond narrow interests and short-term agendas.
Not all technology investments pay dividends immediately. Some benefits are only realised over the long term. A useful example of technology investment with long-term benefits is broadband infrastructure. Successful, technology-driven progress is highly dependent upon the availability of nation-wide, high-speed broadband links. The benefits of broadband adoption accrue not just to individual consumers, but also to the economy and society. Broadband service and its capability are very much about the existence of physical infrastructure and the operation of the networks that it supports. In most developing countries, that infrastructure is owned, operated and delivered by a relatively small number of commercial telecommunications providers. Providing broadband telecommunications infrastructure is a capital intensive operation. Depending upon the technology type and approach being employed, between US$25 and $100 per metre would be typical of the investment needed to expand or improve upon the existing status of capability in T&T. This requires high levels of capital investment. The implication is the social returns from investing in critical ICT infrastructure can exceed the private returns of companies and consumers. In such a scenario, market forces alone will not generate the societally optimal level of ICT infrastructure build-out. Proactive national broadband development strategies—and public policy—are therefore necessary to maximise overall societal welfare.
Cost sharing for common needs
For the private sector investor, population size and economic activity are linked to anticipated service revenues. In turn, projected service revenues are held as the prerequisites for justifying significant investments in infrastructure. Governments are more concerned about how investments in technology can boost the economy through long-term job creation, attracting and retaining businesses, and improving the quality of living standards. In this context, the profit-driven motive of the private sector is not always congruent with the public-good mandate of government. A national ICT plan can help harmonise and co-ordinate what can otherwise be two divergent priorities. This harmonisation is achieved when the broadest possible consultations are help in the formulation of a national ICT plan.
Governments can also use public private partnerships, so-called public private partnerships, to advance their technology development agenda. Such partnerships have proved that cost sharing can be driven by common needs.
Keys to success
Regardless of the size of the jurisdiction, five components for success in developing and implementing a national ICT agenda are the same:
• Strong, consistent political sponsorship and leadership
• Broadest possible stakeholder consultation
• Clearly presented, strongly promoted, national ICT plan
• Integrity in procurement
• Transparency in reporting costs, progress and returns
T&T does not have to look far for an international best practice for stakeholder consultations. The process used to the develop T&T’s Vision 2020 and the approach to the 2003-2008 national ICT plan are still referenced internationally as models for multi-stakeholder participation. In the case of the latter, the resulting fastforward programme did not receive wide national attention or acclaim. However, it remains arguably one of the best implementations of a national ICT planning process in the developing world. For all its flaws, fastfoward has also set the stage for the ICT environment that exists today. There are many important lessons to be drawn from both processes that can benefit current initiatives in the region to formulate national ICT agendas for 2012 and beyond.
Bevil Wooding is an Internet strategist with the US-based research firm, Packet Clearing House and the chief knowledge officer at Congress WBN, an international non-profit organisation. Follow on Twitter:
@bevilwooding, and Facebook: facebook.com/bevilwooding
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