In 2021, MIT GOV/LAB and Sierra Leone’s Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) co-facilitated a Governance Innovation Bootcamp in Freetown. Following the bootcamp, DSTI worked with the two finalist teams – the National Revenue Authority (NRA) and the Office of the Administrator and Registrar General (OARG) – to support them in the development of a tax portal that can provide access to tax laws, tax calculations, and a tax calendar, and a land registry portal that can digitize land records and titles.
To learn about the core needs, processes, and solutions that came out of this design experience, MIT GOV/LAB project manager Seongkyul Park spoke with Kahil Ali, Consultant and Head of Project Design at DSTI. Kahil managed the governance innovation projects and has been a key figure in helping the two government teams develop and manage their project plans, procure providers, document learnings, and finalize their prototypes.
Read more about DSTI’s lessons learned from this project on their website’s blogs:
Seong: To start us off, can you tell me about how this collaboration came about?
Since its establishment in 2019, the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) has supported the delivery of Sierra Leone’s Medium-Term National Development Plan, a five-year plan detailing government priorities. With respect to this, it didn’t come as a surprise that we entered into a partnership with MIT GOV/LAB to design and implement the 2021 Bootcamp. This bootcamp brought together different ministries, departments, and agencies, to identify and pitch solutions to governance challenges. Two winners were selected from this pitch, and DSTI began working with the winning government teams to help them build tools for improving each institution’s service delivery.
Seong: What were the core needs or pain points that each team identified during the bootcamp to inform the final solution design?
Kahil: The National Revenue Authority (NRA) sees themself as one of the leaders in digitizing their services, so they saw an opportunity to develop a new tool that benefits citizens and NRA’s interactions around tax information. Currently, citizens have to come into an NRA office to ask staff, “what is the tax law this year?” and “how much tax should I have to pay?” The NRA tool reduces the burden on NRA staff and allows citizens to access a huge amount of more information on their own.
Similarly, Sierra Leone has a paper-based land system, where people have to physically look at volumes to get access to an instrument. This is a time-consuming process. The Office of the Administrator and Registrar General (OARG) wanted to attempt the construction of a process that is more efficient. OARG has also experienced vendor lock-in situations where a Ghanaian firm that they had hired was no longer updating one of their department’s digital tools. OARG didn’t have ownership over the code and didn’t have any additional leverage to negotiate, so the tool stopped being updated and no longer works effectively. Compared to the NRA, OARG lacked the confidence in their technical expertise, describing themselves as “we’re not tech people.” In spite of this, they were quite excited about the idea of exploring a more innovative problem solving approach with DSTI and MIT.
Seong: What were the government teams’ prior experience with innovation approaches, and how did their approach change from partnering with DSTI and MIT?
Kahil: This was the first time that both government teams worked with DSTI and the MIT GOV/LAB team to engage in product design. NRA had experience with innovating products before working with DSTI. For OARG, I believe they had limited experience in the design process, such as considering user testing for example. I think they’ve become more familiar and possibly more skilled by discussing these approaches, planning activities, and carrying out the user testing with us.
Because of DSTI’s involvement, the two government teams probably ended up working more closely with the technical firms throughout the process, instead of accepting solutions from them at the end. Our tech team at DSTI also has a deep understanding of technical architecture and backend development – so we were able to help each team probe for specifics, such as “How is the app going to be hosted? Will it be open source? Are we building different modules of this app so it can interface with existing services?” This was particularly helpful for the land-registry team, which does not possess a significant amount of product or technical expertise in-house. Having DSTI be part of those discussions with vendors mitigated potential future problems and made both teams think about these questions in ways they wouldn’t have before.
Seong: Can you tell us more about the final solutions that were developed, and the value they provide to citizens and the government?
Kahil: The OARG prototype allows a user, let’s say a government employee, to digitally search for a land instrument instead of going to an old dusty book. A database saves time for everyone, but it also keeps the records safe and secure. Land records are kept in these OARG rooms with a huge volume of records which are stacked floor to ceiling. If there was a fire, you’d lose all of those land records straight away. Additionally, all changes to land instruments are also currently marked by hand. The digital version of the prototype allows the registrar general to see and approve these changes, and creates a digital record trail. This adds a huge amount of value in providing accountability to the government and transparency to citizens. The prototype also allows the user to make an SMS inquiry to OARG to verify whether a record or document exists by typing in a geolocation or different parts of the land registration. So let’s say I go to the bank and I want to use my land or asset as guarantee so I can access finance – now the citizen, the banker, or the lawyer can make a direct request through the SMS.
The NRA tool is a web-based platform that allows the user to find out how much tax they have to pay. For a few different use case scenarios, someone could type in their earnings and see their tax amount, allocations, and benefits instead of having to go to an accountant. The platform also has a link to the most recent tax laws, so you could take a look for yourself. This way, citizens or businesses can prepare their tax in advance, and employers are also kept accountable because anyone can see an employer’s required contributions in terms of payments, withholding tax, benefits, pensions, and such that should be included as part of citizens’ rights. What’s exciting about this MVP is that the government can quickly upload any new tax documents or policies. This has the possibility to increase tax collection percentages and the amount of total revenue collected by the government as well.
Seong: What are the two government teams’ and DSTI’s future plans for the MVP and ongoing partnership with one another?
Kahil: We have been fortunate to work with leaders in ministries, departments, and agencies who not only believe in the solutions they’ve designed, but perhaps more importantly, the approach we have taken together. Thanks to the buy-in from the leadership at both of the government teams, they will continue assessing whether the MVP and prototype are meeting people’s needs and recommend any urgent fixes that are necessary for deployment. There’s also a knowledge transfer that needs to take place, so that each team can take full ownership over their solutions. Then it’s figuring out whether any of these activities require additional funds. Hopefully not much regarding funding, but the prototype may still need a few more features to be used effectively.
There are also questions that the government teams are asking around how they will raise the profile of the MVP. What will the marketing campaign look like to drive usage? What policies need to be in place? And how can they increase access, especially to people with low literacy levels? The policy conversation remains an important one and something we remain committed to supporting. DSTI will continue following up and scheduling regular touchpoints with the ministries to help them facilitate the minimum requirements needed for documentation, training, key priority fixes, and funding to move the MVPs forward.
See here for more information on MIT GOV/LAB’s Governance Innovation work.
(Photo: Kahil Ali shares lessons learned from the MIT GOV/LAB partnership with colleagues at the DSTI offices in the State House, Freetown. Photo Credit: Bobbley Dumbuya, DSTI).