Friday, November 07, 2008

If, as you do on your average rainy Tuesday, you gather a clutch of Nigerian technology-industry Chief Executives into a room and ply them with enough coffee, cookies and attention, the conversation will invariably turn to our government’s IT policy or the government’s lack of one.

Some of the CEO’s will moan a little about the “absence of a detailed and rigorous policy framework for IT development in Nigeria” (whatever that means), and others will discuss the finer details of the allegedly non-existent policy with a view to pointing out exactly how it damages their business and undermines the superhumanly gallant efforts they’ve been making.

Now, as I see it, the IT development policy of the Federal Government of Nigeria is largely... well, irrelevant. One might argue that a nation cannot ensure sustainable growth in such an important area without a clear and cohesive policy to guide it. A valid counter argument might be that no nation can afford to undue government interference to stifle growth and innovation in such a critical sector of the economy.

Both are two sides of the same argument and both assume that the existence of an IT policy has some remote bearing on the realities of the Information Technology marketplace. I speak here primarily of technologies such as software development, and IT service management. This is not about regulating the use of the radio spectrum and other such challenges – which are essentially, resource management problems. This is about making a better mousetrap.

But first, let us examine the first argument a little more closely. Just how much correlation is there between a government’s technology policy and the state of the technology industry? The answer, surprisingly, is “not much”. In fact, the principal determinants of a thriving and competitive technology ecosystem are, unsurprisingly, tightly linked to the fundamentals of the economy. When the economy is healthy, business-friendly and competitive, things simply work. Throw in the right mix of incentives and targeted regulation and things take off - a little like Finland in the 1990’s or Sweden before that, or Silicon Valle then and now.

When the fundamentals are not right, no amount of policy-making will drive technology adoption/competitiveness. To cite just one example of a carefully articulated, well funded, well intentioned and well publicised IT policy which came to naught, you only have to recall Japan’s 5th Generation computing initiative. Born in the 1980’s, this was supposed to usher in an era of massively parallel computing power which coupled with artificial intelligence and expert systems would lead to Japan’s dominance of the emerging field of super-computing. The west, terrified of falling behind, scrambled to emulate Japan’s MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) and create their own version of a blueprint for the future of computing directed by National agencies.

Oddly enough, all of this sound and fury led to exactly... nothing. While geeks like me were absolutely fascinated by these developments, the rest of the non-geek world responded with a collective yawn, and promptly embraced online porn as soon as the internet happened. As for the vision of MITI: the Japanese government is too busy trying to crawl out of the abyss of stagflation to care about such ancient hyperbole.

Essentially, governments do better when they focus on the fundamentals and leave the woolly stuff to the academics and the industry stuff to the industrialists. For all the fuss about our IT policy, it’s amazing how utterly bereft if thought, foresight or intelligence some of the gatekeepers are. Take the excerpt below (found on the internet) from a survey about the role of government in IT development in Nigeria: I challenge you to find a more inane survey about anything anywhere:

Feel free to reproduce my politically incorrect answers in any such surveys that you might be asked to take part in.
National Technology Survey Question 1: What needs to be done to boost computer literacy and IT diffusion in all sectors in Nigeria?
Victor’s Answer: Nothing. Fix the school system – basic literacy is so low that if we can increase it, every industry will benefit. Fix the Rule of Law, fix the infrastructure problems, power, water, housing, roads... and get out of the way.

National Technology Survey Question 2: How has Nigeria's ICT policy fared in terms of meeting expectations? Please comment.
Victor’s Answer: What expectations? Whose expectations? I’m sorry, you must be under the impression that I have any expectations or that I even care!

National Technology Survey Question 3: What can be done to encourage production and manufacture of IT components in a competitive manner? To stimulate the local ICT industry?
Victor’s Answer: See answer to Question 1 above

National Technology Survey Question 4: How can Nigerian-developed software be promoted and patronized in view of the demand for foreign developed software?
Victor’s Answer: People will use software that works and dump software that fails. Promoting and patronising software out of patriotic pride is like... well, getting into your car and putting on your National flag coloured shirt instead of a safety belt. What is that going to do for you in a crash? Quit b***ing and write better software!

National Technology Survey Question 5: What can be done to stimulate the private sector to become the driving force for ICT creativity, enhanced productivity and competitiveness?
Victor’s Answer: As opposed to what? The government playing that role? See answer to Question 1 above. PS: I shudder to think of our government as the driving force of any kind of creativity, productivity and competitiveness.

National Technology Survey Question 6: What should Nigeria do to unleash the full potential of ICTs as an enabler of economic and social development?
Victor’s Answer: Wake up. Nothing. See answer to Question 1 above.

Rarely have I seen such a pointless survey. I used to work in research and happen to know that surveys need Action Standards (i.e. something that you do, or do not do; depending on the outcome of the survey – love that phrase). In this case the results of this survey are entirely useless regardless of the answers, and that more or less, typifies the role that government IT development policy currently plays.

Ultimately, it seems to me that our government has an enormous task to do in merely getting itself to function: You know, make laws, enforce them, pass the budget, and manage the basic national infrastructure and other such little things. Our technology industry would be more competitive if we were all simply more creative, more focused, more driven... but we really are all too busy worrying about diesel, traffic, power-inverters and, oh, the government’s IT policy.

No comments:

Post a Comment