If ever there was a time for e-government, it is now

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71point4 > Blog > Covid-19 > If ever there was a time for e-government, it is now

If ever there was a time for e-government, it is now

Posted by: Jessica Robey
Category: Covid-19, Housing, The Transaction Support Centre

As of midnight Thursday 26 March 2020, all non-essential businesses and government services in South Africa closed their doors to the public in an effort to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. Some Government departments, however, stopped operating long before the official lockdown. The Master’s Office in Cape Town[1], for example, closed its doors on Tuesday 17 March 2020 following the President’s announcement two days earlier banning, among other things, gatherings of more than 100 people. On any given day the Master’s Office in Cape Town has hundreds of people in its offices including its large staff complement and members of the public.

The closure of the Master’s Office and subsequent closure of the Deeds Office effectively means that property transactions grind to a halt during the 21-day lockdown. And while transferring property is probably very low down on the list of things South Africans, and our Government, are currently worrying about right now, it is concerning that an important sector for our economy cannot operate during this time (and who knows for how much longer).

The reason for this is quite simple. South Africa’s property transfer process is still predominantly paper-based. Any property transfer requires extensive documentation to be prepared and signed in person, collected, delivered and checked by several individuals including the real estate agent, buyer and seller, conveyancer, Deeds Office clerk, Chief Registrar, mail room worker and others. We have become very familiar with this process through our work at the Transaction Support Centre (TSC) and we are very thankful that this type of activity and movement of physical documents is not taking place during the current corona virus outbreak.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Many steps in the property transfer process can be conducted online by leveraging electronic forms, digital identities, biometrics, e-signatures, and smart contracts backed by new technologies such as the blockchain. In addition, several countries including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Singapore and New Zealand have shown that it is possible, and more efficient, to register land and property electronically[2].

The application of information and communication technologies to provide government services such as land and property registration is called e-government. The benefits of e-government are vast. According to the United Nations (UN), e-government improves public services, citizen engagement, as well as the transparency and accountability of authorities. Mostly notably, given the current situation the world finds itself in, e-government also strengthens the resilience and sustainability of societies. As the UN states –

“Governments have the critical responsibility to build resilience and assist those most affected by possible shocks in pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals implementation. They must find ways to anticipate disasters and lower their impact. They themselves must prepare for risks of various kinds and adapt to and reduce their own vulnerability and exposure. They need to manage emergency responses, seamlessly perform essential functions and deliver services, and recover rapidly from crises while incorporating lessons learned into their institutions and public administrations.”[3].

Moving government services away from paper-based systems is a critical first step towards making a country’s public administration more resilient to shocks such as the current 21-day lockdown. One just has to look at how Estonia completely rebuilt its public administration after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 to understand the benefits of a digital-first government strategy (see Anna Piperal, E-Estonia Ambassador, Ted Talk below).

The United Nations track countries’ progress towards e-government through its E-Government Development Index (EGDI). The index scores the performance of national governments relative to one another across three dimensions: the scope and quality of online government services measured through the Online Service Index (OSI), the state of telecommunication infrastructure measured through the Telecommunication Infrastructure Index (TII), and the capacity of the country’s population to utilise digital services measured by the Human Capital Index (HCI). The two countries that lead the rankings include Denmark and Australia (rank 1 and 2 respectively), both of which have electronic land registration systems. South Africa ranks 68 out of 193 countries in the total EGDI index with Mauritius (rank 66) being the only other African country with a better ranking[4].

The 2018 EGDI survey also included a pilot study assessing the implementation of e-government at the local government level in 40 municipalities around the world. Cape Town ranked second place together with Tallinn, beating London and Paris (who tied in fourth place). Moscow was the highest-ranking city. That the City of Cape Town ranks the same as Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, a country regarded as having ‘the most advanced digital society in the world’ and where 99% of all state services are provided online[5], is a remarkable achievement for the City. And it is well deserved. The City of Cape Town has built an extensive open data portal containing over 140 different datasets including data on the number of building plans submitted and approved by the City each year, data on the number of active business licenses, the location of the City’s public wifi access points and more. In addition, the City has an online City Map Viewer which provides free access to high resolution aerial photographs overlaid with zoning and property information and online municipal property valuations, amongst other online services.

While national government lags behind on its implementation of e-government initiatives, there have been some successes, most notably online tax returns through SARS e-filing. There have also been efforts to move other national departments online including the Department of Home Affairs (DHA). However, at the time of writing, online applications for Smart IDs and passports were not possible due to the lockdown and the DHA’s ‘Track and Trace’ service, which allows users to verify the living and marital status of individuals online, has been down for months (see Figure 1). The Department of Transport’s National Traffic Information System (Natis) for booking driving tests and renewing driving licence cards online is also currently suspended due to the lockdown (see Figure 2).

A Department we have become familiar with through our work at the TSC and directly assisting clients to report and transfer properties out of deceased estates is the Department of Justice which includes the Master’s Office. As with the Deeds Office their processes and systems are largely paper-based although they have made some effort to digitise internal processes through the Paperless Estate Administration System (PEAS). But, despite the name, the PEAS is not entirely paperless and still requires the public to manually submit hardcopies of the required documents after which the data is manually captured on the electronic system[6]. So, while the Master’s Office and Magistrate Courts are closed no deceased estates can be reported.

Figure 1: e-DHA is also in lockdown
eDHA in lockdown
Figure 2: The Department of Transport's NATIS system suspended due to lockdown
Department of Transport in lockdown

South Africa has most of the fundamentals in place to roll out more e-government initiatives including a National e-Government Strategy and Roadmap, published in November 2017[7], and an increasingly modernised national identity system. The national e-government strategy aims to “digitise government services while transforming South Africa into an inclusive digital society and economy”. Some of the proposed new programmes outlined in the strategy include an e-Justice programme including, presumably, reporting deceased estates online (the document doesn’t explicitly state what digital channel will be used), as well as a more extensive e-Home Affairs programme. If implemented successfully, both of these initiatives could make the process of reporting deceased estates and collecting the required documentation to do so significantly less onerous than it currently is.

As mentioned, South Africa’s national identity system has modernised thanks to the Smart ID programme launched in 2013[8]. As at 2018, more than nine million South Africans had been issued with Smart IDs containing biometric and biographic data[9]. Due to the successful roll out of the Smart ID, the DHA has started development on the Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) to enable the verification and identification of individuals by fingerprint, facial and iris recognition. The ABIS project started in 2017 and is expected to be phased in from 2021. The opportunities for the public and the private sector to leverage this new system to automatically verify the identity of individuals and populate documents with information directly from Home Affairs records, with the appropriate consent, are immense. Of particular interest to us and the work we do at the TSC is how much this system would help to reduce the time and cost of property transfers in South Africa. Our guess is that it would be significant.

The good news is that property transfers in South Africa are already on track to becoming partially digitised. On 3 October 2019 the long-awaited Electronic Deeds Registration Systems Act (EDRSA) was passed into law[10]. The EDRSA states that the “The Chief Registrar of Deeds must, subject to the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, develop, establish and maintain the electronic deeds registration system using information and communications technologies for the preparation, lodgement, registration, execution and storing of deeds and documents.[11] While this is a move in the right direction, industry professionals remain sceptical as to when the electronic deeds registration system will be implemented and how critical aspects such as the safety, security and integrity of the data will be ensured[12]. Furthermore, the digitisation of the Deeds Office is only one component of the property transfer process. Other steps, including the signing of a sale agreement, would also need to be digitised for buyers and sellers to reap the time and cost benefits digital processes can provide. This will require an amendment to the current legislation governing the sale of immovable property, the Alienation of Land Act, 1981, and the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act (ECTA), 2002, which regulates the use of electronic signatures in South Africa. Currently agreements for the sale of immovable property are excluded from ECTA and cannot be signed electronically[13][14]. Changing legislation and implementing new processes and systems will take time. But, if ever there was a need to refocus efforts and hasten the digitisation of government services and the rules and regulations to support e-government in South Africa, it is now.

[1] The Office of the Master of the High Court is a branch of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. There are 15 Masters’ Offices in South Africa
[2] The World Bank (2019). Doing Business. Registering Property. https://www.doingbusiness.org/en/data/exploretopics/registering-property# (Accessed 29 March 2020).
[3] United Nations (2018). United Nations e-Government Survey 2018. https://publicadministration.un.org/Portals/1/Images/E-Government%20Survey%202018_FINAL%20for%20web.pdf (Accessed 30 March 2020).
[4] United Nations (2018). United Nations e-Government Survey 2018. https://publicadministration.un.org/Portals/1/Images/E-Government%20Survey%202018_FINAL%20for%20web.pdf (Accessed 30 March 2020).
[5] E-estonia. https://e-estonia.com/ (Accessed 31 March 2020).
[6] Law Society of South Africa. Master’s Office PEAS and PEAST systems. https://www.lssa.org.za/masters-office-peas-and-peast-systems/ (Accessed 30 March 2020).
[7] National e-Government Strategy and Roadmap (2017). https://www.ellipsis.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/gg41241-National-e-Government-Strategy-and-Roadmap.pdf
[8] Department of Home Affairs. Annual Report. 2017/18. http://www.dha.gov.za/files/Annual%20Reports/AnnualReport2017-18.pdf (Accessed 30 March 2020).
[9] Ipid.
[10] Schoeman Law (2019). The Electronic Deeds Registration Systems Act: aims and objectives and does it bring change? https://www.schoemanlaw.co.za/the-electronic-deeds-registration-systems-act-aims-and-objectives-and-does-it-bring-change/ (Accessed 30 March 2020).
[11] Electronic Deeds Registration Systems Act (2019). https://www.gov.za/sites/default/files/gcis_document/201910/42744gon1293.pdf (Accessed 30 March 2020).
[12] Schoeman Law (2019). Conveyancing: The Electronic Deeds System Explained. https://www.schoemanlaw.co.za/the-electronic-deeds-system-explained/ (Accessed 30 March 2020).
[13] Dommisse Attorneys (2018). https://dommisseattorneys.co.za/blog/understanding-electronic-signatures-in-south-africa/ (Accessed 30 March 2020).
[14] ECTA also excludes agreements for long-term leases of land exceeding 20 years, signing of a will, and bills of exchange
Author: Jessica Robey

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