Hey to everyone in TCinGC and to all reading the blog. So this is my first official post to the blog and it’s mine and Hans’s second week in the Republic of Nauru (RON).
I guess I’ll start with the work related updates. We came to Nauru our project being described as completing “an analysis of current information management and exchange practices within Government departments, which would lead to recommendations as to how these practices could be improved.” Our other expected outcomes were described as:
1. A formal report addressing:
a. Identification of data / information that is common across government departments
b. Current information management and exchange practices, both within and between departments
c. The standardization of data collection / storage / presentation across all Government departments
d. Recommendations for improvements in inter-departmental information exchange
2. With negotiation, implementation of selected recommendations
3. A draft Information Management Policy for consideration by Heads of Departments
4. Formal criteria for assessing the level of skill in information management and exchange of Government employees, and recommendations for areas that need to be addressed by the Information Literacy Program
5. Recommendations for the structure / organisation of information on the Government website
If that sounds a little confusing and open ended, that’s because it was, I had almost no idea what we would be doing in Nauru. We are working directly under the ICT (Information Communication Technology) department. Our local partner is Marcus Tanner, an Australian who originally came to Nauru to teach ICT for two years, but was put in the position of ICT Director after his first year and decided to stay until the end of this year (which will be his 3rd).
We spent the first 3 days reading various reports about Nauru’s history and assessments of the technology environment in the country. The reports (like much of the material on the internet about Nauru) weren’t too optimistic. Nauru has had a fascinating history for the smallest republic in the world. At one point the country wad the highest GDP per capita in the world thanks to it’s phosphate deposits (ie fossilized bird droppings). Nauru actually has a fascinating parallel to Qatar, which Hans can describe better than myself. The country and its citizens lived a privileged and comfortable life until the ’90′s when phosphate production began dropping. A combination of the loss of phosphate along with questionable investments (the country lost basically all of its foreign investments thanks to a bad loan from GE) threw the country into a pretty chaotic state in 2004 when the country almost lost its independence. Thankfully, the government has now stabilized although Nauru still lacks a viable source of income beyond foreign aid. The technological state of the island also had some hits and misses (the had a very innovative but ultimately failed project attempting to set up WiFi across the island powered by wind and solar power), but thanks to the tireless work of Marcus (seriously the man seems to work 24/7 here) along with numerous foreign donations helped Nauru have an abundance of technical assets and create a fairly stable infrastructure for the government, although the internet is limited by the high price of running cables to the island, the government is currently using 256 mps for 1,200 workers!
Anyways, after the initial days of reading and taking notes we started going out to the government offices in the Yaren district. Luckily, the majority of offices are located next to the parliament and president office buildings (the blue and pink buildings in my pictures). In the first week we made initial contact with the head of departments of Health, Justice, Secretariat, Education, and Finance. We then spent all of Friday (5/29) following the Finance department. Seeing the amount of work and bureaucracy that the Finance Department has to do – even for such a small country that doesn’t even have a banking system (!) – makes you appreciate all the work that the US government does. In the second week we continued our work, observing the work done at the HR, salaries, statistics, media and land transportation departments along with observing a day at the RON Hospital. Needless to say work has been pretty busy. Luckily all of the government employees have been open and helpful, I think they all realize that the government needs help in fully utilizing technology.
While it has been interesting to meet and observe the various departments and their employees and seeing the overlap in their frustrations, the scope of this project seems to get larger by the day. The sheer number of departments that we should visit and observe makes me worry about completing our reports and deliverables on time. Though all of the observing is time consuming, it is necessary for Hans and me to get a complete picture of the government so that our recommendations can help all departments. I think Marcus put it best when he said that our 10 weeks in Nauru could easily turn into a year of work for us!
While I appreciate that Marcus has a pretty realistic view on what can be done in our 10 weeks (he wants us to mainly focus on automating and digitizing government processes such as standardizing file sharing and saving throughout the departments), there a numerous barriers that I fear will hinder the success of our project. The foremost factor that we have to keep in mind in any of our recommendations is the sustainability of our project. Nauru’s government is going through numerous transitions that could greatly affect the outcome of our project. Whether it’s a change in software, such as moving from Excel spreadsheets to MYOB (mind your own business) software led by the Secretariat department, or personnel changes, Marcus along with Eroni (one of the other 4 ICT employees) are leaving at the end of the year and many of the expats stay in Nauru for less than a year, Nauru is in a constant state of flux as it tries to build the foundations of a better country and society. Furthermore the ICT knowledge base, and education in general, in Nauru is very limited. In government the majority of secretaries are expats and the majority Nauruan employees only have basic knowledge of MS Word and Excel. While Hans and I can help create as many databases, Excel spreadsheets, or digital forms as the government needs, if we don’t work with the employees to create these files, and if the employees themselves don’t have the motivation to learn these technologies themselves, Nauru will have to continually rely on foreigners to aid their government. In regards to this last point, there are a couple of things that make me somewhat optimistic on the state of Nauru’s sustainability. First, the Nauruan government, with the help of AusAID, is investing a lot of money (maybe too much) to fund education for motivated employees in order to study in foreign countries. Secondly, OLPC has provided 200 XO laptops to the 2nd grade students in Nauru which seems to be fairly successful so far. (I’ll be contacting you guys in Niue soon with some questions about the OLPC program there!) I hope that these two factors along with an improving education system and the newly finished ICT training room will increase the technological capabilities throughout Nauru.
Another thing that worries me about the project is that Marcus seems to only expect Hans and I to observe the departments, report our findings, and give recommendations. While these objectives are important for the long run, and I have no doubt that we will spend most of our time on these activities, I also hope to complete some more tangible outcomes during our 10 weeks. One thing that Joe mentioned during his stay in Nauru was that we could complete some “low hanging fruit” (is there a more professional term for this??) for the various departments. During the past week we were already assigned by the Secretary of Administration to find a way to track fuel consumption for the hundreds of government owned vehicles which have their gas rationed through government funds. During our time observing the various departments there was potential for many projects such as databases for the Hospital and Education department and updating the RON website (www.naurugov.nr). The question is how well we can implement these projects while still completing our formal goal and recommendations.
Wow this post is getting way too long… I guess I’ll end with saying that while I hope that our project will lead to a productive relationship between Nauru and TCinGC in the future, I also want to do as much as possible as well as possible in our 10 weeks we’re here, while still having a good time and meeting as many people as possible (I’ll save the social updates for another post)!
That’s all for now. I hope to hear more from everyone else in all the TCinGC projects. For all those that are reading this post (whether you’re in TCinGC or not), feel free to comment!