Monday, November 7, 2011

What is required to produce public good on the grid in Mexico?

In this week’s reading by Bughin, Chui and Manyika entitled “Clouds, big data, and smart assets: Ten tech-enabled business trends to watch”, the final trend of “Producing public good on the grid” stood out to me. The authors discuss how technology will both facilitate the creation of new types of public goods while helping to manage them more effectively and improve the delivery and effectiveness of many public services. Examples of such services include law-enforcement, education, tax filing, benefits administration and citizen reporting of local problems.

Looking at education specifically, Bughin, Chui and Manyika point to the potential for computing and collaboration technologies to “improve educational services, giving young and adult students alike access to low-cost content, online instructors, and communities of fellow learners.” To capitalize on exactly these opportunities, Mexico recently initiated a public school program called Habilidades Digitales para Todos (Digital Skills for All) which aims to “promote the development and use of Information Technologies and Communication Technologies in primary schools to support student learning, expand their life skills and promote their integration into the knowledge society” (http://www.hdt.gob.mx/hdt/). The program includes Spanish, English, math and science subjects. 2008-2009 saw the pilot phase of this project, with 2010-2011 being a period of expansion.

While working in Mexico City between 2009 and 2011, I coordinated one of the teams that evaluated both the pilot and expansion phases of Habilidades para Todos across half of the country’s states. Despite the potential that this program has, and which the authors of this week’s article rightly tote, actual impact of Habilidades para Todos was limited. In both phases, the evaluation found that most schools had not received the necessary combination of hardware, training and connectivity. Frequently the hardware had been provided without the other two. This was not for lack of intention; the Mexican government certainly expected all three components to be provided. However in rural schools, with Habilidades Digitales para Todos funding coming from a variety of sources including the national government, the state government and the schools themselves, the matter was quite complicated. Often routers stopped working and the system to deal with malfunctioning hardware was weak. Given high staff turnover in Mexico’s rural and thus undesirable school districts, staff who had been trained and still present were hard to come by in these areas. Furthermore, limited funding meant there were rarely enough computers for all the students in a class.

Why has the Habilidades para Todos program encountered such difficulty? As the authors state:

Setting out a bold vision for what a wired, smart community could accomplish is a starting point for setting strategy. Putting that vision in place requires forward-thinking yet prudent leadership that sets milestones, adopts flexible test-and-learn methods, and measures success. Inertia hobbles many public organizations, so leaders must craft incentives tailored to public projects and embrace novel, unfamiliar collaborations among governments, technology providers, other businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and citizens.

The Mexican government began in the right direction with their bold vision and their collaboration between levels of government and technology providers, however it failed to integrate prudent leadership and responsiveness to evaluation findings. Instead, political commitments pushed the project into the expansion phase even when many kinks still needed to be resolved in the pilot phase. And beyond these clear failings in strategy execution, what other changes are necessary to enable governments to exploit new tech trends and truly improve educational services? How much do problems of corruption and prioritization of appearance over substance need to be addressed to ensure that money put into technology isn’t money down the drain? Can technology itself enable citizens to mobilize against the corruption that hinds its effective distribution?

References:

Clouds, Big Data, and Smart Assets: Ten Tech-Enabled Business Trends to Watch(Bughin, Chui, and Manyika, McKinsey Quarterly, August 2010)

Habilidades Digitales para Todos. http://www.hdt.gob.mx/hdt/ (Secretaria de Educacion Publica, Mexico).

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