George K. Fahnbulleh

Ideas and Opinions...

President Sirleaf and the Unity Party Intend to contract or sell everything Before they leave Office

The government of Liberia is looking to enter into a BOOT model contract for e-visas, with less than 4 months left until a new government comes in. I examine the technical requirements, by the government, which are farcical, later in this piece. But first, some housekeeping.

What is the BOOT model?

"BOOT (build, own, operate, transfer) is a public-private partnership (PPP) project model in which a private organization conducts a large development project under contract to a public-sector partner, such as a government agency. A BOOT project is often seen as a way to develop a large public infrastructure project with private funding…Such contracts are typically long-term and may extend to 40 or more years."

The BOOT model is entirely unnecessary and does not apply to this type of contract (which would cost under $2M USD). There is no need for any party to BUILD the technology infrastructure (storage, database, transport, ecommerce) can all be purchased using the “SAAS” or Software As A Service model. Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services are two vendors offer these types of infrastructure services.

The issue here is the services being requested, cannot, in any way, be considered “a large public infrastructure project.” The requirements in the Request for Proposal, are vague, specious, devoid of any over-arching technology philosophy. Reading the RFP, it is obvious it was SPECIFICALLY WRITTEN by a specific “vendor” with a “specific vendor” in mind.

This contract will essentially ensure, for the next 10, 20, 30 years that some group, family, cartel will get a percentage of each and every Liberian visa issued.

Imagine this: if there are 50,000 visas issued annually and the “cartel” gets $50 per visa, the “cartel” collects $2.5M annually. Extend that over a 10 – 30 year period, the amount balloons to $25M - $75M.

Why do people believe they must “soak” the Liberian people in perpetuity?

FYI, the Maritime contract with LISCR was a BOOT contract. The GoL did not spend the money to build the data infrastructure, as a result, the infrastructure is owned by LISCR and the price for turning over that infrastructure is so exorbitant, it is unaffordable.

So the question is why would the Unity Party government be in such haste, to commit to a long term contract, for a project that will not be implemented BEFORE 2018, tying the hands of the next government? This is a question I would actually like BOTH the President, and the Vice President to answer.

Sadly this is not the only such “contract” being entered into.

The National Identification Registry is embarking on a $6M USD, biometric ID card project in October (the election month). Their plans call for them to build two (2) datacenters, even though there is an unutilized data center at LIBTELCO. According to the NIR, they will register 50 persons a day. At this rate, it will take 252 years, to provide IDs to 4.7 million people. They are obviously in it for the long haul. Haul being the operative word.

The NIR has contracted with a Kenyan company to provide the service. The software and technology is not developed by the Kenyan company. They are simply the vendor who will implement the service.

Then there is the NEC, which has reportedly hired a Ghanaian company, to do/manage database work for them.

How is it that the most important, private data, data with national security and privacy implications is being given to foreign companies, as if there are no Liberians, anywhere in the world, with the capability.

Government agents standard arguments is people “have to be on the ground.” Since when did Kenya, and Ghana become “on the ground” in Liberia? Is it simply that they are planning for their lives outside Liberia? The people of Liberia will continue to suffer, while past leaders make money off them for the next 30 years.

What is obvious, in these contracts, is there seems to be a concerted effort, to direct all of the GoL information technology contracts AWAY from Liberians and Liberian companies. This hinders the development of the sector in LiberIa. How many Liberian companies are there working for the Ghanian Election Commission or the Kenyan Biometric Registry?

The VP/UP Problem
The problem for the Vice President, is he cannot run to continue the Unity Party governance, while at the same time, claim he has been oblivious to these types of shenanigans.

Analysis of the E-Visa Request for Proposal

The term service provider is actually the “integrator,” and speaks to a lack of understanding of the types of vendors that do this kind of work.

1) The Service Provider must have been in the Software Engineering business for at least 10 years.

This is a lark, because these e-visa packages are not “developed/engineered” by the service provider. The developer of the software, and the software itself should meet those standards, not the “service provider.” This is like demanding the Toyota dealership have 10 years in the car manufacturing business.

2) The Service Provider must be accredited in the key software technologies used in the development of the Web Based Online Visa Application CMM Level 5 Certification is preferred.

Again, this continues to conflate the actual developer of the software with the “service provider.”

3) The Service Provider shall demonstrate experience in the development of large and comparable software systems in the government sector. Experience working with the Liberian government will be an added advantage.

These are software packages that are purchased. If the government of Liberia were actually serious and committed to the development of the ecosystem for these types of services, it would not contract with a separate vendor for the National Identification Registry, the Biometric/e-passport, and the e-visa.

This is death by a thousand contracts, where each contract is a vehicle for some person and/or group to CHOP.

Financial Criteria:

The turnover of the company should be more than $10 million. How many Liberian IT companies “turnover” $10M. This should tell the reader, there is no intention to allow Liberian companies to qualify for such a bid.

Summary 

The government is determined to solicit multiple solutions for several requirements that can be addressed by a single integrated platform. This is yet another example of spending large amounts on a solution that can be purchased at a fraction of the cost.

What is even more painful, is the determination of this government, to develop a vibrant internal software services sector, which would further create learning opportunities for Liberian youth.

It is my hope that the next government will do an audit of ALL the technology projects, including those sponsored by aid dollars, and where there is malfeasance in contracting, it will go after, those “former officials” with malice, no matter where in the world they try to hide.

Integrity is not the solution for Corruption in Africa

"Show me a country with poor record keeping systems, and I will show you a poor country every time" 

The fight against corruption, in Liberia, is not about integrity. It is about having RECORD SYSTEMS that can adequately track all transactions. Most African nations, Liberia included, are woefully deficient in their record keeping systems.

How come Liberians who exist in the West seem to not have these "integrity" problems? As soon as they get to Liberia, their "lack of integrity" shows up. Because in the West, record keeping systems exist that will catch them more often than not, so they do not risk committing the offenses.

The DEFAULT proposition is "you will be caught." In Africa, the DEFAULT proposition is "you will NOT be caught."

In other words, people in the West ARE FORCED to be honest, whether they want to or not, BECAUSE of the systems in place.

Another thing that forces honesty, in the West, is the REDUCED USE of CASH for financial transactions. Those credit/debit card transactions force the transactions into RECORD KEEPING SYSTEMS.

In Africa, the vast majority of the transactions are cash transactions, which leave room for theft, at every collection point of the transfer of said transaction.

As long as we continue to look at it as an "integrity" problem we will miss the mark. It is a lack of systems problem.

You can have systems of Accountability without computer systems

What process is used to standardize the collection of data for people requesting or receiving a government service/benefit?

It is not just about "computer systems."

The PAPER FORM is the most BASIC CONSTRUCT for data collection and management. In developed countries, people requesting something from the government must fill out a form. Design of those forms and their elements are controlled by a central entity and the agency requesting the benefit/action is being requested.

In the US, that federal agency is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
-The elements and/or wording on those forms can only be altered after a rigorous process between the agency and OMB.
-Any computer systems which capture the data from those forms must be updated before a new version of the form is put into circulation.
-PUBLIC NOTICE must be given, as to the changes to the form.
-These notices and regulations are published in the Federal Register.

Once a new version of a form is released, the old version CAN no longer be used to request or submit information to the government.

So I am not speaking only about computers in any discussion of DATA SYSTEMS. Data systems include all instruments used to collect data.

Re-Imagining Liberia: A Protocol for Asset Declaration & Verification

As Liberia continues to make progress towards harnessing and leveraging the technologies of the 21st century, my musings have turned to thinking about solutions to some of the issues which have bedeviled us and our governance. 

 In a series of posts I will ask and try to answer some questions which have vexed us.  I am persuaded it is not enough to say "this is what is needed;" we must answer what, why, and how.  I am not an economist, I am a technologist.  We look at questions and try to provide solutions based on process, policy, and technology.  This is what this post is attempting to do.  I invite all Liberians to make this a vigorous discussion.

This particular topic today deals with how we can implement a reliable asset declaration protocol which will allow the government to attest to the veracity of the asset declarations made by government officials.

 WHAT ARE ASSETS?

 An asset is anything to which a monetary value can be attached.  The issue with assets in Liberia is that it seems people employed by the government seem to be able to increase the amount of assets they have at a rate that far outpaces their salaries.  The government has no reliable mechanism for establishing the value of a person's assets before he/she enters government, and no reliable mechanism for establishing their value after they leave office.  As a result, prosecution, which relies on facts is next to impossible.

 There are several components required for this protocol to work, three of the most important are:

  1. There must be means of establishing ownership of assets which is non-refutable. 
  2. There must be a legal framework, thru the legislative process, that establishes the use of identifiers and technology to ensure such a system is trustworthy and reliable. 
  3. There must be a legal framework which ensures the ability of all the government agencies, required in the verification process, to communicate electronically effectively and efficiently.


ESTABLISHING ASSET OWNERSHIP WITH A SINGLE ENTITY IDENTIFIER(SEI)

In order to establish the ownership of an asset, we must have the ability to issue universal identification numbers to every entity (individual or corporate entity) that can own said asset.  This single entity identifier can be separated into two distinct groups, with different government agencies taking ownership and management of the groups:

Group I:  The Single Person Identifier (SPI) - In every developed country there is an identifier that distinctly identifies every individual.  It is a one to one relationship, and it is non-refutable.  In the United States, this is called the Social Security Number.

For the purposes of Liberia, we can also use the social security number, and the logic is simple:  Every person, at one time or another will have to interact with the national social security corporation.  As such, every person born in Liberia, every person who works in Liberia must have a social security number.  This must be mandated by law.

What the social security number will allow us to do is to distinguish between Mary Blapoh from Ganta, and Mary Blapoh from Logan Town, even if they were both born on the same day. 

NASSCorp already has in place the system to verify identities and issue social security numbers. 

Every asset, bank accounts, property deeds, business ownership (whole or partial) must have a social security number(s) attached to it, in a uniform manner in computer systems.  Those systems must, by law, allow for the query and response, of that data, to establish the identity of an applicant for any of the above kinds of services.

For example, if Mary Blapoh (Ganta) wants to open a bank account, she must present her indentification and social security credentials to the bank.  The bank, in turn, must be able to send an electronic query to NASSCorp seeking to establish the veracity of Mary Blapoh's credentials.  Once the bank receives an affirmative response, the account, with Mary Blapoh's SSN can be opened.  The same scenario would work for any other type of service.

Group II: Business Entity Identifier

This type of identifier is given to every registered business by the Revenue Bureau of the Ministry of Finance when a business is registered.  However, since businesses are owned by individuals, the social security numbers of the owners must be attached to the incorporation documents.  There must also be procedures to change the ownership percentages, in a filing that can be done electronically.

The challenges now for the government are to institute the legislation, begin the process of issuing social security numbers to every Liberian citizen and non-citizens doing business in Liberia, and affixing a social security number(s) to all asset records.

This process, in my opinion, can be accomplished in 24-36 months and includes legislation, system updates, and account updates.

Any entity that is the holder of records of assets, must have the ability to respond to an electronic query for records tied to a specific social security number. This means if the government wants to do an asset verification on an individual, it can send out a query to the banking sector for all accounts owned by a specific SSN; it can send a query to the National Archives for all property records owned by that SSN; it can query its corporate registration database for all corporations owned in whole or in part, by that SSN.

Lastly, because these protocols are already established in the developed world, any person who previously lived outside Liberia, must provide the government with the authority to do asset verifications on his/her foreign identifiers.

In Liberia: Engineering the Failure of LIBTELCO

This article was written by George K. Fahnbulleh and Omar Fahnbulleh

The Liberian government recently announced a policy wherein the government would roll the cost of government official's communications into their salaries.  While this policy has been greeted with cheers by the people of Liberia, this writer believes there is something much more dubious afoot:  the deliberate bankrupting of LIBTELCO thru a series of seeming innocuous policies which I will detail.

To get the fiber optic cable here, we spent about 25 millions under a private-public venture called the Cable Consortium of Liberia. We have a problem; we don't have the required infrastructure to the get the cable operational. We need about 7 million dollars to get it going and we have not been able to get Government funding and this is why the connection process is slow. But we are making efforts to get banks to fund the project. At the moment we moving small small. ~ Paul Muah, Deputy Managing Director LIBTELCO 

The gains for the government and people of Liberia, with the implementation of high speed internet connectivity, in terms of increased efficiencies, communications, accountability, education, health are on a scale of orders of magnitude.  It is mind boggling to us, why the government would allow this entity to struggle when it is the entity which was built for exactly this function.

As we examine the latest policy, we realize the civil war destroyed the telephone line infrastructure in Liberia. However, in today's communications, most telephone traffic is no longer analog, but digital in the form of VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) transmitted via fiber optic cables.  This is the same fiber optic infrastructure LIBTELCO is struggling to raise money to construct. 

If the Infrastructure is built efficiently LIBTELCO could offer the Government and it Para-statals (IE. Central Bank, GSA, LPRC, NOCAL) and others, VOIP, VIDEO, DATA, Storage and Cloud based services from it’s current Data Centers.  With Liberia not having an abundance of qualified ICT professionals, the government should make a concerted effort to leverage LIBTELCO's expertise in providing these services. 

In Liberia, government offices do not have desktop phones, instead the government spends quite a bit of money annually to provide telephone service, by paying for "telephone scratch cards."  This means ALL GOVERNMENT BUSINESS, is conducted via private cell phones.  We had hoped this would be a temporary solution to the absence of the land line infrastructure.  With the coming of the fiber optic cable, we had hoped, the government, led by the Minister of Finance, a man with an Information Technology background, would have made this a top priority.

It should have been common and accepted knowledge, that the Government of Liberia, would have been the largest initial purchaser of services from LIBTELCO for desktop telephony, computer network communications (for operations health and education), data center services (the Ministry of Finance's IFMIS is currently hosted at the LIBTELCO data center).  However, the government has done all it can, to pull the rug from under this entity, and refuse to purchase the services only this company can offer.

The following government entities all have a need for massive data transportation and storage services:

  1. Central Bank of Liberia (this entity has diverted government funds to construct its own data center in Virginia).  Every service provided by this CBL data center, is currently available at the LIBTELCO data center.  As a matter of fact, any and all high speed internet service to the CBL data center can only come from LIBTELCO.
  2. NASSCorp (this entity is building its own data center)
  3. National Archives is currently building a massive database of digitized property records
  4. NOCAL has a need to provide secure managed data storage and transmission with its international partners
  5. GSA - Asset Management and Tracking Services Hosted at LIBTELCO
  6. National Security Apparatus
  7. Education - distance learning, record keeping etc
  8. Health - the ability to bring medical professionals to the desktop to assist Liberian medical providers.

The annual purchase of the services required to sustain the above needs, would far exceed what LIBTELCO needs to build out its infrastructure.  The argument cannot be made that there is no money, when you have at least two entities (Central Bank of Liberia and NASSCorp) duplicating the physical infrastructure and service offerings of LIBTELCO to the tune of several million dollars.

There is no argument any competent ITC professional can make, as to why the Central Bank of Liberia would undertake the extension of the fiber optic cable to Virginia or why NASSCorp would extend same to Red Light, and undergo the expense of providing triple redundancy for power, when all of the capacity and capability needed is already IN PLACE at LIBTELCO.

There is no argument any competent ITC professional can make, as to why the Central Bank of Liberia would undertake the extension of the fiber optic cable to Virginia or why NASSCorp would extend same to Red Light, and undergo the expense of providing triple redundancy for power, when all of the capacity and capability needed is already IN PLACE at LIBTELCO.  When taken into to consideration with the severe financial constraints facing the government, and LIBTELCO, one can only wonder what these folks are up to. 

One can only hope, the intent is not to bankrupt the company and sell it of to private "investors" for pennies on the dollar; but I am hard pressed to accept that the above confluence is simply a misadventure of the keystone cops.  There are too many smart people in this government, for the deliberate and willful ignoring of LIBTELCO.  Ralph Ellison wrote: "I am an invisible man, not because people cannot see me, but because they refuse to see me." LIBTELCO is the Liberian Government's "Invisible man."

The Way Forward

What is required is a UNIFIED NATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS AND TECHNOLOGY POLICY, which would drive the implementation and adoption of a single government wide strategy. We had hoped by now such a policy, which would put all of the communications and computing initiatives under a single budget line item, and a single management agency would have been done by now.

The Bureau of Data Processing currently under GSA, is the statutory agency RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL DATA PROCESSING SYSTEMS WITHIN THE GOVERNMENT OF LIBERIA.  This Bureau should immediately be seconded to the Office of the President, while legislation is drafted and passed to create the Bureau of Information Technology, headed by a cabinet level Director the Chief Technology Officer.

This BIT and it's predecessor will be THE SOLE ENTITY responsible for ALL, YES all computer and telecommunications systems within the government.  This will remove the IT decisions from people in Ministries, who decide whether or not to spend their budgetary allotment on internet services.

It is time to do better.

 

An Open Letter To the President of Liberia

we cannot grow the Liberian economy, if we do not transition from a cash economy, to a credit economy.  The most fundamental concept which a functional credit economy is based, is the ability to uniquely identify every individual participating in that economy, in a manner that is reliable and non-refutable, and the ability to tie every asset to one or more individuals based on that identifier

Dear Madam President

As we approach the beginning of your 8th year in office, we need to examine the steps you need to take to place Liberia on a solid footing for growth, after you leave office. 

As an Information Technology professional, my suggestions are based on the need for a unified and managed approach to the acquisition and implementation of technology for the government of Liberia. 

In my opinion, this is the single most important legacy you can leave for Liberia, bar none. 

As things currently stand, there is no central authority which manages all of the Information Technology initiatives of the government.  Ministries implement their own systems, programs outside on their own and there is no professional oversight, neither is there the capacity for these systems to talk to each other.  There are three things which can be implemented on very short order to begin to leverage the technology for the future. 

1) Information Technology Management

The Government of Liberia should set up a government wide technology management agency, which will manage and oversee ALL technology projects for the government and the para-statals.  Fortunately, Madam President, the laws of Liberia already provide for such an agency.  The Bureau of Data Processing, currently under GSA, is, by law, in charge of all data processing systems within the Government of Liberia. 

I recommend you second the Bureau of Data Processing as a stand alone entity, within the Office of the President, while at the same time begin to work on legislation to transform it into the Bureau of Information Technology, to be headed by a Chief Technology Officer, and contain:

  • A shared services group - which will provide integrated architecture, development and implementation of all data systems within the government.  Yes I do mean all.
  • Database Management Group
  • Network Infrastructure and Security Group
  • Telecommunications Group


This Bureau of Information Technology will also examine all systems to ensure they meet the requirements of the National Security apparatus as well as the Records Management requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.

2) Growing the Liberian Economy

The government of Liberia must implement a single entity identifier, i.e. social security number, which NASSCorp already has the capacity to do, as well as a Business Entity Identifier.  These were spelled out in a previous paper, entitled "A Protocol for Asset Declaration and Verification."

Madam President, we cannot grow the Liberian economy, if we do not transition from a cash economy, to a credit economy.  The most fundamental concept which a functional credit economy is based, is the ability to uniquely identify every individual participating in that economy, in a manner that is reliable and non-refutable, and the ability to tie every asset to one or more individuals based on that identifier. 

Yes there are more than 10 John Flomo's in Liberia; however, if each is assigned a social security number, it is possible to determine who each of them is, which assets each owns.

Today in Liberia, banks do not serve the economy because of the risks involved for lending.  The biggest risk factor, faced by banks, is the inability to reliably determine each applicant's risk profile, his assets and his liabilities.  It is ONLY possible to this by using the above mentioned unique identifier.

People cannot buy and sell property, raise capital, because it is not possible to reliably establish the ownership of a piece of property.  Even with the current effort of the National Archives, which is digitizing all land records.  It is still not possible to definitively determine ownership of a piece of property.  The requirement that each property record be tied to a social security number, will allow property to be bought and sold in a reliable, irrefutable manner, which will lead to an explosion of capital investment.

The ability of banks to provide long term (20+) mortgage loans as well as automobile loans will also lead to an explosion of building construction and purchasing, putting many Liberians to work, while both increasing and expanding government revenue.

It will also have an impact on reducing corruption.  You see, in a cash economy, I have to come up with $25,000 to purchase a car. In a credit economy, I may only need $5000 and a reasonable monthly payment.  If I have to come up with $25000 at one time, where is the best place to find it?


3) Recruiting Talent

The government MUST establish a database of Liberian professionals in the Diaspora, who it can call on for assistance.  There is no field of human endeavor, in which Liberians have not excelled.  We cannot educate or teach our way out of the brain drain.  Today much of the capacity gap, is being filled in by ex-pats, who while doing a admirable job, are in it for the furtherance of their careers after their Liberia assignments are over. In too many instances the cost for these services is too high, but Liberia has no say because the funding is being provided by "partners." 

Now is the time for government to systematically begin to take ownership of these projects, to ensure their long term survivability, and the success of Liberia as a whole.


Sincerely,

 

George K. Fahnbulleh