Battle for compliance to IT Procurement law in Public Sector
Pantami’s NITDA and how IT regulation can be proactively assertive
About two years ago, Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, PhD, assumed office as the Director General of the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). Quiet, unassuming, an IT lecturer, cleric and social critic with published commentaries on the country’s civil service as the foe of good governance, Pantami started out in NITDA with an affirmation: He would make NITDA a true regulatory agency and divorce it from its years of being a contract-centred agency. Soon the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Nigeria, as he would later be also addressed, was in the news, contending with other federal ministries departments and agencies (MDAs). In asserting NITDA’s mandate as the IT regulator, Pantami was wielding NITDA’s Act of Parliament, circulars, presidential orders and policy thrusts of the government at the MDAs to usher a new era of IT public procurement, public sector IT auditing and clearance, and local content pursuits. Soon, the fear of NITDA was the beginning of wisdom and Pantami will earn the sobriquet: Mr. IT Procurement Due Process. When IT Edge News analysts sat to choose an ‘eTerview’ personality for the Start-Year January 2019 edition of the print version and the special edition for CES, Las Vegas, it was the ‘Man of Due Process in IT Procurement at NITDA’ that topped the choice – persuaded by the passion of Pantami to dare to apply due process in how government institutions select, deploy and manage IT infrastructures. NITDA had never walked that road before all through its establishment and its empowerment by an Act of Parliament. Pantami had dared to make a once timid regulator to become assertive and proactive. In this talks with Olusegun Oruame inside his office in NITDA, Abuja, Pantami speaks on his clean-up strategies, his reworking of NITDA, forging of alliances to fight corruption in IT procurement, ensure compliance among MDAs and fulfilling the agency’s mandate on IT regulation to achieve government’s vision of a transparent IT process in the public sector that is depended on local skill-sets and solutions. Today, there is a greater awareness among MDAs on the statutory obligations imposed on NITDA to carry out compliance functions as part of its mandate. As many observers tell IT Edge News, it took a Pantami to demonstrate both the willpower and the conscious desire to create awareness among MDAs and other stakeholders that the agency would enforce its mandate to the letter. Ultimately, real change is a consequence of daring to do things different within the confine of the extant laws, says the country’s CIO to IT Edge News. The Pantami’s NITDA, proactive and compliance-demanding, is a consequence of his resolve to implement difficult changes.
You have aggressively pursued compliance with IT procurement laws in the public sector. How has this impacted on government establishments in terms of IT deployment, cost saving, fighting corruption, and eliminating waste? Also, how has this affected your relationship with the MDAs?
Thank you for asking these elaborate questions which may require maybe two or three hours to adequately respond. But l will respond superficially because of time constraint and because of the nature of the interview as well. The task is a challenging one and also an interesting one. As you know, the wisdom and objectives behind our IT clearance are many. Firstly in summary, it is to fight corruption as you said. Secondly, it is to ensure there’s value for money. Thirdly, it is to ensure harmonization of all IT projects in government; and fourthly, it is to have a supervision of the project and ensure that there’s what we can call maintenance model to the project. The way I started this when I was appointed in 2016, I studied the Act of the Agency, the National IT Policy, the Federal Government Circulars – like that of 18 April 2016; 17 July 2012 and all other policies that support the agency to implement its mandate. I realised that NITDA is the IT clearinghouse for all MDAs, and all federal government institutions. So we drafted a letter and send to all of them, notifying them of this responsibility, attaching a copy of relevant laws and policies. Some of them complied immediately. Some failed to comply; and when we realised that we need to have the understanding or collaboration of other regulators in order to enforce that I visited the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), where we discussed on the collaboration and whenever there are defaulters, we can report to them officially and they can investigate. I also visited the office of the Auditor General for the Federation; we had a discussion with him and we forwarded a letter and the relevant laws and policies to him to sanction those who breach our own Act or federal government policies. With these efforts, we started seeing positive results and many MDAs are complying. Most importantly, because of the two most recent federal government policies and directives: the first one on the 31st of April 2018: the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha signed a circular on behalf of the federal government directing all MDAs to ensure that they comply with the NITDA’s clearance. The last paragraph of the circular says any breach of this policy will be sanctioned and federal government will not tolerate it any more. That circular is very powerful. Secondly, on the 5th of November 2018 during our eNigeria, the president; President Muhammadu Buhari, was there as the special guest honour, to declare the conference open. He made a statement in his speech that defaulters of IT project clearance should be reported to government. His statement is a presidential directive that defaulters should be reported and he emphasized that one of the reasons why we clear IT projects is to fight corruption. He said that if we fail to kill corruption, corruption will kill us. That statement is very powerful and it sends a very powerful signal so that without contacting some MDAs, they started complying immediately.
About the achievements, a lot has been achieved particularly in saving government cost. Based on the report I received from the committee reviewing the clearance process on my behalf as at November 2018, they have saved around 13.6 billion naira. This is the physical money that has been saved. Not to talk of the technical support we have been giving, not to talk about reviewing all the components of the proposed projects and altering it where necessary to ensure that we improve its quality, and at the same time; not to talk of value for money we tried to justify; not to talk of the maintenance model we provide for the relevant federal government institutions. There are many things we do and all of them are for free.
Being an IT agency, two of our staff developed a portal for us, in-house. Now, with the portal, you don’t need to write to us officially and request for clearance. Just go to the portal, upload your application; download the form, complete it and upload it. We sometimes organise online interview if we need clarifications, like if an agency is in Lagos or Kaduna or Sokoto and they feel it is difficult to come – we just organise online interview if we need clarifications in certain areas. We interview and when we approve your project, you can just go online and download it, so the process has been automated recently.
Two years ago in an interview with IT Edge News, you said you were moving NITDA to an IT regulatory agency from being a contract awarding agency. Two years on, you appear to have achieved so much in that line,
In the real sense, I hardly assess myself. But a month ago, one of our colleagues here, Dr Agu Collins Agu, Director, Corporate Planning and Strategy, said “Oga, I’m here to congratulate you and I said for what? He said when you came you said you are trying to transform the agency from being a contract awarding one to an IT agency; he said: that has been achieved completely. I said why? He said before in the entire agency, you won’t see anyone beside contractors disturbing every staff and sometimes, even your office you will have no access to it. He said now, we are only dealing with technical challenges. Significantly, people are coming here for clearance, going for our standard guidelines, seeking clarifications on Cybersecurity, trying to make enquiry about our new policy guidelines and the rest; organising trainings for MDAs, egovernment interoperability framework. He said now the entire focus is about these professional responsibilities of the agency. He said before people did not come to NITDA to ask for technical support. He said there was nothing like this before because people used to come to the agency for any contracts or projects that they can come and execute. There’s no harm in doing that actually– in awarding contracts. But it’s not the main responsibility of the agency. Awarding contracts should just be a peripheral duty of the NITDA as a regulatory agency.
You have gone about your duty as an IT regulatory agency with so much assertiveness that one head of a government agency told us some weeks back that the fear of NITDA is the beginning of wisdom, particularly since you assumed office as DG….
You know it is not easy but it was something we were committed to. Today as I am talking to you, EFCC will not do any IT project without coming to NITDA; ICPC, they always come to NITDA; Auditor General for the Federation comes to NITDA for his IT clearance, the President and the Vice president, whenever they chair the Federal Executive Council and when there’s an IT project they hardly listen to it; they will say: do you have NITDA’s IT clearance? If you say ‘No’, they will say go and seek for the clearance. These are some of the reasons why it has become important to get NITDA’s IT clearance. And if you fail to seek for the clearance, EFCC will investigate the project, Auditor General will sanction the project. So that is why even if the project is successful, definitely you breached government policy and directives; due process has not been followed, so no matter how the project is exceptional since due process has not been followed, it will be sanctioned. What we try to do is that we don’t allow personal relationship with any chief executive, to in any way, tamper with our own work. We have very cordial relationship with many chief executives but when it comes to this one, I always say it that in following due process, please don’t bring our personal relationship into that.
When you try to institute due process in government, you step on toes. In the last two years, in trying to instill due process in public sector IT deployment, you have stepped on toes and lost a lot of people who ordinarily would have supported you, doesn’t this worry you sometimes that are contending with enemies who will do anything to undermine you?
Genuinely it doesn’t. But being a human being, it worries me sometimes. But genuinely it doesn’t. It worries me sometimes because I realise people are too sentimental. Many of them will claim that they are for Nigeria, but when you are in a position of power, you realise that it is not true. They are the first that will even mount pressure on you to do something that is not legitimate or legal. If you resist, they will become your enemies. Somebody will feel my personal relationship with the chief executive allows him to just to be cleared and do his project even if the project cannot be defended or cannot be justified. I always tried to plead with people to understand things cannot work that way. If you are very humble and kind I always try to be humble and kind to you. If one is otherwise, they say drastic problems require drastic solutions. I try to behave the way one approaches me. If you approach me kindly, I will sit down and explain to you kindly. If you feel that you are above the law, I will definitely show you that nobody is above the law. That is the reality of the situation, even myself within the agency I am not above the law. I ensure that I follow due process. What is not my responsibility I allow my colleagues to do their own work. So genuinely, it doesn’t worry me because as long as I am comfortable and my conscience is very clear, no problem. As a human being, you will not be happy to see people pretending to be upright while they are not. They are the ones mounting pressure on chief executives to do something that is not right while they claim otherwise. That is why I say as a human being, you will always like to see people to be law abiding and to understand the responsibility of you being a chief executive and the pros and cons of any decision you may take as a chief executive. However, the total number of people one may lose because of this is not significant because many people when you explain to them, they understand. You may not please them the way they desired, but to lose them completely is very rare.
Long before you became a DG, you had written extensively that the problem of Nigeria is the civil service. You have had the opportunity here managing civil servants, what are your real challenges in managing a government agency and trying to build capacity and put people in line?
In the real sense, what I said in my previous articles since 2011, 2012, 2013; those that have been published by Premium Times, Ng.Com, I still maintain the same position on the problems of the civil service and civil servants and it is not restricted to only one federal government institution. It’s everywhere. What I did the time I came because I knew the difficulty I was facing – the most difficult thing to do in leadership is bringing positive changes. All of us want change but none of us want to change. That is the difficulty. But with understanding, organising at least general meetings, creating awareness, I am telling you and based on my assessment, I will say 85% of the challenges have been addressed in NITDA. Most of the civil servants realised my nature here and they try to comply. I try to make sure that I improve their living conditions and welfare that is why whether we have money or not, I will go to any extent and borrow money and pay salary. That is why I can’t recall a time that we reached 23rd of any month without paying salaries; our allowances are being paid on time more than ever before. We try to see that whatever is legitimate and is their right, we pay them before they even demand for them. That is what we have been doing. That is why none of them will complain about salaries, or about allowances or about capacity building because I can go to any extent legitimately to seek for approval and make sure that capacity building, their salaries, allowances and everything are being taken care of. We provide more than enough. Living condition is above average. Salary is on time. Allowances are on time. Not only on time, we try to make sure that, in any way possible, we make them very comfortable. These are some of the issues we have addressed and I believe we have achieved very significant progress and I am comfortable with the journey so far.
As NITDA takes on MDAs more and more in terms of regulation, how are you preparing your staff to technically cope with the work as more MDAs sign up and adhere to compliance regulation?
I think so far so good, the responsibility of clearing IT projects is mine and I discovered that being a chief executive today, I am more of an administrator rather than an IT expert. I am into IT but the administration takes 80% – 90% of your time so I constituted a committee. This committee brought together IT experts in various areas; in artificial intelligence, in networking, eGovernmnet; for example, in software, in hardware, in robotic technology – all these areas including IT laws and regulations; some in planning and strategies. This team comprises many professionals with diversifications. They usually meet once a week and review all the projects submitted. Before meeting, a copy will be sent to all of them for review and then, they will come and discuss the projects one after the other. Any project they are comfortable with they will just recommend with some amendments. The amendments will be captured in the cover letter to be sent, the one that they feel they need more information, they will invite the relevant agency to come for briefing, that agency will send their IT personalities to come here and defend the project, after a period of time, we make sure that the project is cleared.
Now, the process is online with a portal developed in-house by NITDA’s staff. From their offices, they don’t even need to come here physically. From their offices they sit down, interact with each other online, indicate all their opinions; contact the relevant agency online as well; so that is the process now. It has been automated and makes things much easier because whether you are in your office here in Abuja, or in Lagos, or travel outside the country or you are on leave, as long as you a member of that team, you will participate through the portal. We created a section for each agency, when you come, send your contact person so your IT staff will get access to the portal, they will see even the process we are discussing and when the project is cleared they will see, when it is not cleared they will also see it. They don’t need to come here to NITDA’s office. They have their own part in the portal where they can follow things, log in and check the status of their project.
You have been building a lot of synergy with the academic community in terms of supporting them – what’s the objective, what’s inspiring you to do this?
What is inspiring me is that whenever you want to create an effective sector, there are some sectors that you must bring together in order to support them. If you go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, whenever they come up with any proposal, or to partake in any project they will make sure that the academia is well represented, industry is represented; sometimes they will be specific – private sector must be represented, public sector that is government must be represented. If it involves entrepreneurs or startups, one of them is allowed to represent his own area so they usually come up with a team of five to seven because if you do it alone without involving some relevant stakeholders, it is difficult to be successful. That is why I try to identify those that are upright in the sector, those that give priority and preference to the sector than personal interest. You cannot satisfy individual people with personal interest but those that are passionate about the sector you can satisfy them. Bring those that have preference for the sector, work with them. If you do that it will make you to be very successful. Through that we have been doing a lot with the academia, like in research – we have some ongoing research projects with the academia and industry. Secondly, in the area of capacity building, we engage them. A month ago, I was in Lagos, we signed an MoU with the University of Lagos purposely in order to build capacity in ICT Law because you develop IT with IT professionals and you regulate IT with IT lawyers so we sign an MoU. In each and every programme we do, academia is represented. In our local organising community for GITEX and eNigeria, academia is represented; even Startup Friday and Startup Nigeria, academia is represented; throughout our presentations, academia and all other sectors are represented. Why? We believe that no one can do it alone. We need to come together, be represented and do the work.
I can look you straight in the eye and say you have set a new agenda for public sector IT procurement; you may even be called Mr. Due Process in IT Procurement. But a lot of young people ask: what’s NITDA master plan for us even though you have done a lot in terms of skill building and encouraging entrepreneurship?
We have many things for them. Firstly, our scholarships for MSc and Phd are usually for young people. We sponsor them. Each state of the federation including the FCT is represented equally without any fear or favour. This is for young people. All the beneficiaries are young people. Secondly, we organise Startup Friday where we move from one zone to another to identify and organise young people that are brilliant and are IT innovators. We did one in north west, second one in south west, third one in north east, fourth one in south-south, and fifth one in north central. We have visited five zones, so far. In each and everyone before we start the process, we spend three months going round each state identifying young innovators and encouraging them to come for competition. When they submit their proposals, they come before a panel to make a presentation and the panel will assess them and after assessing them the report will be sent to us. Those who win; the first, second and third positions, we provide seed funding for them in each zone. We keep a database of all of them where we link them up with other ICT professionals for mentorship; those we feel can guide them in that hardware or software that they are developing. You were in GITEX last year, we sponsored them to GITEX. We have been doing that in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Few months ago, we were in Silicon Valley with the Vice present Professor Osinbajo, we sponsored some young innovators there. These are some of the thing we have for them. The reason why we are doing all these is to ensure that we produce enough local content that is sufficient in the country. We encourage them to come up with solutions to the challenges in the public sector, and we intervene on behalf of them to ensure that the public sector patronize their solutions. During eNigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari, GFCR was there, visiting all the exhibition booths of our young innovators linking and them up with the ministers that were there at eNigeria and those not there. He asked them directly to take care of it. Those that were not there, he asked us to intervene on behalf of the young innovators so that the ministers will patronize them. He directed some to the ministry of agriculture, some to the ministry of defence, there and then. Look at this encouragement: No.1 citizen of the country was there giving attention to you and even linking you up with his ministers to come and take care of you; saying if this solution is okay, they should come and patronize it. This is just to build our local content and you will see that the patronage of local content that we have achieved so far because of NITDA’s efforts is unprecedented and has never been achieved in the history of Nigeria. Look at in 2013 before I came, total patronage of local content computers is 82, 000. In 2014, it was 92, 000. In 2015, it was 92, 000 throughout the year. In 2016, within the only three months I spent, it skyrocketed to 150, 000. In 2017, when I spent complete year in office, the patronage is over 355, 000. So the patronage of 2017 is more than the combined total of 2013, 2014, and 2015 – all within one year. All our efforts are yielding positive results. This is only in one area. If you go to data centre, it is the same. If you go to software, it is the same. I only gave you the statistics with hardware. In other sectors, it is much higher.
You are a cleric, intellectual, IT techie, technocrat, and an administrator, will you say all these have combined to make you effective in driving your agenda within the public sector – and what motivate you best, men or God?
I think if you mention All Mighty God, I think He is above and over everything and everyone. I believe leadership position is a trust. Whatever you do, you will be accountable for. In this world; it’s easier, in the next one, it is much more difficult. I have a belief that if you are giving a responsibility, if you want to do it, do it completely and totally. If you don’t want to do it, just leave it. I don’t believe in doing things partially. That has been my nature. Secondly, I combine all my duties effectively to date. I am still in the academia. I am still publishing papers. From the time I came to NITDA to date, I have published seven to eight international papers, international articles in reputable journals. What I have published within this time in NITDA could be sufficient for someone without any paper presentation previously to be a senior lecturer or more. And I am still publishing. I partake in conferences particularly academic conferences; at the same time, religious responsibilities, I try to discharge them. I have never stopped my activities. After working hours, I go and engage in doing that. Why? Because I feel each and every one of these activities has a purpose. That purpose could be either in this world or the next one. And I have a tradition that I will not neglect anything that is beneficial for me or for my country here or in the next world. I try to combine them and I know each and every one of them is good to you in certain ways and in certain areas. I feel I am very comfortable and what I can say is that the Almighty has blessed our time – that within 24 hours we are able to execute a lot without in any way compromising or neglecting any one of it. Challenges are inevitable, but with prayers and commitment, we always overcome.