A smarter and leaner public sector that is more attentive to citizens needs is vital if South Africa is to make serious inroads in poverty and unemployment.

Some of the issues

Despite the dramatic expansion of basic services such as water, electricity, education, housing and social security, the Presidency admits in its 20-year review of the government’s progress since 1994, that access to quality services remains uneven. In clinics and at home affairs offices, long queues are still too common, while as recently as 2012 learners had to wait months for the delivery of textbooks.

Added to this, many contractors continue to go unpaid, with the government in many cases failing to honour its commitment to pay suppliers within 30 days upon receipt of invoice. The 2014 General Household Survey reveals that in some instances dissatisfaction with certain services – such as the quality of water and electricity supply – has increased among South Africans.

When it came to its performance on government efficiency, South Africa slipped in Global Business School IMD’s World Competitiveness Rankings for this measure – from 29th to 40th out of 61 countries between 2012 and 2015.

Citizens are becoming impatient and with it service delivery protests have grown – from less than 20 protests a year in 2004, to over 160 by 2012, to 218 in 2014, according to Municipal IQ. In many cases the implementation of e-government solutions could help solve some of these problems.

e-Government solutions and challenges

Former Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, said it was unacceptable that in some instances citizens have to wait for more than four hours to be served. He noted that citizens have called for the introduction of online systems, to cut the long queues.

While e-government solutions can reduce the cost of accessing services and improve turnaround times, they can also help the government to cut costs by streamlining administrative processes.

With the economy having stagnated and with the public sector wage bill having swelled by more than 80% over the last decade, better IT solutions are becoming more necessary than ever before.

But the country performs poorly when it comes to e-government. The UN’s e-Government Development Index reveals that South Africa’s e-government ranking has been on a steady decline over the past decade – from position 45 in 2003 to a ranking of 93 out of 193.

Comparable emerging countries China, Malaysia and Brazil have only slipped marginally. In 2014 South Africa was ranked below several other African countries, including Egypt, Mauritius and Tunisia as well as all its BRICS partners, bar India (ranked 118). Top ranked is Korea, followed by Australia and Singapore.

South Africa has faced a number of e-government challenges. In June Parliament heard that after a decade the government’s electronic docketing and electronic criminal records system is still not in place, with the state having spent over R6-billion so far on the project.

In addition, the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), which is mandated to deliver internet services on behalf of departments, has been beset by mismanagement as recently as 2009. Since 2010 the Agency has been undergoing a turnaround strategy. Principally, confusion remains over who in government is responsible for driving e-government.

The Financial and Fiscal Commission in May 2015 called for the department responsible for devising and finalising the e-government policy to be identified. The commission noted that while the ICT policy process is the responsibility of the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, the Department of Public Service and Administration, through the Public Administration Management Act, regulates the use of ICT in government.

In addition, communication policy and strategy is the responsibility of the Department of Communication.

Fanie Cloete, Extraordinary Professor at the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University, said that the absence of a concerted e-government drive is a major strategic weakness in government. “The biggest problem is digital literacy both inside the public service and outside, with no one championing improvement,” he says.

As a solution, the government could make better use of the Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI), which was set up in 2001 to identify and nurture truly innovative ideas – and then replicate them across the civil service. The Centre is credited with assisting in the development of a track-and-trace solution for the Department of Home Affairs and it runs an annual Public Sector Innovation Awards. Among those honoured in last year’s awards were the IEC for its election web application.

Luci Abrahams, Director of Wits University’s Link Centre, singles out the example of the SA Revenue Service’s (SARS) successful e-filing system, which is now used by the majority of taxpayers. She says its success came about because the agency put a lot of effort into marketing the initiative and provided guidance to staff and tax payers on how to use the system. “It’s all about leadership,” she notes.

She says the introduction of e-government can no longer be delayed in three areas: education, primary healthcare and in safety and security – where a repository of electronic records on criminals and suspects is needed.

The Department of Health, for example, adopted an e-health strategy in 2013; but Abrahams says most clinics continue to rely on a paper-based system, meaning patients often sit in queues for hours. While freeing up nurses to focus more on assisting patients, an electronic filing system could also hold other benefits by, for example, allowing researchers to create a platform for big data analysis of TB or HIV-Aids data.

In some cases, such as with municipalities which had established online information systems for accessing billing information, services have been discontinued rather than having been continuously improved.

Arthur Goldstuck of research firm World Wide Worx says there are only pockets of well performing departments and agencies when it comes to implementing e-government.

“There is no championing of e-government at cabinet level. You’ll hear individual ministers occasionally talk about the benefits of technology or the Internet, but there’s no on-the-ground commitment to it.”

The NDP – prioritising skills ahead of party membership
In a report earlier this year the Boston Consulting Group noted that South Africa has no shortage of policy analysis “but rather of policy implementation which, in turn, hangs on the quality of leadership.” Kedibone Phago, Professor and Head of Department of a postgraduate programme at the Turfloop Graduate School of Leadership, University of Limpopo, identifies cadre deployment as a key factor for problems experienced in the current public service.

“In some cases, the South African government’s focus has been on cadre deployment – which has not focused on skills, but on the notion of political party loyalty.” He says this has largely created a system which has allowed political party problems to permeate the public sector. “The lower you get to the different spheres of government, the more negative and intensive this notion has become. For example, municipalities are the hardest hit by the cadre deployment system which has not focused on skills, qualifications or experience.”

In a bid to prioritise skills ahead of party membership, the National Development Plan (NDP) suggests that a selection panel convened by the Chair of the Public Service Commission (PSC) be used for senior positions.

The Administrative Head of the Public Service (a position proposed by NDP but which has not yet come into effect) would then draw up a shortlist of suitable candidates for senior posts, from which the political principal would then select a candidate.

This allows independent oversight to ensure that candidates are suitably qualified, while also ensuring that the final selection is compatible with the priorities of the political principal.

The Commission’s Director-General Richard Levin says that policy discussions have not yet crystalised to the point that a decision had been taken to implement the initiative. He says the assumption is that such a system would deliver more suitable incumbents to the government. But he stresses that it will demand a big change in how government currently recruits public servants as political heads would have their powers curtailed.

“South Africa, unlike governments in other countries, has an open recruitment system, where anyone can enter the public sector without having necessarily had experience within the sector.” He says that this was necessary after 1994 to ensure racial transformation of the public sector, adding that the NDP measure is an attempt to go “halfway back.”

The National School of Government

Another initiative – the National School of Government, which replaced the Public Administration Leadership and Management Academy (PALAMA) in 2013 – could also help improve the public sector.

Mandisa Tshikwatamba, the School’s deputy director general of Corporate Management, says that the new school has adopted a much more proactive stance to training public servants than its predecessor PALAMA. Courses are now developed with the distinct aim of increasing public sector performance at national, local and provincial level. Local government currently has its own separate school, but discussions are under way with the SA Local Government Association (SALGA) and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs on how to work with the National School of Government.

The focus will be on instilling continuous leadership in the public sector and to meet certain requirements – some public servants may be assessed on certain competencies before they can apply for a promotion. Newly recruited public servants must now undergo an induction programme, developed by the School, while those involved in frontline offices must also complete a special training programme. Both were started in 2013.

In 2014/15 about 5 000 public servants were trained in the eight-day frontline service delivery programme, while a further 16 000 passed through the first of five modules of the induction training programme. Tshikwatamba says the frontline delivery training focuses on certain areas such as defining good and bad service delivery, dealing with difficult customers, identifying customer needs and queue management.

It also includes training on emotional intelligence. The induction programme is in place in national and provincial departments and includes five modules, each running for five days. New inductees have two years to complete the course; however Tshikwatamba said that at present the school has only been focusing on the first module which covers issues such as the Constitution, the structure of government, the policy of employment and labour law, probation details, supply chain rules and case studies around the expectation of citizens.

Leading from the front

Perhaps South Africa’s public sector needs more leaders like Duduzile Ndlovu, the operations manager at the Thuthuzela Care Centre at Port Shepstone Regional Hospital. Her centre has helped local police to achieve a conviction rate of between 65% and 90% for rape cases.

Such a conviction rate is almost unheard of in South Africa. Last year Ndlovu, who provides expert witness in the courtroom, was the winner of the best frontline public service employee of the year at the Department of Public Service and Administration’s second Annual National Batho Pele Excellence Awards. It’s the fifth award in just a year for Ndlovu, a qualified clinical forensic practitioner who oversees a team of eight nurses.

Last year she became one of six South African nurses to receive a 2014 Florence Nightingale Award for Excellence in Nursing, from a list of 2 000 nominations from 335 hospitals around the country. She believes in going the extra mile.

“When there is a challenge or when the police are experiencing a challenge, as I’m the manager, they can call me at any time on any given day – I will attend to the problems as quickly as possible.”
She now receives calls from across the country from other health workers in search of her secret to managing her clinic and jokes that she no longer has a life because of her dedication to her work.

“I sometimes tell them that I run a public clinic like a private one,” says Ndlovu, who adds that the awards have motivated her further – she is now writing a book about how to best deal with rape victims.

“People are looking up to me,” says Ndlovu.

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