A note to my president, Mr JZ, on how digital communication can contribute towards improvement of public service delivery

Hello President Jacob Zuma.

I am addressing this article to you in my capacity both as a South African citizen who is passionate about his country and an entrepreneur who would like to propose a digital communication solution that will positively contribute to improvements in public service delivery.

Disarray

I was following the news on developments relating to local government services with great interest throughout this week, mainly because of the high-powered meeting of Mayors and Municipal Managers that you addressed in Capetown earlier in the week, and developments in Sakhile, Standerton. I also took note of a commitment made by Co-operative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka on SAFM to eliminate all public service protests by 2014, which sounds like a far-fetched goal given the current wave of public service protests.

A comment made by Minister Shiceka in many of his media interviews is that there is not enough communication between municipal officials and local communities, and this comment forms the core of my digital communication proposal.

Let me share with you 3 examples that will drive the point home.

  1. 2 months ago I accompanied my 16 year old daughter to the local Home Affairs office  in my township, Sharpeville, for application of an ID document.  I was impressed with the good service and the painless application process. On completion of the application, my daughter was then told that she will receive 2 sms’s, 1 confirming the application and 1 informing her when the ID is ready for collection. Within 2 days she got the 1st sms. About 6 weeks thereafter she got the 2nd sms as promised. Key about this is that a simple, (cost) effective way was used by this Home Affairs office is to keep my daughter informed about her ID application, and it created a positive experience about this office. Please note, Mr President, that my daughter and I are not saying that a 6 week turn-around time is acceptable. But, the sms communication from the department made the wait bearable. On a scale of 1 to 5, my daughter and I give this local Home Affairs office a 3.5.
  2. My Zimbabwean friend, who is in the country legally, applied for renewal of his work permit in March this year and he is still waiting for the results. Each time he goes to the local Home Affairs department in Centurion, he is being sent from pillar to post without much clarity on the status of his application. And each time he is asked to come back in 2 weeks time to check again. His rating of the Centurion Home Affairs office is 1.
  3. The presidential hotline that you launched in early October has seen a great response from the public. As you pointed out in your media brief after the launch, there is a definite need for this service. Now, I am preaching to the converted about the fact that a combination of long call durations and resource capacity has resulted in this hotline buckling under immense call pressure. I have read enough about the long call waiting frustrations, on the basis which I am giving this initiative a 2-rating.

Based on the 3 examples above and assuming that they all have the same level of importance, the average rating is just over 2. This is not a good showing.

Mr President, it is clear from the examples above that communication is a key component of public service delivery. The public, in my mind, are not always asking for instant solutions, but they want to be  heard and be kept informed. There is benefit to both the public service providers and the public – my daughter did not waste her and the Home Affairs staff’s time by going to check if her ID is ready for collection before it arrived, she waited for the sms and only then she went to fetch the ID. In the end, both agitation and nuisance were eliminated only because of the brilliance of basic sms communication!

Now, Mr President, the key question is how to replicate the Sharpeville local Home Affairs example to all other public service departments. Your hotline can become manageable if you allow citizens to use other, simple, do-it-yourself, 24/7 forms of communication that can be enabled digitally and thus endless waiting in a telephone queue is avoided by those who do not need to speak to a call centre agent.

What’s more, some elements of the digitally captured communication, such as contact identity verifications, notifications, complaint categorisation, batching, and resolution progress status messages, can be automated so that your hotline staff focus on analysis, complaint routing, monitoring and reporting of complaint resolution, as opposed to the mundane tasks linked to fielding of calls.

I hear someone saying that citizens who have grievances want to hear a voice on the other side of the line and as a result automated, do-it-yourself alternatives will not work, etc. Well, I am of the view that citizens want an efficient, hassle-free, quick way of logging their grievances and they want to know that they will be kept informed throughout a resolution process. If implemented digital technology can deliver effectively against these expectations, then hearing a voice on the other side of the line becomes secondary.

By the way, Mr President, I do not have a direct line to your office. My first alternative point of call was to look you up on Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, but I found what I believe are bogus profiles with old or no posts, thus I gave up. So, I am putting my faith in the viral capability of the Internet, and I  believe this note will get to you some how, hopefully sometime soon.

In closing, Mr President, I took the time to write this article also because I am pitching for my digital marketing business as regards introduction of digital communication elements in your presidential hotline. My company will be more than happy to present several solutions to you on what can be done to exploit digital technology to ensure that the hotline works more effectively and results in positive complainant experience. And, hopefully, I can then have your testimonial for future business with other public service departments.

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14 thoughts on “A note to my president, Mr JZ, on how digital communication can contribute towards improvement of public service delivery

  1. Good point Bra Willy. But how do you respond to the skeptics’ view that 99% of the people that the president would want to reach – effectively his support base – do not have access to the internet?

    • Hola Thati. I am not advocating for replacement of the telephone line with other digital platforms. I am advocating for complimentary digital services. The example of the Sharpeville Home Affairs is apt. They use only the sms to communicate. But let us expand on this point:
      – At least 85% of active SA cellphone subscriptions are pre-paid. Now, if you have the poor calling Mr President where they wait for ever in the call queue and then spend another 10-15 minutes relating their story, ultimately people will not be able to call anyway.
      – There are more and more people on Twitter. Unfortunately I do not have SA numbers, but if this platform can be used appropriately, then it can be used very effectively to start the process.
      – Facebook currently has just under 2 million SA subscribers. And more and more numbers are registering on LinkedIn.
      The point then is: let us explore other platforms that I suspect will prove more effective, but still be complimentary to the traditional telephone call.

  2. Bra Willy! Nice note.

    There is a cellphone or two in the hands of the majority of South Africans regardless of income, class, race or culture. Each of these cellphones is a portal to information and a direct link for Government to the people. A basic USSD menu could reap amazing results for Government and the people of South Africa.

    Imagine Government being able to have a two way conversation with every single member of the South African Population?

    For one, personal visits from the Census Department would be a thing of the past… We could even vote via cellphone once RICA is completed and cellphones are linked to personal identity.

    How about airtime as the new currency in SA? Pay the social pensions as tradeable airtime, direct to the person concerned. No theft and robbery, direct control over dissemination of funds and the ability to transact anywhere in SA

    The African future is MOBILE!!

  3. I like your spirit Ma-Willies. Keep hammering away and the nut will crack. Most people complain about service delivery and the government amongst themselves forgetting that there are tools available to them which could make the decision-makers stand up and take note. You have just demonstrated this with your online note. Just by tapping away at your keyboard you’ve instantly had access to a lot of people (…hopefully including the President/his people). KICK THE DOOR DOWN!

  4. The problem facing the country can be fixed technologically if there is a commited leadership that is ethical and committed to meet the needs of the orrdinary South African. Our people are confused by the disconnect between the lifestyle and actionss of ruling elite and the words they utter. You can throw money and technology at the problems but if the leadership is weak and unethical and appoint people who are not competent our problems will never be address. Peace will reign in Afrika!

    • Hi Tony. Thanking you for your thoughts. Rightly so, there is more to an improved public service than just hard-working employees and technology. I am hoping, now that we hear the right noises from above even though alignment between actions and words is still not 100%, we are starting to move in the right direction.

  5. To Willy – and all

    Not so long ago the banking industry (like gov) faced a huge challenge of delivery – and that was that too many people were “clogging” the system withdrawing cash. The banks needed to move people out of the banking halls – yet allow them to draw cash – you all know the outcome – ATM.

    The point is technological “take up” takes time – and as has rightly been pointed out every South African has a cellphone.

    The only impediments to a streamlined and markedly more succesful public sector are :

    The right programmes designed to remove the mundane.
    An education and communication programme on usege.
    And time itself.

    O yes – and of course – Cosatu and the commnists

    The sucessful public sectors of tomorrow will be run optimising simply technologies.

    • Hi Graeme. Thank you for your contribution. The more ordinary South Africans talk about this subject using all available forms of media the better. But more importantly, we need to keep asking what it is that we can do in our own small way to help move the process in the desired direction. The Public Sector Symposium was a good example of what can be done to encourage superior performance, and a cherry was recognition of those government departments and agencies the did well in the eyes of the public. I would like to thank you for participating in the forum on Monday.

      • Willy

        There’s the thing – how do we get people to keep going – to openly contribute their thoughts and ideas?

        I beleive forums like this are just the begining – everyone must keep talking and the more outlets for talk the better.

        The violence that we have witnessed this week in Sanderton and elsewhere are a reslut of a lack of channels of communication – there simply isn’t any avenue for these poor
        people to express themselves.

        Imagine a senario where every resident – or any resident that chose to – could simply log on a register their dissatisfaction –
        I wonder how many would continue using bricks and bottles filled with petrol?

        As we witnessed from some of the presentations made on public sector communication from the rest of the world – a huge
        defining factor is that tipping point where the costs to gov outweighs the cost of investing in the problem.

        stay well

  6. I certainly share your view that digital communication will open up additional avenues for government to communicate with us and thus improve service delivery. The long term impact of opening communication channels is to empower citizens to feel that they are part of the government process and that they have a say. Bureaucrats must understand that open communication means raising the bar in terms of service standards. That is what we are striving for.

    • Hi Tleli. In support of your point about open communication, a change in mindset needs to take place in government in so far as dissemination of information. It is a fact that the Internet has democratised access to information across the board, and this may make the government nervous.

      On the one hand, The government cannot talk “at” people anymore, it has to talk “with” them. This is because avenues of information have multiplied, and people can find out information themselves, decipher it and engage the government on their thoughts more robustly. The Internet has proven what we always know, that people have something to say and they just need a platform. One-way communication platforms such as Imbizos and mass meetings (which some people argue are grand-standings anyway) should now be bolstered by chatrooms. On the other hand, government cannot lie or hide information anymore. Standerton is one classical example. People of Sakhile found out about a maladministration report that the council have been sitting on for longer than was necessary, and they rebelled successfully to bring the local government to its knees.

      What is tough about this need to change, is that power of information is among the tools that keep governments in office. With more information available digitally, people can make informed decisions themselves and this has a direct impact on the current paternalistic relationship with government. And when this happens, the traditional role of government gets challenged!

      It is argued that the recent credit crunch helped the US government restore some of its power, which was otherwise eroded by the advent of the Internet, over its citizenry when it rescued the economy through bail-outs. But then again, the US government’s role will never be the same in this era of “free” and effortless access to information. So, the question we must be asking, is whether our own government completely embraces the digital age.

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