How Home Affairs was fixed

2010-12-18 11:47

On November 30 2005, Kabelo Thibedi entered the Market Street, Johannesburg, office of the South African Department of Home Affairs to request his identity document (ID).

Thibedi had been waiting more than two years for it.

This time he decided not to stand in line. Brandishing a realistic toy gun, Thibedi took the branch supervisor hostage and demanded his ID in exchange for her release.

The Department of Home Affairs (at the time) was notorious for delays.

Thibedi’s two-year saga was unusual, but as of January 2008, citizens still waited an average of 130 days after submitting an ID application.

As public dissatisfaction with the department grew, so did the pressure for reform, and the government launched an ambitious turnaround effort.

Beginning in 2007, the Department of Home Affairs hired FeverTree Consulting to help lead the turnaround of the ID issuing process.

According to Jacob Mamabolo, the chief of staff to the home affairs minister at the time and later turnaround project manager, FeverTree won the contract because the company had specific and plausible proposals for reform.

“They talked about problems in a way we didn’t talk about them.” FeverTree also agreed to be paid in exchange for producing agreed-upon results – reductions in ID turnaround time, for example.

This arrangement made FeverTree bear part of the risk of failure.

Delay bred delay
For citizens without an ID, the wait was not merely an annoyance. The green booklet was a prerequisite for employment and social benefits.

 While waiting, people could obtain temporary IDs, but they had to wait seven days for these to be processed, and they were only valid for three months.

The ID process was also unreliable and labour intensive. According to a survey commissioned by the department, 40% of visitors waited more than an hour in line.

With no way of knowing when their IDs would be ready, desperate citizens visited their local home affairs office often in the hopes of expediting their application.

The department’s survey found that 39% of people in line at branch offices were waiting to check on an application.Within the department, tasks and processes were unclear, and long delays could occur without being noticed. Several bottlenecks had developed.

The fingerprint verification section, for example, had a backlog of more than 200?000 applications, delaying the flow of IDs through each subsequent section.

Delay bred delay.

When citizens despaired of receiving their IDs from one branch, they often visited other offices to submit duplicate applications, increasing and complicating the department’s workload.

Complaints from citizens, usually justified, also slowed down the process.

The staff spent significant amounts of time searching for individual applications that had been egregiously delayed.

In many cases, the facilities were a mess, with ID applications piled in no particular order.

“The working environment was very disorganised,” said Riaan Pio, a director of strategic planning at the department. “Applications were lying on the floor.

People sometimes had to go through 50?000 applications to find one.”Yogie Travern, the director of IDs at the department’s central processing facility, echoed this.

“They felt at that time, ‘You know what? We’ve done everything.

We can’t get more resources, so why even bother making any effort?’," she said.

Tracking production
The ID component of the turnaround plan was designed to work without retrenchment, recruitment or large-scale changes in human resources policy.

Instead, the team proposed simplifying business processes and improving performance management by mid- and low-level managers.

“We said, ‘You don’t need more people or to get rid of the current people’,” said Sven de Kock, FeverTree’s CEO.“We said, ‘The big issue you’ve got here is supervision. The people at the bottom are badly supervised’.

 There were no targets, there was no teamwork.”The strategy publicly promised quick and measurable wins.

Among the most prominent of these was the department’s commitment, in its strategic plan, to reducing the turnaround time for ID applications to 60 days within a year, by December 2008.

Streamlining progress
In order to track progress, the department instituted a “track and trace” system for IDs.

The system required staff to scan IDs in and out of each stage of the ID process, allowing the turnaround team to understand precisely how much time an ID spent in a given section and therefore to locate slow areas.

The track and trace report was widely distributed, and it became one of many means of making performance visible.

After discussing the changes, the turnaround team worked with staff to clean up the physical premises in each section and the order in which processes took place.

The act of cleaning up floors and desk space was a useful starting point for process changes; after the physical cleanup, the team helped staff sort incoming and outgoing work. Other sorting and streamlining followed.

For example, in the completion section, people had been grouped by task; now they were placed together in groups that together prepared ID books for lamination.

Making performance visible
Clarifying functions often created the opportunity to make performance visible.

Before the changes, IDs “typically spent 15 to 20 days in the completion section before making their way to the dispatch section.

At that rate, the section had a backlog that was expanding by approximately 2?000 ID booklets a day.

“We had to up the production to at least 12?000 a day, being in line with what we were receiving a day not to build a backlog,” Travern said. “So we formed three cells.

We said each cell must do a minimum of 3?000 a day.

With the new group targets, IDs moved through the section in five to eight days, and the backlog was eliminated.”

The targets emerged through a consultative process.

In each section, the turnaround team sat down with staff to discuss realistic targets for individuals and for groups.

In many cases, major performance improvements were possible simply by making expectations clear.

In the dispatch section, for example, employees received a pile of 800 IDs in the morning to sort by the end of the day.

Before the changes, they had sorted as many as they had liked, and no one had kept track.

Once targets were agreed upon, the turnaround team made performance visible through track and trace reports, wall charts, published rankings, and monthly awards for individual and group achievement.

The turnaround team decoupled its performance management initiatives from the department’s formal performance appraisal system, and with each measure, good performance was recognised – but poor performance was not punished.

Instead, managers relied on informal social pressure.

The goal was to make performance management motivating without being threatening.

Recognising achievers
For example, to reduce the time between the filling out of applications at branch offices and their dispatch to the central processing facility, the department began to publish a ranking of the offices based simply on that turnaround time.

The average time dropped from eight days in January 2008 to two days in February this year.

In the meantime, achievement awards singled out individual employees.

Finally, daily small group meetings offered a way of monitoring individual performance.

Travern said the meetings motivated employees and resolved practical problems.

“The manager actually sits with the staff and gets to know what happened yesterday,” she said.

“What were your challenges?”Middle managers were trained to conduct these meetings.

The training took place mostly on the job, and although the turnaround leaders called this the “upskilling” of managers, the process they described was one of gradual change in habits and norms.

Pio said a long process of explanation and cooperation was often necessary before managers began to run meetings on their own.

“We told them what was expected of them as managers,” he said.

“We would stay long enough so that people understood their role.”

Sustained change
Measured in terms of ID production time, the turnaround effort was an unequivocal success.

Production time averaged 60 days by June 2008, half a year ahead of schedule.

By the end of the year, the average time was approximately 40 days.

As of February this year, the production gains remained in place, even though the consultant counterpart team had not intervened significantly in the process since the end of 2008.

The ID process turnaround is instructive as an example of successful performance management?– a rarity among civil service reform efforts, in which performance management systems are often either ignored or resisted
by staff.

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