Newsmaker – Bernadette Leon: When the nation calls, she answers

2013-08-11 14:00

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Presidential hotline boss says they’re making the state more accessible.

You will never find Bernadette Leon in the news, and that’s just the way she likes it.

The soft-spoken civil servant is in charge of President Jacob Zuma’s hotline. As her title says, she’s the head of frontline service delivery for monitoring and support of the presidency’s department of performance monitoring and evaluation.

Leon and her team have heard a lot of complaints from ordinary South Africans since she took up her job in 2011.

Some have nothing at all to do with governance.

Although Leon won’t say so, the left-field calls possibly demonstrate how little many citizens understand about how government works, and about the powers the president actually has.

Like the man who called up asking the head of state to help him cut an album.

“I’m a male, talented in music and entertainment. I would like the president to help me record an album or provide me with the job of organising events?.?.?.?or any job I can fit into, but it has to do with entertainment,” he told the operator.

They referred him to the department of arts and culture.

Another wanted to know if the president could give him money to pay for his wedding.

Another wanted help with a painful divorce.

But there are many complaints they can do something about.

An Eastern Cape resident called to complain about the trouble he was getting trying to apply for a foster care grant for a child.

He received help after the hotline staff roped in the social development department to investigate.

The child received the grant.

The call centre has received more than 154?000 complaints and compliments since it opened shop in September 2009.

The bulk of the calls to the hotline – which Zuma established when he assumed office for citizens to report service delivery problems – involves issues like social grants, difficulties obtaining identity documents, late government payments to service providers, and endless housing waiting lists.

Leon says some citizens don’t want to phone and prefer to come to the Union Buildings in person to lodge their complaints with the president himself, or ask for help.

But that’s how she wants it to be.

“We say the president has set up this service for people to use. We would encourage them to use it,” Leon says.

They have received so many visitors that they have even had to ask the social development department to establish an emergency fund to help those who arrive from far-flung areas but don’t have money for transport home.

The back office staff write the complaints down and log them as calls to be referred to the relevant departments.

Only in extreme cases are calls not logged – like when people claim to have had visions about government policies and would like to communicate their prophecies to the first citizen.

“People are having dreams and visions. The last one I read was about the economic policies of the country?.?.?.?and what that means for the president and the country,” Leon says with a smile.

“We hand them over to the private office of the president.”

Some requests they refuse outright, such as demands for the president to overturn court rulings.

The president cannot interfere in judicial matters.

The hotline, which has an annual budget of more than R30?million, has 10 call centre agents operating on two shifts between 8am and 10pm.

There are a host of backroom staff who follow up complaints with staff in the various government departments, and IT people who ensure the system doesn’t crash.

The departments are taking heed of the complaints more than ever before – Leon says Zuma has seen to that. National departments have improved their resolution rate from a paltry 39% in 2009 to an average of about 80% this year.

But provinces still lag behind. Although the Western Cape has a 99% resolution rate, the Eastern Cape sits at 45% and KwaZulu-Natal at 56%.

“The resolution rate was poor (when we started) because no one was paying attention to this. So we made a decision that we were going to put pressure at the highest level – Cabinet, premiers – by giving them the scorecards and saying you have to be at least at 80%,” says Leon.

“By naming and shaming to get them to take complaints management and the presidential hotline as a strategic issue, not something that is delegated to a junior person?.?.?.?that strategy was very successful. No minister or premier wants to be in the red.”

A government customer satisfaction survey conducted late last year showed that 54% of callers were happy with how their problems were dealt with, while 34% were not.

“People just want to be heard. They don’t always expect you to solve the problem 100%. They want you to call back to say we have received that complaint. (That) it didn’t go into a black hole, we are still looking at it. We have a habit in government of not communicating until we have a perfect solution – that’s not good,” says Leon.

Monitoring and Evaluation Minister Collins Chabane says the calls and site visits have helped government “understand the experience of communities”.

For Leon, the major lesson has been “how critical it is for government to have its ear to the ground”.

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