The monitor-in-chief

2012-08-04 13:48

With an annual budget of R174 million and 200 staff, what do they do?

Meet Minister Collins Chabane, the man in charge of ensuring that President Jacob Zuma’s government works like a well-oiled machine.

His super ministry, the department of performance monitoring and evaluation, is modelled on the British delivery unit, which is supposed to help government focus on key delivery priorities.

But even though the department has been around for more than 18 months, there are many signs government is not working as well as it should.

Textbooks have still not been delivered to many Limpopo schools; municipalities get poor audit reports and face growing service delivery protests; and eight provincial departments in Limpopo, Gauteng and Eastern Cape are in financial distress because of maladministration.

Research conducted by Municipal IQ, an organisation that monitors municipalities, shows there were 67 service delivery protests between January and May this year – an average of three a week.

The Auditor-General’s latest report shows that only 13 of the country’s 283 municipalities received clean audits this year.

According to Chabane, protests cannot be fully predicted. But his department – along with the Treasury and the cooperative governance department – has plans in the pipeline to develop ways of finding and resolving service delivery failures before they result in protests.

The plan is expected to be rolled out by the end of the year, he says.

Chabane’s own midterm review of the Zuma administration’s performance paints a picture of a troubled municipal system whose crisis of governance and accountability manifests “in the high level of distrust of citizens in local government and the escalation in community protests”.

However, the soft-spoken and diminutive Chabane is adamant that his department is continuing to identify what needs to be fixed in some municipalities. He says a number of projects are already under way across the country.

“The reasons for lack of services in various areas is not the same. You can’t have a blanket statement that says there are service delivery ­protests because the municipalities are dysfunctional . . . or because there is no money,” says Chabane, who looks smaller across his huge office table at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

While his department has roped in experts to help in troubled areas, Chabane says there is not much he can do without the cooperation of those in charge.

“When you go there, you cannot go there as if you are going to take over the functions. That system won’t work. It will collapse immediately. You need the cooperation of the people who are going to implement it.”

The department, which forms part of the presidency and has a yearly budget of R174 million, employs 200 people and monitors the implementation of the commitments Cabinet ministers have made in their “delivery agreements”.

When ministers report to Cabinet each quarter, the super ministry provides “briefing notes” in which it highlights issues that need attention.
The Limpopo textbook fiasco suggests that not all is well with government’s performance monitoring systems. Chabane says his department’s reports to Cabinet “have raised textbook distribution shortcomings as a challenge for quality learning”.

But according to the minister, who moonlights as a musician, the responsibility ultimately lies with the line minister. Zuma has reshuffled his Cabinet three times in as many years, and has replaced nine of his 34 ministers since he came into power. Despite this, his public rating has taken a hammering.

A recent TNS survey, conducted when the e-tolling and Richard Mdluli sagas dominated news headlines, suggests that Zuma’s approval rating has fallen to 46% from a 55% high in February.

A Reputation Institute survey released earlier this month put public trust in Zuma at 36%, way behind DA leader Helen Zille and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

However, Chabane says his department does not gauge government’s performance on the findings of surveys, but would rather use instruments like its own midterm review.

The document, he says, shows that there’s “been good progress”, even though many hurdles remain.

Chabane cites sending officials to measure service delivery and the Presidential Hotline, which received 135 706 calls between October 2009 and the end of June this year, as some of his department’s achievements.

He says these have helped government “understand the experience of communities”. On average, 84% of the service delivery cases reported through the hotline have been resolved.

On a recent visit to one of the Presidential Hotline’s call centres in Pretoria, it seems unusually quiet. There are no ringing phones, just a group of agents babbling in many tongues, bashing away at their keyboards as they ­register complaints from callers.

The open-plan office, which also accommodates a number of other government call centres, has two big screens, which monitor the flow of calls. The hotline takes a small portion as only 10 of the 20 agents work per shift between 6am and 10pm. By 8am, 156 calls had been made to the hotline. Most calls go through immediately.

Presidential hotline performance as of June 30 2012

Calls on the toll-free hotline take up R12 million of the service’s R30 million yearly budget. The issues reported range from service delivery to corruption, but are also sometimes personal.

The calls are then allocated case numbers and referred to the relevant state institutions.

Officials in the super ministry say turnaround in departments such as Home Affairs is partly because of the unannounced visits by Chabane’s service delivery monitors.

But his department cannot publicly take credit without creating problems in government, as monitors arrive unannounced at government buildings to talk to citizens about their experiences of government services.

They also interview managers and customer agents about the dignified treatment of citizens, cleanliness and safety, queue management systems and waiting times. They then report their findings to Cabinet.

They gather information such as the quality of service and turnaround times over a period of time, which is then reported back to the political heads in government meetings.

However, Zuma’s government is still not “joined up”, which means sometimes institutions continue to work in isolation, despite promises to create a single public service.

But Chabane says a lot has been done to introduce coordination, citing government’s infrastructure delivery team as an example.

The culture of a centred government takes a few years to implant, as the Zuma administration’s research has shown.

The delivery forums, which include the three tiers of government, that have been introduced under Chabane are but a start.

Ultimately, our cooperative governance framework will work smoothly once even the lowest-ranking bureaucrats have grasped the idea of a state that is driven by providing basic services and where the public must get the best results from limited resources.

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