Service provision

2008-01-07 00:00

Complaints about poor service provision are now so frequent as to have become almost clichéd, but they are nonetheless real and serious. Barely a day passes without some mention in the news or correspondence columns of this and other newspapers of electricity outages, potholed roads, failed water supplies, faulty telephones, inefficient rubbish collection or littered and unkempt streets.

Compliments are paid from time to time, but far more common are the complaints that officialdom has failed to deliver on promised action or simply not responded at all. Were these problems isolated and intermittent, they might be simply irritating, but the frequency of the pattern points to a veritable infrastructural meltdown, and this is alarming indeed.

It has been widely acknowledged that years of discriminatory provision resulted in the need to prioritise the extension of services to previously neglected communities, but officialdom has seemed incapable of grasping either that extended services would need an upgraded infrastructure or that the existing infrastructure would need ongoing maintenance. It seems to have been assumed that everything already in place would carry on functioning in perpetuity, and (despite frequent warnings) the obvious fact that things like road surfaces, electrical connections and water pipes wear out over time has been blithely ignored.

Behind this lack of maintenance is inept management, and this includes a poor understanding of both the need for regular maintenance and the need for good communication. As the violent demonstrations of recent years have shown, the public has limited patience with inadequate service delivery, but people can be understanding and tolerant when they are kept properly informed about what is going on.

With regard to refuse removal in Northdale, for example, it is the erratic nature of the service that has provoked complaints. If householders know what to expect, and if the municipality adheres to its published schedule, the problem would not arise.

Similarly, unexpected power outages are hugely disruptive. The recent publication of a rotating schedule for switching off predetermined areas when the national grid came under stress made good sense, and wise management would make much greater use of the media for keeping the public informed.

Once they understand the problem, people are often very willing to contribute to a solution. To be told to switch off geysers and unplug appliances while empty public buildings are ablaze with light is extremely aggravating, but if householders could reap tangible rewards for their sacrifices they would cheerfully economise.

The idea of dividing the electricity grid into neighbourhood units and engaging people in planning how to keep their own area within consumption targets has been mooted before, but has not yet had a response from officialdom. With inadequate electricity generation likely to plague the country for several years to come, constructive contingency plans simply have to be made.

Overall, the deterioration of existing services in every sphere cannot be allowed to continue. Management involves not only future planning but also provision for routine maintenance and communication with the public, and the bureaucrats who have now proved their incompetence need to be replaced.

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