'One person at a time.' Kieswetter's strategy for fixing SARS

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The new head of South Africa’s tax agency says rebuilding the organisation will be a long haul after management was “dismantled” and it lost public trust.

“In the five months I’ve been there we’ve done a significant amount of work, but it’s not a one-trick pony - it’s a multi-dimensional, multifaceted piece of work,” South African Revenue Service Commissioner Edward Kieswetter said in an interview at Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office Thursday.

Kieswetter, who took over as head on May 1, inherited an institution that suffered “massive failure of governance and integrity” after the appointment of former head Tom Moyane in 2014, a commission that probed problems at the body found. SARS had a climate “characterised by fear and intimidation, with compliant managers that felt they were under a command-and-control structure,” and unwittingly or unconsciously carried out work that didn’t serve the organisation, the new head said.

Turning around the tax agency is crucial to lift South Africa out of an economic slump. The state institution was one of the more effective during the 2000s, when efficient collection and strong growth led to revenue surpluses and space for the government to offer tax cuts.

Rebuilding trust

The National Treasury started reversing those concessions in 2015 as the economic expansion waned and skilled professionals left the organization, hindering its ability to improve collections. Revenue fell R57.4bn short of the budget estimate in the year that ended March 31, the agency said in April.

“How do I rebuild the trust and improve the morale? My answer is one person at a time - you have to connect with each of the 12,500 people and demonstrate to that individual that you truly care,” Kieswetter said. “Trust isn’t built by making big promises, it’s by doing many small things.”

Kieswetter said he’s met with labour unions and about 90% of the institution’s staff to share his plans for the future.

‘Deep hole’

He also started a revenue-recovery project and is implementing the recommendations of the inquiry into SARS’s management.

It has recovered money paid to Bain & Co., the Boston-based consultancy company that was hired to assist in restructuring SARS in 2015, and is in discussions with Gartner after the U.S. technology-research firm secured a contract without proper procurement processes being followed, Kieswetter said. The institution has also referred some matters to the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation for further inquiries.

“We have reached a point of inflection - we are in a deep hole, but we are not digging ourselves into the hole, we are climbing,” he said. “There can be no once-off wonders.”

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