South Africa

OP-ED

Eskom: Not knowing what the problem is IS the problem

A general view of the Lethabo Power Station in the Vaal Triangle on November 26, 2014 in Deneysville, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / the Times / Kevin Sutherland)

Eskom has hit a brick wall and, by all accounts, no one in any position of authority can tell us why or how this has happened.

Minister Pravin Gordhan publicly stated that “we” do not know what the problem is, but please be patient while someone figures it out.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Eskom board Chair Jabu Mabuza said that the operational side of the power utility needs a “crisis reaction”. Less than a year ago, he wrote the following in Eskom’s annual report:

No one can deny that Eskom has experienced a tumultuous year. This was not due to operational issues – our generation plant and network produced solid performance.”

We have no explanation for how we got from one great position to the next disastrous one, or even if we were in the first position to begin with.

Chief Operating Officer Jan Oberholzer stated in the same press conference that boilers are central to the operation of all generation units (i.e. they should be a really important part of his job), but then professed his complete ignorance with respect to the maintenance programme around these mission-critical boilers.

While it is usual in these circumstances to focus blame solely on individuals, and to call for their dismissal, the fact that none of these influential and senior people seems to have any real idea of what is going on at Eskom points us in the direction of an underlying structural and institutional problem: basic management information, and the administration of that information. It is not that these people don’t know what is going on at Eskom because they are lazy or completely incompetent or derive some deviant pleasure from imposing rolling blackouts on the country. They don’t know what is going on because there does not seem to be any institutionalised system in place to ensure that they do — everywhere, every day.

PARI’s work in the public sector (a large part of which focuses on institutional failure) has repeatedly highlighted the role that poor (or missing) management information plays in supporting poor institutional outcomes. If a department of education does not know how many children are going to be in each grade in each school in a particular province, how can it ever effectively co-ordinate the delivery of textbooks and other learning material? If Jan Oberholzer and the board of Eskom do not know the accurate, intimate daily details of boiler maintenance at each and every power generation plant, how can they effectively manage power supply?

Effective governance and oversight is not driven solely by super-skilled and dedicated people. Without access to accurate, comprehensive and detailed information, even the most skilled and motivated person does not stand a chance. Just take a look at how well Christo Wiese did at Steinhoff…

But basic information administration and management – things like filing protocols and data verification standards – is a topic that sends most people to sleep. It’s much more interesting to rant about how people should be fired and that “something must be done”.

Certainly, something must be done, but one of those somethings is a critical look at basic information and how it is managed and disseminated throughout the organisation. Concealing information and/or generating false data sets is often closely associated with fraudulent activities: if you are running an organisation as your personal piggy bank, you have a considerable vested interest in undermining any efforts at ensuring wide access to accurate, comprehensive and detailed information. The surest way to make sure that a dodgy tender is not investigated is to put any incriminating paperwork through the shredder, and then shrug and tell the auditor it somehow got lost.

In fact, not knowing what the problem is IS the problem.

New developments in database management facilitate open and transparent data access, and provide an objective and indelible record of who is doing what with data records. All that is needed to proceed is an acknowledgement that not knowing what the problem is, is actually the problem.

It is inconceivable that the board of Eskom can even contemplate developing a turnaround strategy until they have in place the information management systems that will accurately tell them exactly what is going on in every part of the organisation, all the time. How will they know what to fix if they don’t have an objective assessment of what is broken, and – critically – why it is broken? All the tools needed are available. DM

Tracy Ledger is the Research Manager at the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI).

Gallery

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