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From the Inside: Red tape dams up water solutions

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

I sometimes come across exciting and innovative ways of addressing serious problems, but it is usually impossible to find and implement these solutions through government systems.

The past week’s focus on the water crisis in Cape Town had global news media, from Al Jazeera to the BBC, seeking interviews with a range of experts and politicians on how the crisis was allowed to progress this far, and what we intend doing about it.

Carte Blanche was there too. It was an interview with their presenter, John Webb, that really got me thinking.

There are so many new, innovative solutions to the water crisis beginning to emerge, he said, so why isn’t the government making use of them? As an example he described a locally designed and manufactured desalination solution that seemed to be a “no-brainer”.

I can understand why he reached this conclusion. Government’s response (or non-response) to local innovations seems absurd to any outsider. In fact, it often seems absurd to me. I sometimes come across exciting and innovative ways of addressing serious problems, but it is usually impossible to find and implement these solutions through government systems.

I have learnt over time that government is not geared to accommodate innovation, let alone the kind of disruptions that most new technologies bring with them.

This is difficult for outsiders to understand. When an individual citizen identifies a problem in their environment, s/he will set off to find a solution. They will probably do an internet search and a bit of comparative pricing before reaching a decision to purchase a particular product, the more innovative, the better. People assume it is the same in government. That is why so many entrepreneurs come and demonstrate their inventions (and some are truly brilliant) but become disillusioned when we can’t follow up with a purchase order.

The reason for this lies, in part, in our supply chain management system. It has taken me years to try to understand the labyrinthine regulatory environment we have to negotiate in order to comply with our complex procurement system. But comply we must, if we want clean audits, which have become the holy grail of good governance.

The stated purpose behind the maze of laws and regulations is to limit the vast scale of corruption in our country. I am always puzzled that people who are determined to be corrupt seem undeterred by these laws, while those of us who have no intention of being corrupt face a nightmare of red tape.

Of course, one cannot waste government money on half-baked solutions, and there is always a risk that an innovation might fail. That is why it is often a requirement of the procurement system that only “proven” products with an established track record may be considered. That is a massive barrier for new technologies. Many innovative ideas need a while to be tried and tested. The private sector acknowledges that failure is the precursor to success. But not government. There is no greater sin than fruitless and wasteful expenditure that accompanies failure.

Before any product can even be considered for purchase by government, its supplier must meet the stringent conditions required to register on our database. This was introduced about six years ago when the auditor-general discovered that not all government service providers were fully tax compliant. Although the registration process is complex, it is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it creates another hurdle, especially for start-ups.

If government wishes to procure a product it must do an in-depth analysis of the specific outcomes it must achieve. These are then incorporated into precise specifications for a tender. By definition, it is almost impossible to write precise specifications for an innovative technology that offers a new solution, and that no one inside government understands. Those involved in tender specifications describe solutions with which they are familiar, and set these as the parameters for the competitive bidding process. This tends to exclude anything new and unfamiliar.

When a compliant tender is issued, it has to proceed step by step through a complex competitive bidding process, which includes due diligence analysis, (among other criteria) to arrive at a recommendation through various committees with complementary functions. This process typically takes many months, often more than a year, to complete.

One of the great advantages of having declared a disaster on the water crisis is that we can now cut through much of this red tape. But this will still not enable us to procure innovative solutions very easily. Officials are, understandably, not prepared to face the risk of the auditor-general’s wrath for purchasing a solution that does not comply exactly with the specifications or produce the required result.

During the energy crisis, I was delighted to learn that the provincial Treasury had come up with a way to overcome innovation-phobia.

A tender invited all green energy providers/producers to bid for producing a specific number of kilowatts of electricity, which they could produce by any means they chose, as long as they produced it at the right speed and quality. The terms of the contract exonerated government from the risk of failure through a clause which placed this burden on the contractor. If they failed to meet the obligations of the contract, they would not get paid and could actually incur a penalty.

The greatest risk for government in this model was that the failure of a new technology would leave people in the dark. It was thus essential to have a reliable fall-back position, so that there would be alternative sources of supply, even in the event of the failure of the innovative methods.

I am seeking to approach tenders for water solutions in the same way – although the risk here is even greater. We cannot reach “day zero” with a combination of dry taps and failed technologies. But I believe it is worth taking the risk, as long as we have a reliable fall-back position.

One of the most exciting events of our term of office are what we call “hacks” at which the brightest and best IT boffins are invited to come up with ideas on how new technology can help solve old problems. I always feel guilty that we go into these knowing how difficult it is to purchase the solutions produced. It is almost impossible to explain to innovators why government can’t be innovative.

Take one example: We face the major challenge of ensuring that the hundreds of millions of rand we contribute in subsidies to early childhood centres across the province each year are used accountably. Even if they do a good job caring for children, these centres often battle with administration, and find it difficult to account for the funds they receive, including the number of children they serve and the meals they provide.

A bright young nerd came up with a solution: Face recognition technology loaded into a cellphone would enable the crèche administrators to take three photographs a day. This would replace reams of administrative forms, and could be directly transmitted to the reporting systems of the department. One photo at the start of the day would identify the children on arrival, a second photo would show them having lunch (including the amount and quality of the food) and the third would be taken on departure. Each photo would be time-and geo-coded, giving an accurate, real-time reflection of the administration. But it is proving very difficult to implement. We are too busy filling in the existing forms than learning how to streamline the system and make it more time efficient and effective.

There is also a deep-seated fear in government of trying anything new, because of past mistakes. One of our most recent setbacks was the failure of a biometric “clocking in” system that took children’s fingerprints to record their presence at our after-school centres. The technology simply did not work and was too time-consuming, despite the fact that it appeared to be a “no-brainer” when we purchased it.

On my recent visit to Singapore, I was fascinated to discover the extent of innovation, both in the private sector and government. I asked why. I was told that 70% of post school pupils are in technical and vocational education and training. They are all encouraged to come up with new solutions to problems, and are offered entrepreneurial guidance and support. The best ideas are supported with funding and infrastructure to launch as “start-ups”. And if the idea succeeds, the government often becomes the small company’s first customer, assisting it to become viable, and to achieve scale. When the company succeeds locally, the government facilitates access to international markets. This is how Singapore has succeeded in encouraging innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth. This is the true meaning of the developmental state.

It is possible in part because there is almost no corruption. We are a long way from this, but it is a goal worth pursuing.

And I believe we are making progress. If we succeed in creating an environment that encourages innovative water solutions, we could become one of the fastest growing water economies in the world. And the place to start is with a more flexible and innovative procurement system. DM


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