Over the past few months, I have been receiving some rather strange bills from the City of Johannesburg (CoJ). On 3 December 2021, I received a bill of R18,753. Fearing that my water would be cut off, I settled the bill. On 19 January this year, I received a bill of R18,542. This was strange, so I called the city to inquire about the odd bill. After waiting for three hours on the phone, I was informed that I had to come to CoJ to report the matter if I wanted to prevent my services from being cut.
I then promptly went to the CoJ to have this problem sorted out.
On 3 February, I received a bill of R26,718. On 11 March, I received a bill of R125,948. After several hours on the phone and half a day at the CoJ offices, we finally ascertained that they are using several meter numbers that do not belong to me.
I was asked to go back to my house to take a picture of the water meter with that day’s newspaper, and to show the date and meter number clearly in the picture. Once I had done that, the transactions were reversed, and I was told that the CoJ owed me R100,000. My bill arrived with a credit of R20.
This took several days to resolve. In economics, time is money and time lost is money lost — in this case, all because of the mistake of the CoJ.
I began to wonder how much money people waste standing in line correcting billing errors. A quick scroll through Twitter revealed that I was not the only one who had had this experience. Even the city’s former mayor Herman Mashaba has been a victim.
We are told that Soweto owes R13-billion for its unpaid electricity bill. I began to wonder if this figure is real or if it includes all these billing errors.
I recalled that a legal battle between CoJ and 18 of its communities began in 2020 over grossly overestimated billing and meter tampering. While the city has dismissed much of the claims of error as “misinformation”, it is apparent that there is a billing crisis.
I began to wonder about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and how much we have talked the talk, but have not implemented it. Why was it necessary for me to queue for hours if we now have the digital tools that should resolve the issue? How does someone’s water meter end up on another person’s bill?
Is it because the IT system is badly designed, with no regard for Object-Oriented Programming? Object-Oriented Programming is a computing paradigm that builds digital programs by creating small objects that are then aggregated to form the more extensive program. It ushered in essential programs such as Java and C++ that gave us systems such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
I also wondered whether inequality in our society is exacerbated by our inability to create a capable state.
The reality is that the CoJ does not read electricity and water meters every month. It estimates and corrects the estimates whenever it gets around to physically reading the meters. The national lockdown prevented these recalibrations because the meter readers did not do their rounds.
Why not implement automated meters that send data directly to the city?
I seem to remember a project along these lines was being executed when I was on the board of City Power. With it, we could also use artificial intelligence (AI) to predict the services consumed better than the linear and Second Industrial Revolution estimations. Why are we not able to install a system that monitors normal consumption and rejects out-of-the-ordinary bills? Our banks have this system where an extraordinary transaction is automatically flagged.
In 2020, Singapore installed about 300,000 advanced smart meters. Not only did this allow for better estimates of power usage, but it also offered customised energy saving tips and incentives to enable customers to make greener decisions. The meters allowed homes to track their electricity consumption every half-hour, rather than manually once every two months. The Singapore initiative is set to be rolled out to its entire population by 2025.
Last year, CoJ launched the e-Joburg portal to enable residents to access municipal customer services online. Even just this first phase of the roll-out could be significantly enhanced.
Given the issues raised above, what is to be done?
First, we need to have appropriate people to run our institutions. It is clear that information technology is a significant requirement for the city, so we need to have talented IT people working there. One way to do this is to scout for top talent from our universities.
Perhaps the city and the universities in Johannesburg can agree on a programme to identify top computer science, data analytics and information technology students and introduce them to the city through mechanisms like internships, cooperative alliances and work placements. Such an intervention would naturally require a skills-needs analysis.
The second requirement is to pay attention to the systems that are in place. This would include the introduction of an extensive IT billing system. Such IT systems must be continuously updated and integrated with data.
We should draw lessons from the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft, as well as from smartphone technologies that are updated regularly.
If there is no inherent updating of the IT systems in the CoJ, the billing problems will persist.
Other issues to be addressed include data-gathering, data-cleaning and inputting into the IT system. We should embed techniques for dealing with missing data into this IT system.
In 2018, my colleague Collins Achepsah Leke and I proposed methods that could be used to speed up the data estimation process while preserving known features of the data matrix.
Third, we should performance manage the people who work for the CoJ.
We need to instil a culture of service, and customers should be asked to rate the performance of people who have helped them. These scores must feed into the performance of the individual and an incentive scheme. The CoJ must particularly pay attention to the efficiency of its workers to reduce the long lines, and there must be consequences for poor performance. Again, the city can partner with universities in the area to establish a customer-oriented workforce.
Fourth, we should depoliticise the CoJ workforce.
The practice of employing chairpersons and secretaries of political parties in positions in the CoJ without regard for their skill-set must end. Service delivery requires technical competence and the professionalisation of the CoJ should be pursued in earnest.
We have to push for the establishment of a meritocracy, where power is a consolidation of individuals who exhibit talent and achievement rather than wealth, nepotism or patronage. In other words, we must hire and reward those who are the most competent rather than the most connected.
A capable state is managed by talented people, and if we fail to build a capable state, then inequality between the rural and urban communities, and between suburb- and township-dwellers will persist. We need a vigilant electorate, good politicians and effective leaders to achieve this.
To paraphrase the words of Zimbabwe’s former Minister of Information Communication Technology, Nelson Chamisa — we have to prioritise a capable state over a culpable state. DM