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Government must rise to the challenge of delivering services to citizens – it’s possible

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Sasha Planting is a seasoned financial journalist and Associate Business Editor at Daily Maverick Business.

This past week we have heard much about government deployees in KwaZulu-Natal and their contemptible behaviour. At the very top, Premier Sihle Zikalala apparently redeployed a water truck to his home, then three eThekwini council staff attempted to commandeer food meant for rescue workers, and then a feet-on-the-ground ward councillor responded to a plea for help with a four-letter expletive.

These officials have shown just how deeply disconnected they are from those they are meant to serve. They have also insulted the integrity of every honest and hard-working civil servant around them – yes they do exist.

And with the exception of the one whose language skills failed him, the others have not seen the error in their actions. That’s morality for you – or the lack of it.

But I’m not wasting column space on these officials; they are beyond redemption. Rather, I want to pause to salute the incredible generosity that we have witnessed in the last fortnight, and then dwell on why this worries me (it’s not the generosity).

Once again, South Africans from all sectors of society have volunteered time and resources to support their fellow human beings in distress. And once again, the not-for-profit organisation Gift of the Givers has been front and centre, initiating a fundraising campaign and coordinating relief efforts.

So when Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs MEC Sipho Hlomuka asked for donations of non-perishable food, bottled water, clothes and blankets to be sent to provincial disaster management teams, the request was met with derision by many.

The derision grew when our president promised that the government’s oversight of disaster relief funds would be free of corruption. Corruption has got so bad he pulled together a team from the private sector, civil society and the Auditor-General’s Office, among others, to oversee the process. That’s good, right? It’s good that we have learned a lesson or two from the feeding frenzy that took place during the Covid-19 relief efforts.

But, no, it’s not good. It’s wrong. Let me be clear – it’s not wrong that President Ramaphosa is taking a stand on corruption. We have to plug this hole somehow. What worries me is that we are standing back and watching the development of parallel delivery mechanisms in every walk of life.

The solution does not lie in allocating more and more responsibility to civil society and the private sector. It is not sustainable. Government – national and local – absolutely must rise to the challenge of delivering services to citizens. And it is possible.

Ask Sir Michael Barber, one of the world’s experts on managing public sector reform. He has worked with governments across the globe in both rich and poor countries and was recently interviewed by the indomitable Ann Bernstein, director at the Centre for Development and Enterprise.

The conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating, and a few things stood out for me. One was not governing by spasm but by routine. Government by spasm is reacting to the latest crisis, making loads of announcements, panicking and rushing from one challenge to another. Does this sound familiar?

Government by routine means setting priorities, collecting data, checking whether it is working, building routines to review progress, solving problems as they arise, not making random announcements but regularly updating people on the progress you are making, and making sure that when you do review progress you have an honest conversation, not a shouting match.

It takes time, but change can be visible in less than a generation. In Pakistan, a country with similar social and governance challenges, Barber initiated a programme to reform education in the Punjab province, home to about 110 million people.

Education outcomes were poor. Within two years of Barber’s intervention, education enrolment reached 93%; daily teacher attendance was more than 90%, buildings were fixed; water ran from the taps; toilets were clean; and then after about three years, the performances of children began to improve on two or three indicators.

He certainly didn’t achieve this on his own. First came the political will. There was pushback, but as Barber says, those fighting change were defending the indefensible, and the relevant minister was determined to move from the politics of patronage to the politics of performance.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles Barber’s advice is to start by finding ways of bringing people together who want to get something done. Start with an action that is small and then constantly and consciously build your reform coalition.

You also need early demonstrations of success – quick wins. That way you can convince the doubters by letting them see for themselves that progress is possible.

On 27 April, we celebrate Freedom Day and 28 years of democracy. It’s not enough time to erase centuries of oppression, but our communities at least want to see and feel the difference and hope that their children can escape the cycle of poverty. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • No political will ……. so it’s not going to happen with the government who are just very tired and worn out and only really do corrupt stuff now.

    • Maybe, but unless one’s a spaced-out ‘libertarian’ with an ideological chip on the shoulder, then we need to recognise, support and promote a return to state accountability and efficiency wherever we see it.

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