Looking for empathy in the public service: An evaluation of service plans

The Transformation of Public Service Delivery – Batho Pele White Paper (1997) – stipulates eight principles as quality standards for public service delivery. Reviewing the service delivery improvement plans for the 2006/07 financial year, ZWELAKHE TSHANDU reveals that while the plans speak to the framework, the absence of meaningful implementation and monitoring is a jarring reminder of a policy gap that imperils our developmental state objectives. 
   

Batho Pele, a Sotho translation for ‘People First', is an initiative to get public servants to be service orientated, to strive for excellence in service delivery and to commit to continuous service delivery improvement. It is a simple and transparent mechanism, which allows citizens to hold public servants accountable for the level of services they deliver (Batho Pele Handbook - A Service Delivery Improvement Guide).

There are eight principles or guidelines for Batho Pele:

  • Consultation
  • Service standards
  • Access
  • Courtesy
  • Information
  • Openness and transparency
  • Redress/dealing with complaints
  • Best value.

The history and future of our public service

Our public service has throughout history preoccupied itself with the implementation of exclusive practices and preferential treatment and uneven standards of service across the different population groups in accordance with the doctrine of separate development. Given this emphasis, it has always been administrative in nature, which amounted to an uncritical acceptance and implementation of the status quo with due disregard to human rights considerations and the impact of those policies on the recipients.

In line with constitutional provisions, the transformative agenda has been characterised by representativeness and participation with respect to the form and substance of the public service. The first order of business was the amalgamation of the disparate administrative systems into a unified public service premised on a different value set (inclusive as opposed to exclusive), with 176 departments rationalised into one system under the same norms and standards.

The manner in which the Constitutional Court has interpreted these provisions in various cases has placed pressure on government to improve the performance of the public service.

In addition, citizens' rights, including socio-economic rights, were also enshrined in the Constitution, with the state required to take ‘reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of these rights'.

The manner in which the Constitutional Court has interpreted these provisions in various cases has placed pressure on government to improve the performance of the public service. This point becomes even more poignant when one considers that in South Africa, service delivery is most needed by those components of the population that constitute its largest proportions.

Following from the Constitution, a series of legislative measures were undertaken to bring about a shift in terms of how the public service views its functions and, in turn, is viewed by its beneficiaries.

The White Paper on the Transformation of the Public Service (1995) spoke to the need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the public service and its overall quality, while the White Paper on the Transformation of Public Service Delivery (1997) went further and outlined a service delivery framework of eight principles for implementation across the public service.

In the same manner, the Integrated National Disability Strategy White Paper (1997) called for the integration of disability issues into government planning processes, including the delivery of services. The Public Service Regulations (2001) took this process forward and vested control of the service delivery improvement process and the modalities thereof on the executing authority (EA).

Several departments pointed to the need to expose staff members to customer care and public relations training.

The thread tying all of these legislative initiatives together was the idea of a societal entitlement to good quality public services as the key principle along which services should be arranged with the necessary accountability arrangements. A key provision here is the drawing up of an annually reviewed service delivery improvement plan which serves as a contractual basis between the service delivery point and the service recipients.

Review of delivery improvement plans

In this study we analysed service delivery improvement plans for the 2006/07 financial year, evaluating their efficacy to the quality, quantity and time (QQT) and simple, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound (SMART) standards. The sample of departments constituted 82% of the public service and the findings were aggregated and presented at the cluster/sector level, with each principle analysed separately, given the performance variations.

Access:

The most common standards used were signage, internet and intranet usage, websites, meetings and one-on-ones.

Innovations included the extension of business hours, mobile unit introductions, regional offices and staff deployment in rural areas for improved access. But there was a general lack of clear, measurable standards, with good intentions used as a substitute.

The principle was conceptualised in narrow technical terms as opposed to a manner that integrates language, culture and disability.

Courtesy:

The most common standards used were response times for correspondence, the answering of telephones and name tags.

This principle is one of the most misunderstood across the public service. Several departments pointed to the need to expose staff members to customer care and public relations training.

Information:

The most common standards used were pamphlets, circulars, posters and flyers on their services and the listing thereof on their departmental websites.

The standards provided were however vague as they were not measurable. Service charters were not reflected as a standard for this principle by any of the departments. No institutional provisions alluded to the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).

Openness and transparency:

The most common standard used was the publication of the annual report and other departmental publications.

The standards provided were general and not measurable. There was an overemphasis on departmental websites as a standard, which showed insensitivity to the exclusionary realities of the digital divide. The cognisance of language policy and the need to accommodate the various official languages were both insufficient.

Redress:

The most common standard was the provision and management of complaints and/or help desks.

The standards provided were not altogether adequate in terms of the need to keep careful records and document trends. Only 6% of redress mechanisms provided met the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, 2000 (PAJA).

The standard of furnishing citizens with a reason within 90 days of receipt of request by the administrator was largely ignored. Standards provided tended to overlap with those of courtesy and consultation, suggesting the need for consistency of usage throughout the departments.

There was an overemphasis on departmental websites as a standard, which showed insensitivity to the exclusionary realities of the digital divide.

Value for money:

Standards provided here include operating within the approved budget for relevant services, the development of standards related to unit costs and the provision of better services through the more effective use of human resources.

The majority of departments were unclear on how to operationalise this principle and to subsequently embed it into their service processes. Overall, we recommend that departments provide relevant ‘cost-benefit' analyses as a standard for this principle. There was also a need for more focus on this principle across all clusters, given that this is a key principle of good governance.

Consultation:

The most common standards used by departments were discussion groups, forums, izimbizos, meetings, one-on-ones, surveys, suggestion boxes and workshops.

The standards provided lacked specificity and were generally unmeasurable. Other departments tended to define the audience of the consultations rather than the process itself. And very few departments have engaged in consultative processes with their beneficiaries, making their service delivery improvement plans ‘inside-out' as opposed to ‘outside-in'.

Grappling with its principles

The picture that emerges is that of a public service struggling to come to terms with its desired public management characteristics. While the mere understanding of the empirical representation of the framework is the right step (however limited), it is in the realm of implementation where it really matters.

The sad reality is that the interface between public servants and citizens is still characterised by unempathetic public servants and disempowered citizens. In the absence of rigorous monitoring and penalties for non-compliance, this dreadful past and present is also the disconcerting future.

Dr Zwelakhe Tshadu is a chief research manager in the Democracy, Governance and Service