A note to my president, Mr JZ, on how digital communication can contribute towards improvement of public service delivery

Hello President Jacob Zuma.

I am addressing this article to you in my capacity both as a South African citizen who is passionate about his country and an entrepreneur who would like to propose a digital communication solution that will positively contribute to improvements in public service delivery.

Disarray

I was following the news on developments relating to local government services with great interest throughout this week, mainly because of the high-powered meeting of Mayors and Municipal Managers that you addressed in Capetown earlier in the week, and developments in Sakhile, Standerton. I also took note of a commitment made by Co-operative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka on SAFM to eliminate all public service protests by 2014, which sounds like a far-fetched goal given the current wave of public service protests.

A comment made by Minister Shiceka in many of his media interviews is that there is not enough communication between municipal officials and local communities, and this comment forms the core of my digital communication proposal.

Let me share with you 3 examples that will drive the point home.

  1. 2 months ago I accompanied my 16 year old daughter to the local Home Affairs office  in my township, Sharpeville, for application of an ID document.  I was impressed with the good service and the painless application process. On completion of the application, my daughter was then told that she will receive 2 sms’s, 1 confirming the application and 1 informing her when the ID is ready for collection. Within 2 days she got the 1st sms. About 6 weeks thereafter she got the 2nd sms as promised. Key about this is that a simple, (cost) effective way was used by this Home Affairs office is to keep my daughter informed about her ID application, and it created a positive experience about this office. Please note, Mr President, that my daughter and I are not saying that a 6 week turn-around time is acceptable. But, the sms communication from the department made the wait bearable. On a scale of 1 to 5, my daughter and I give this local Home Affairs office a 3.5.
  2. My Zimbabwean friend, who is in the country legally, applied for renewal of his work permit in March this year and he is still waiting for the results. Each time he goes to the local Home Affairs department in Centurion, he is being sent from pillar to post without much clarity on the status of his application. And each time he is asked to come back in 2 weeks time to check again. His rating of the Centurion Home Affairs office is 1.
  3. The presidential hotline that you launched in early October has seen a great response from the public. As you pointed out in your media brief after the launch, there is a definite need for this service. Now, I am preaching to the converted about the fact that a combination of long call durations and resource capacity has resulted in this hotline buckling under immense call pressure. I have read enough about the long call waiting frustrations, on the basis which I am giving this initiative a 2-rating.

Based on the 3 examples above and assuming that they all have the same level of importance, the average rating is just over 2. This is not a good showing.

Mr President, it is clear from the examples above that communication is a key component of public service delivery. The public, in my mind, are not always asking for instant solutions, but they want to be  heard and be kept informed. There is benefit to both the public service providers and the public – my daughter did not waste her and the Home Affairs staff’s time by going to check if her ID is ready for collection before it arrived, she waited for the sms and only then she went to fetch the ID. In the end, both agitation and nuisance were eliminated only because of the brilliance of basic sms communication!

Now, Mr President, the key question is how to replicate the Sharpeville local Home Affairs example to all other public service departments. Your hotline can become manageable if you allow citizens to use other, simple, do-it-yourself, 24/7 forms of communication that can be enabled digitally and thus endless waiting in a telephone queue is avoided by those who do not need to speak to a call centre agent.

What’s more, some elements of the digitally captured communication, such as contact identity verifications, notifications, complaint categorisation, batching, and resolution progress status messages, can be automated so that your hotline staff focus on analysis, complaint routing, monitoring and reporting of complaint resolution, as opposed to the mundane tasks linked to fielding of calls.

I hear someone saying that citizens who have grievances want to hear a voice on the other side of the line and as a result automated, do-it-yourself alternatives will not work, etc. Well, I am of the view that citizens want an efficient, hassle-free, quick way of logging their grievances and they want to know that they will be kept informed throughout a resolution process. If implemented digital technology can deliver effectively against these expectations, then hearing a voice on the other side of the line becomes secondary.

By the way, Mr President, I do not have a direct line to your office. My first alternative point of call was to look you up on Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, but I found what I believe are bogus profiles with old or no posts, thus I gave up. So, I am putting my faith in the viral capability of the Internet, and I  believe this note will get to you some how, hopefully sometime soon.

In closing, Mr President, I took the time to write this article also because I am pitching for my digital marketing business as regards introduction of digital communication elements in your presidential hotline. My company will be more than happy to present several solutions to you on what can be done to exploit digital technology to ensure that the hotline works more effectively and results in positive complainant experience. And, hopefully, I can then have your testimonial for future business with other public service departments.

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