Putting the service back into public

Our return to 2016 has been greeted by a plethora of political, economic, social and, ultimately, public service issues. In the lead-up to municipal elections this year, we can only expect this to be exacerbated as the ruling party continues to pretend that it services the public and convinces us how well it has done. Political commentary is not the focus of this column, however, so I will stick to my knitting and make the connection to the concept of public service at a more tactical level.

Onions and orchids

My start to the year’s column-writing was made easy after a very dismal public service experience in late December 2015, only to be very positively surprised by the opposite early in the New Year. This balanced my personal gripe and mind-set into a more objective assessment of where and why we feel the way we do around public service, or the lack thereof at times, in this country and question why, in other instances, we can get it so right. What are the differences and why are these brought about?

Onion first

While much of South Africa takes a well-deserved break over December, many sectors such as retail and emergency services are expected to perform throughout this peak holiday period. Those that shut down their businesses during this time generally communicate this to clients so that expectations are managed. Not so for our friends in the Johannesburg public service sector.

Naively thinking that the last week in December would be a good time to do a passport and driver’s licence renewal, I visited both home affairs and the traffic department in Randburg with a view to proactively keeping my affairs in order. One look at the queue extending right across the parking lot suggested that this was a complete waste of time and effort, and I duly made my way to the traffic department to attend to the more-pressing deadline of an expiring driver’s licence. Filling in a basic one-page form, completing a 10-minute eye test and paying the cashier was a four-hour exercise!

The observation

Apart from the very grubby and near dirty state of the office and general location, it was clear that a very archaic system was in place and apathy prevailed among most of the people in attendance. Apparently, seasonal staff planning is not a concept understood and people generally made it very clear to all customers that they were doing them an immense favour by even doing their jobs over this time. Ironic in a public service sector which has highly bloated staff numbers and should therefore have no shortage of resources.

To crown the experience, I was advised that I should consider myself lucky that it only took four hours — a stunning example of customer service at its very best!!

Sarcasm aside, the complete absence of anything resembling service was simply evidence of very little that worked and was so painfully and dysfunctionally obvious that it doesn’t even warrant analysis.

A beautiful orchid

So surprised I was when I gathered the courage (against a now-full passport) to venture into the department of home affairs in Edenvale, following a reminder from a colleague that it is one of the better offices to visit when needed.

I was greeted by a neat and clean environment, well-dressed and uniformed staff members who were very helpful and courteous; and a system that has clearly been designed and thought through in order to drive efficiencies and queue management. This was also supported by a high level of automation and intelligent deployment of technology to further enhance the overall processing efficiency. The nett effect was that, in under 1.5 hours, I emerged having completed applications for a new passport and also the new identity card. SMS notification followed shortly thereafter and my ID card was confirmed ready within two working days.

At the time of writing, it has been a week of waiting and I do so in sincere anticipation of again being delighted by the efficiency and expedience of the Edenvale team — what a delight and success story.

The difference

While I don’t have sufficient insight into the respective operations and people between Randburg and Edenvale, nor the nuances of home affairs vs traffic, common sense suggests that good leadership, management and staff engagement has a lot to do with the difference. An inspiring work environment, pride among engaged people and correct deployment of systems to deliver are three simple yet fundamental tenets of customer service and internal branding. The management team at Edenvale department of home affairs has got it right and sets a good example for other public service entities — well done!

I have committed not to write again on the lack of service and non-performance of the public sector. It is too depressing and has become so commonplace I am likely to stay stuck on the theme throughout the year. Instead, I will only comment on positive examples coming from its quarters, such as the Edenvale one above. I hope the silence will not be not shattering.

This article was originally published on Marklives.com

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